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SPLITS: Back to School. Handle With Care

The first-year college athletes have spent formative years surviving a pandemic. The way they experience sports—and the world—is different.

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The steady stream of “back to school” posts every August starts to hit a little different when your friends are dropping their “kids” off at college for the first time. So many pictures of teens cramming their belongings into tiny closets, posing for awkward photos with roommates they’ve known for 5 minutes, about to share approximately 300 square feet of living space for the next nine months.

It’s a precarious time for parents and their offspring. I can only imagine the mix of emotions—excitement, pride, and terror all at once. You spend 17 or 18 years together, nearly every day, and then you bid them adieu with a meal card, a basket of toiletries, and a set of new extra-long twin sheets from Target. Reluctantly you walk to your empty car and say, “Good luck! See you in December!”

That’s a simplified and flippant version of what really happens, of course, but still. Along with all those parents, I am particularly concerned about this year’s first-year college athletes. Their path to this place hasn’t been traditional or easy. In fact, it’s been unprecedented.

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit these young people right at the moment biology told them it was time to break free and explore their independence. They spent a year or more locked away with their parents exactly when nature prodded them to test out friendships, relationships, and all the boundaries of childhood. Half of high school was virtual, endlessly staring at each other through screens and trying to make sense of schoolwork on their own, within the confines of their bedrooms. They’ve also come of age amid sickness, death, mass shootings, widespread racism and violence, an attempted coup, an escalating climate crisis, the termination of a Constitutional right to reproductive health, and, somehow, more.

It’s hard to say what implications all of this has had on their development. Are they arriving on campus with the same skills and coping mechanisms that their coaches and professors are accustomed to? And if not, what accommodations are colleges and universities—and athletic departments—prepared to make?

The concern is justified. Today’s student-athletes are beginning their college campaigns amid a mental health emergency, declared in October by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association. Even before COVID-19 became a household word, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10-24 years old. The isolation, uncertainty, fear, and grief of the pandemic exacerbated an existing condition, especially for female adolescents—emergency department visits for mental health increased nearly 51 percent among girls ages 12 to 17 in early 2021 compared to the same time in 2020. And the proportion of emergency department visits with eating disorders doubled among adolescent girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control—an especially alarming statistic for young runners already predisposed to the condition.

Last spring was a particularly tragic time for NCAA athletes. Five women died by suicide between March and May. They were team captains and national champions, achievers in their classrooms, helpers in their communities, go-to teammates for support, encouragement, or advice. They played soccer and softball. They ran for their track and field teams. They were members of the cheerleading squad. Their Instagram grids featured big smiles, lots of friends, and loving families—their internal struggles were often nowhere to be found.

The evidence and anecdotes add up to a disconcerting situation for the adults charged with guiding the next four or so years of these young people’s lives. It requires coaches to rethink how they communicate and approach their athletes’ development holistically, with just as much emphasis on psychological health as physical. It calls for redefining “mental toughness,” recognizing how much more difficult it is for athletes to admit they’re struggling than it is for them to push through pain and hardships. Creating an environment that allows for that conversation with empathy and support is critical. Too often, though, it doesn’t turn out that way. Student-athletes wind up leading frenetic lives, trying to excel athletically and academically, feeding perfectionist tendencies while suffering silently with anxiety, depression, and other hidden conditions that too often go untreated and unrecognized.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Sports like cross country and track and field have the opportunity to serve as the refuge, where these young people find a place for growth and joy—where they can fail without feeling like it’s a catastrophe and they can learn how to process pressure. Not long ago I spoke with Laurie Henes, the women’s head coach at North Carolina State, which won the 2021 NCAA Division I cross country championship. Her philosophy was simple: “When I was an athlete, I couldn’t wait to go to practice every day, and that’s what I want for these women,” she said, “that this is clearly the best part of their day and they can’t wait to get there.”

Creating that kind of environment isn’t “soft.” Henes is among the most high-achieving and beloved coaches in the NCAA. It works. Happy, well-adjusted athletes who enjoy training and competing—and have access to coaches who genuinely care about their health and wellbeing—perform better.

Wishes for the coming year? I have a few. That the win-loss records are secondary to the health of the athletes and the culture of the team. That college athletics leads the way in not only talking about mental health, but providing the support and resources to do something about it. That old-school coaching philosophies, which lead to harmful behaviors and outcomes, are seen for what they are: outdated and ineffective—and that those who still resort to them, no matter how many trophies they bring in, stop being rewarded and recognized. That the coaches who emphasize fun and nurture safe, welcoming team cultures will prevail.

And, of course, that showing up at practice indeed becomes the best part of these athletes’ days. After all they’ve already been through, they don’t just deserve it, they require it.