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Positive Ways to Help Students Cope With National Health Crisis

By Dr. Steve Amaro on April 15, 2020 hst Print

Every generation experiences an historic negative moment at some point in time – some are just worse than others. In previous generations, it may have been the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In these instances, the disruption of school and personal life had real effects with school closures and substantial changes in the way students and their families conducted their daily lives.

Today, we are in the midst of an international health crisis with the spread of the Coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19, and it has had a profound impact on high school activity programs, including the postponement and, in some cases, cancelation of entire high school athletic seasons.

While it is important that adult leaders take care of themselves and their families during these times, it is also important to continue to provide leadership and connection to their students and these young people who look not only to their families, but also their school officials for guidance.

Acknowledge and Validate the Disruption

It is nothing short of remarkable to see how a national climate can change with just one unfortunate event. Most people, let alone high school athletes, have never encountered such a change of national magnitude as we currently face.

It is important to remember that athletes choose to be part of athletic programs, and as leaders of these elective activities, coaches play a significant role as their words and actions carry tremendous influence and many students will seek them out for comfort and understanding. In normal times, students struggle with understanding that athletics is a privilege rather than a right, but now is a vital time for coaches to share this perspective with their athletes.

Everyone loves to play sports and push their physical and intellectual limits, but coaches need to reinforce that current safety measures need to be upheld for everyone. High schools can only allow athletics, activities and even academic classes in safe environments. Coaches have the responsibility to support the school, state and national messages and acknowledge that this important health crisis has led to the disruption of school sports.

Coaches, especially those in-season coaches, need to put competitiveness in perspective. In the initial days of this crisis, there were reports of students gathering to practice their sports without coaches, overlooking the national – and in some cases – state association recommendations for safety. Some of these students may be looking for ways to escape the overwhelming saturation of the daily news cycle, but coaches have an opportunity to provide written supports via text or social media to encourage students to follow safety recommendations regarding social distancing. No upcoming future competition is worth the risk of life itself.

When schools assess activities and even attendance and find that safety is in question, coaches need to explain and validate that such decisions are not made lightly. Equally important is for coaches to send a consistent message that can be supported by school and district leadership. They need to have open lines of communication with their athletic directors and school administration so that they can support their students in this trying time.

Share and Encourage Plans for Individual Physical Activity

There is no single factor for how long students lives will be disrupted due to COVID-19, but it is clear that all students, regardless of ability, appreciate and benefit from routine; the fabric of student-athletes’ days are woven with specific practice and game times. Although most coaches care deeply about their sports, one of the goals of high school athletic participation is to build a foundation for students to have lifetime physical fitness habits. It is this message that coaches can support in creating plans and sharing physical exercise plans as these plans support physical and psychological health.

Students will have questions regarding how they will navigate their lives, but for now they may ask when they will return to school, what happens to their games not played or dances they missed, or for those seniors, how do they select the school they will attend in the fall if they can’t even see the campus. Although coaches may not have answers for these questions, they can provide clarity and perspective by creating and sharing individual activities through text, video conference and on social media. Whether it’s a half hour of yoga or aerobic exercise, or even circuit training with household items, providing activities for students to engage in individually can reduce their stress levels, promote mental health, and keep them fit for their eventual return to school and team activities.

Promote Time to Reflect, Connect and Be Thankful

Far too often, students and even the adults who run student activities can become so focused on completing daily tasks that they forget to reflect and appreciate what goes on around them. Although the COVID-19 virus has disrupted our lives, it has also given us an opportunity to be thankful for all we do have. We have seen examples on the international stage.

In Italy, there were videos of families in an apartment building who could not see each other, but sang their national anthem outside on balconies, while in Spain a fitness instructor conducted a fitness class on the roof of a building and those in the neighboring buildings joined the challenge. In each instance, the people participating had to observe social distance and could not see other participants, but it revealed the connection and appreciation we can all share in activities and physical exercise. The power of human connection reveals itself in creative ways and even when we are physically separated, we can find ways to build community.

In those states where families are under order to stay at home, school leaders can encourage students to engage in family activities. This could start with something as simple as a board game at night, but it could also evolve into a physically engaging cross-training activity with siblings and other immediate family members. Most students never get the chance to fully appreciate the athletic lives their parents lead and even fewer get an opportunity to teach or coach others. Supporting students to engage with their families gives them a greater understanding of themselves and those who support them.

We Will Overcome

The scariest question that all of us face is when will this national pandemic end? Although no one knows for sure what the future will hold, we can reassure students that there will be a time when they return to school and life will regain some normalcy. It’s important to let our students know that although we all will face inconvenience, hardship and even some level of fear during this time, we will overcome this national health crisis and be stronger for the experience.