It’s been one heck of a chaotic year for the world of American sports, one that most of us are unlikely to forget anytime soon. COVID-19 initiated lockdowns and event cancellations in March of last year, and every professional sports league has had to make its own decisions about how to proceed safely. After several delays and ever-changing protocols, viewers were left with a whirlwind fall sports season that had all four major sports leagues (MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL) broadcasting at the same time. The constant change and lack of regular season schedules have sent Americans into a frenzy, and that doesn’t include just professional sports. College-level play all the way down to the pee-wee level has been disrupted for players and parents alike.
How COVID Restrictions Have Affected the Mental Health of Players
It didn’t take long for the mental health of professional athletes to decline. If you have a full-time job where you’re physically active for most of the day and night, constantly pushing your body to the limit, coming to a complete stop is more than abrupt — it’s paralyzing to some extent. A massive drop in endorphins alone could cause immediate mood changes. How does a 200 pound basketball player adjust to gyms and parks being closed and practices being called off?
With the increased distribution of vaccines, some medical experts believe the US can get back to some semblance of normalcy by summer’s end.
A study released in October by Stanford University and exercise social network Strava revealed that over 22% of professional athletes were feeling depressed on over half the days of the week between March and August in 2020, when restrictions were at their peak. Endurance athletes (runners and cyclists) fared even worse; they were over 7 times more likely to have little interest in doing things. The study also revealed a significant hit in finances, with 47% of sponsored athletes seeing a reduction in lucrative opportunities.
The sudden decline in mental health back in the spring certainly wasn’t isolated to professional players. A poll from the NCAA showed that over 37,000 college athletes learned they had increased levels of depression and stress in the first several weeks of the pandemic, reportedly caused by all the surrounding uncertainty. This included fears of exposure (43%), decreased motivation (40%), anxious feelings (21%), and depression/sadness (13%). Close to 80% of student athletes said they found it difficult to keep up with their training, in some cases because their training locations were closed. Another survey from the University of North Texas covering all three divisions of college play found that 26% of athletes reported various levels of depression. The study also revealed a drop in student psychotherapy.
How COVID Restrictions Have Affected the Mental Health of Sports Fans
As for the fans, all sports came to a halt in the spring of last year, when none of us really knew what we were dealing with in regard to COVID-19. According to market research firm MRI-Simmons, a study released in July revealed that 64% of Americans missed sports in general. Out of the group that described themselves as “sports deprived,” the biggest complaint was being unable to watch and spend time with family (31%). This further highlights one of the biggest problems COVID has caused: lack of connection. Movies, plays, concerts, church, festivals, fairs, you name it — it disappeared. With sports, we had to settle for endless repeats of classic games until well into summer.
Then came the response. Every league had their own plan for how to tackle the pandemic. The topic of season scheduling and pro athletes getting tested became a nationwide debate. The NBA tested their full squads through private labs, sending several rounds of players into quarantine, a move that caused instant backlash in light of what the public saw as superior treatment with testing. The NHL was praised by following whatever the latest CDC guidelines were, but no one beats the UFC’s response. The MMA league secured an island off the coast of Abu Dhabi they deemed “Fight Island,” and no one was allowed onto the island without several rounds of negative COVID testing. Then, finally, many sports made their return in the fall. Unfortunately, the 2020 Summer Olympics had to be postponed until the summer of 2021, suspending the hopes and dreams of thousands of other athletes around the globe.
Sports Coping in 2021
In the meantime, hockey and basketball have returned. The NHL will have another shortened season this year and will run until May, and the NBA runs until the finals in July. By that time, baseball will already be in full swing (slated to begin on April 1) and football will be around the corner. We also have our favorite NCAA basketball teams headed into March Madness. Just the smallest sense of normalcy may bring us all a greater sense of calm.
And let’s not forget, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. With the increased distribution of vaccines, some medical experts believe the US can get back to some semblance of normalcy by summer’s end. Until then, the warm spring weather will bring back outdoor game viewings, cookouts, and tailgating as we continue safe social distancing.