When the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the remainder of Ohio State’s sports seasons earlier this spring, it left athletes distressed.
Dr. Jamey Houle, one of four full-time mental-health professionals working within the university’s athletic department, likened it to feelings of grief.
“Especially in the beginning, it really was a grief process,” said Houle, who serves as the department’s lead sport psychologist. “It was a loss. I can’t tell you how many seniors had to go through this experience of four years of building, and winning championships, and trying to win a championship their senior year, then having that be gone in a day, in the middle of a practice even.”
Some seniors will return next year after the NCAA extended an additional season of eligibility to those who participate in spring sports. Not all of them, though, will be back, the pandemic ending their college careers.
The abrupt conclusion to seasons, along with the continued suspension of team activities, has left athletes across all 36 varsity sports at Ohio State to handle various mental-health challenges.
The shutdown has meant no games, no practices and no encounters with teammates and coaches amid the camaraderie of a locker room.
The pandemic, which has led to social-distancing measures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus, has seen Americans face a prolonged period of isolation, among other impacts to their daily lives.
Houle, a former all-American gymnast for the Buckeyes, said the majority of athletes are “doing really well” since the onset of the pandemic, but with most of them stuck at home and away from campus, the department has continued to avail them with mental-health resources.
Along with fellow sport psychologist Chelsi Day and two athletic counselors, Houle said they meet with athletes and coaches over Zoom and provide them with reference materials. In some instances, they have spoken to an entire team at video meetings.
“It's been really cool to see how resilient these student-athletes are,” Day said. “I think we all see it throughout their seasons and their athletic performances that these are resilient kids. We see them work on rehab, focus on getting back to the field or court or the pool after injury. This is something no one could have predicted, no one could have anticipated.”
Before the pandemic, Ohio State had doubled the number of full-time mental-health professionals within its athletic department, bringing its total to four last August.
Since then, they have tried to be a familiar sight for athletes at games and practices.
“It’s kind of the opposite of medicine, where you treat the leg, then the leg is better, and they may or may not come back,” Houle said. “The more we’re visible, the more folks will come and see us.”
Houle estimated about 20% to 25% of Ohio State’s athletes have visited with either a sport psychologist or athletic counselor, a similar rate seen in the general student population visiting a counseling office.
A larger staff has allowed for more athletes to arrange meetings this year.
“We have definitely seen an increase in numbers,” Houle said. “That doesn’t mean necessarily that more folks are having struggles. It just means that we’re more visible and more accessible.”
The sport psychologists and athletic counselors said they have support from the coaches, including football coach Ryan Day, who helped create a fund for mental wellness through Nationwide Children’s Hospital last year with his wife, Christina.
Since taking over for Urban Meyer last season, Day has encouraged players to seek mental-health resources as needed.
During one team meeting last month, he invited Candice Williams, one of the athletic counselors, to speak with the team and offer guidance.
“One of the keys to this whole thing is not jamming it down the kids’ throats and letting them come to us, and letting them to come to our athletic counselors and sports psychologists,” he said. “When you force the action, it’s certainly not as effective.”
Day called it a “fine line” as his players prepared to cope with mental-health issues that might arise.
“If you push too hard, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds tend to push back a little bit,” he added. “We’re trying to give them different ideas and tips and also the resources and working through it from there.”