Missing out on sports during pandemic affecting youth mental health

The 2020 Olympics were put on hold.

An estimated 10,000 athletes had been scheduled to march into Tokyo’s national stadium for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics, with about 600,000 overseas spectators that had been expected to flock to the Japanese capital for the world’s largest sporting event at the end of July.

But the cancellation of the Olympics was an echo of the sports organizations that cancelled their seasons well into 2021 that are closer to home. This included the North American Indigenous Games, which would welcome over 5000 athletes competing in 16 different sports and the Little Native Hockey League, which would have seen 210 teams and over 2000 players.

Anthony Battaglia, a Postdoctoral Fellow and Sessional Lecturer at the University of Toronto within the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education and the Sport and Performance Psychology Laboratory, explained that the magnitude of life without organized sports reverberates as a multi-faceted domino.

“The benefits of sport participation for youth including physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development are well documented,” wrote Battaglia in an email response.

“Accordingly, the inability to engage in sport as a result of Covid restrictions suggests that many youth are not reaping the benefits that sport and, or physical activity has to offer. However, when understanding youth’s developmental needs and desires, the inability to participate in sport becomes particularly problematic for two reasons: the need to display competence and peer relationship development.”

He explained that youth have a developmental desire to show competence through skill and sports is a main outlet for that.

“For example, many youth look for opportunities to show others that they can shoot, pass, skate, run, and more. When they are able to demonstrate such competence through sport-related skills they experience satisfaction of achievement. While there are many youth who have adapted to demonstrate competence in other domains (e.g., school, music etc.) during the pandemic, others may have relied heavily on the sport context to demonstrate this important developmental need, a reality which has been removed with the inability participate in sport. For the youth who are unable to adapt or demonstrate competence in other areas of their life this becomes particularly problematic as youth who are unable to develop and display their capabilities may experience feelings of worthlessness, shame, and perceptions of inadequacy,” he wrote.

Battaglia included that another area of worry arises in the inability to maintain meaningful connections and relationships that sports would have otherwise allowed.

Nick Alderton, a Mental Performance Consultant and Professional Member, Canadian Sport Psychology Association working out of Thunder Bay, Ontario explained that sports are often a way to cope with stress.

“The impact of the pandemic has been significant for youth,” wrote Alderton in an email response.

“Among other benefits, sports provides social connection, purpose, identity, and confidence. Youth who were active in sports before the pandemic have struggled with social isolation, not being able to see their friends, teammates, and coaches. Many youth athletes spent upwards of 20 hours a week playing sports before the pandemic—this includes competitive and recreational athletes,” he wrote.

“It’s a major loss of identity and purpose when this is taken away. Young athletes are struggling with coming to terms with who they are now that competing in sport is not possible. Sports are also a main source of self-esteem and when it’s not possible, it has consequences for how they cope with stress during a very uncertain time.”

Asking how can athletes maintain motivation brought Battaglia to reflect on his own experience and method:

“I have worked with a few athletes during the pandemic who have struggled with motivation. The way in which I like to approach these challenges is to first identify potential positives and then reframe goals. Obviously, removal from sport practices or training is not ideal, but there are some positives in the sense that very rarely do athletes have time to actively develop mental skills and the mental side of sport that may help them with performance,” wrote Battaglia.

“One of the things that the pandemic offered was time for athletes to practice mental skills. I often get athletes to formulate new goals and more specifically, I emphasize process goals -these are the small steps/goals that allow us to achieve larger goals. The good thing about process goals is that they are based on controllable thoughts or actions related to performance execution and provide a road map for larger performance,” he wrote, explaining that goals such as “I will work out three times a week” provide achievable structure.

“This helps athletes to stay in the moment and focus on small accomplishments because it is very easy for athletes to get discouraged when all they think about is the larger goals, such as returning to sport or winning, with no sense of direction of how this can be achieved,” he wrote.

In terms of helping athletes stay connected with programming and resources, Alderton offered a compilation of sport resources.

“I would recommend that athletes, coaches and sport administrators look at the Covid support resources compiled on the Canadian Sport Psychology Association (CSPA) website. There are many excellent resources available that can be beneficial for helping athletes through this time,” wrote Alderton.

Battaglia offered an app that helps to coordinate training and setting goals:

“With regards to virtual home-workout programs, one app that I have recommended to athletes has been the NIKE training app. This application is free and allows the user to engage in a variety of workouts; specifically, the user can specify the type of workout which is important because not everyone has access to weights or equipment. In addition, the app formulates a workout plan based on your needs, which may help individuals focus on their training,” wrote Battaglia.

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