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Students get back in the game

Schools are working to restart sports

Associate head coach Vin McGrath (right) watches his varsity players during football practice at Woburn High School in Massachusetts in February. Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola (file)

Students get back in the game

In August, skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts in Los Angeles County, Calif., threatened Evan Olliff’s senior football season. A co-captain of Desert Christian High School’s team, Olliff had struggled to stay motivated lifting weights alone in his garage when COVID-19 canceled practice last spring.

But by early January, dropping numbers of new infections allowed the team back on the field. Last Friday, wearing royal blue jerseys and helmets decorated with cross stickers, the team jogged as a group and split up to run plays. Apart from the coaches’ masks, the practice looked normal.

A year of COVID-19 disruption has delayed and shortened high school athletes’ seasons. As a result, some have missed their chance to earn athletic scholarships, and most have lost time with friends and coaches who serve as mentors. Sports psychologists say such factors might be contributing to a rise in symptoms of depression and anxiety among student-athletes. But now, with truncated seasons and safety measures, schools are finding ways to get sports running again.

For juniors and seniors, a shortened or canceled season can mean missing out on scholarships. Those hoping for a breakout season this year must make do on last season’s highlight reels. Desert Christian’s cross-country team won a state championship in 2016 but won’t get to compete this year thanks to COVID-19 safety measures. The team’s seniors won’t get a chance to run for college scouts at the meet. Performance coach Michelle Cleere summarized scouts’ attitudes: “If we can’t see you, we can’t give you a scholarship.”

Sports psychologist Jarrod Spencer said some of his clients who aimed to play on top-tier college teams have lowered their expectations, and others are wondering if they’ll get to play at all. “It’s been a loss of a lot of dreams,” Spencer said.

Student-athletes have also felt the social and emotional effect of missing sports. A May study of young athletes in Wisconsin found 65 percent reported symptoms of anxiety and 68 percent symptoms of depression, up 37 percent from previous surveys. A study in the fall suggested athletes who got to play this year fared better. Parents of a Maine teen who died by suicide pointed to the loss of his football season as a factor. Last spring, Olliff said his grades dipped as he adjusted to online learning. “Even before the pandemic football was kind of my go-to because I mean, school is stressful enough without all of this,” he explained. “Football now—it’s definitely something that helps.”

As COVID-19 cases drop, teams have started to get back in the game. Though school stayed online in Pittsburgh, sports teams played through the fall. Detroit basketball teams returned to courts in February. And a group of California parents and coaches last week won a settlement to restart indoor sports with COVID-19 testing.

Rescheduled seasons mean Desert Christian is holding football, track, cross country, soccer, and volleyball all at once. Friday, football shared the field with a runner leaping hurdles and a student hurling a discus. The football team is scheduled for five of their usual nine games. Some schools aren’t fielding teams over safety concerns, so Desert Christian is facing schools with larger teams. But coach Aaron Williams isn’t worried. “It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about building these men to be godly men,” he said. “We should still be praising God whether we had a season or not, but we will remember this.”

Esther Eaton

Esther reports on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.



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