Mental health and sports aren’t synonyms

Wine recommendation for this post:
For a sports post there’s perhaps no better pairing than FitVine Cabernet. The FitVine wine label touts itself as being “healthier” than other wines because it’s low in residual sugar and contains no flavor additives. This is, generally speaking, true about their wines. But there are plenty of wines out there with both low residual sugars and no flavor additives, so one has to ask what specifically they were comparing to when making their claims. The long and short of it is…probably don’t drink this wine because of its “health benefits,” but do drink this wine just because it’s good! Full flavored with a clean finish featuring a hint of oak, vanilla, and floral notes, it’s a satisfying cabernet. Plus, you can find it many places in 187ml bottles, so you can give it try without having to commit to a full bottle sitting around.

My family has always talked openly about mental health.

That openness was a gift borne out of a tragedy as my parents explained to me depression and suicide when I was in third grade after a family member took his own life.

Maybe it was fourth grade.

I don’t remember.

It seems like an understanding of feelings, and the fact that it was ok to ask for help with feelings, has always been there.

However, at some point as I got older, it became evident that society didn’t talk about emotional health as openly as my family did. In fact, even within my own extended relatives, it became clear that people had various levels of comfort discussing mental health issues.

It seems like the social conversation turns to mental health when it’s convenient, and pivots away from it when it becomes uncomfortable. Seeing as conversations around mental health become uncomfortable for some people rather quickly, that pivot often comes quickly as well.

We talk about mental health when there’s a mass shooting and we don’t want to talk about gun reform laws.

We talk about mental health when a celebrity goes to rehab or makes some big public admission about addiction.

We talk about mental health in colloquial terms like, “He’s crazy!” or “She’s driving me nuts!” which is not really talking about mental health at all.

And we’ve talked about mental health a lot in terms of COVID-19.

Consequently, that conversation usually takes on some form of “We can’t have restrictions on (insert activity here) because of the impact it will have on people’s mental health.”

What’s often absent from the conversation is the equally as prevalent truth that people’s mental health is also suffering as they worry about whether it’s safe to leave their home to go to work or run routine errands while trying to avoid other people refusing to take the most basic of public health precautions.

We’ve created a virus quagmire, and wherever you find yourself in the pit, your mental health is probably suffering in some way.

But there’s one conversation about mental health in COVID-times that I find absolutely fascinating, and as I wrote about last month, it’s the one happening around sports. The past few weeks, as COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed across the country, there has been no bigger flashpoint in the conversation about what restrictions are appropriate and what restrictions are overreaching than those involving sports.

In professional sports, it came down to money and long term health implications for players.

In college sports, it also came down to money and long term health implications for players (as well as future opportunities as top student athletes would run out their eligibility and potentially face uncertain professional careers.)

In youth sports, there is money in play to be sure, but the overarching conversation has been around allowing kids to play to protect their mental health.

As a high school teacher, I’m not going to sit here and attempt to make the argument that participating in extracurriculars doesn’t impact kids’ emotional well being.

I believe extracurriculars are a great way to make friends, find personal energy outlets, develop interests and hobbies that transcend the classroom walls, and support students in becoming well rounded people.

But that’s not just true for sports.

It’s true for all extracurriculars.

So a week ago when I made the decision for our theater program to cancel our scheduled live stream production, I worried about my student’s mental health, and I talked them through why it was a responsible decision, and I helped those who needed to openly cope with their disappointment do so, and then we all moved on to our next opportunity together.

But nobody wrote to the governor on my behalf demanding justice for the arts. And my decision wasn’t picked apart on Facebook the way that zealous parents have gone after districts that have postponed their winter sports seasons.

When our district made the move to distance learning, it didn’t take long for people to start asking on social media if sports were cancelled too. No one asked about math league, strategy club, drama, art club, FCCLA, DECA. The most pressing question…would sports still practice/play?

The thing is, not getting to play sports is not going to be the thing that harms kids’ mental and emotional health. It’s going to be the lack of socialization. It’s going to be the lack of an outlet. It’s going to be the disappointment. It’s going to be what kids fill that time with instead of sports that becomes damaging. The good news is, those are things we can help kids cope with. The bad news is that it is going to require us to think outside the box, and engage in new ways, and continue to admit that the world has not gone back to normal like we may have hoped it would by now.

Figuring out how to come to terms with those things…the big, messy, “but I’m tired of COVID” things…is good for our own mental health. And it will help us help kids cope!

I grew up spending most weekend’s at my grandparent’s lake house. In the summer, we’d spend full Sunday afternoons in and on the water. One summer, I broke my arm and spent six weeks in a cast up to my shoulder. I couldn’t swim, tube, or be in the water at all. I was bitterly disappointed. It was a horrid way to spend the summer. But my parents didn’t make excuses for me. They didn’t rail against my doctors for telling me not to swim. They didn’t help me cheat the system by wrapping my cast in plastic bags or pretending like it didn’t matter if it got wet because we’d just go in and have it rewrapped. They acknowledged my disappointment, and then they helped me cope. My grandpa spent almost every Sunday afternoon with me away from the water, telling me stories, taking me for rides on the ATV, swinging with me in the hammock. My summer looked different, but in the end, short a broken arm, it wasn’t awful.

If we can figure out how to make this winter look “different…but not awful…” that might be enough to take a big step towards getting to the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel!

But we’re going to have to stop pretending the world is ending because we might lose a month of youth basketball. Acting any other way is not helping kids cope. It’s not helping anyone’s emotional wellbeing.

We’re going to have to be able to take on disappointment without allowing it to destroy what’s still good about 2020. And though it’s felt few and far between, there is still good in 2020.

We need to stop pretending that losing a sports season would leave an unfillable hole in kids’ lives and learn instead what they feel they will miss most so we can lean into those voids in purposeful, meaningful ways and fill them up!

And perhaps, most importantly, we need to remember the mental well being of those people charged with making the decisions around these emotionally charged issues…people responsible for their own well being plus the well being of every athlete, coach, spectator, official, student, teacher, and volunteer that enters their facilities.

If you’re going to talk about mental health in the COVID-times, keep athletes in the same crowd as everyone else.

It’s been a long nine months for everyone.

Everyone continues to do the best they can.

5 thoughts on “Mental health and sports aren’t synonyms

  1. Great post, thanks Kate


  2. Great message. In my experiences since last spring it seems that the arts are taking a huge financial hit. Possibly one that will take years to fully recover from financially. An example I can speak to with some knowledge is our state choral directors association. Each year our budget relies on a series of statewide honor choirs that we offer for our talented vocalists. While they not only provide an excellent and inspirational experience for the singers and their families, the participation fees also greatly support our administrative and continuing education costs to keep our members informed and engaged. Currently our society is lacking concerts, live theater, visual arts showings, and on and on. Along with their red ink our souls are also running a deficit. Let’s hope for a strong renaissance in the near future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great posting. The Milw. Rep asked why they cannot put on productions while bars and restaurants are open. BECAUSE THE HEALTH DEPT. HAS NOT HAD TIME TO PROCESS THEIR APPS. FOR APPROVAL. DOESN’T SEEM FAIR TO ME. I AM READY TO GO BACK, WITH SAFETY PRECAUTIONS IN PLACE. HUGS TO YOU Gr, Jean


  4. Amazing what we remember from our youths


  5. Amen, sister! The arts community is just not crying as loudly as the sports enthusiasts…but that doesn’t make us less worthy.

    As someone who deals with depression, these past few days of planning for band classes in a distance learning setting are absolutely exhausting. I can barely move by the time I watch the national news at 5:30 pm. Society need to be honest about the mental health of everyone regardless of their passions. We need to find and direct others (and ourselves) to outlets for our emotions during this pandemic. Our goal is to come out on the other side of this mess in one piece and perhaps more resilient because of our experience(s).


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