Eleven months ago to the day, Michigan student-athletes began what would feel like an infinite period of social isolation.
The cancellation of NCAA winter and spring sports sent a tidal wave of emotions through locker rooms in Ann Arbor and across the country, and set the student-athletes inside them into a period of uncertainty and emotional chaos.
As prevailing science began to warn of the dangers of in-person interactions, everyone had to scramble to transition their various engagements into online formats. Student-athletes were no exception as “I’ll see you there” quickly evolved into “I’ll send you the Zoom link in a minute.”
Some activities, like keeping in touch with friends, smoothly maneuvered into online spaces, but others did not come with the same assurances.
For instance, many people who received regular health care, mental or physical, feared for how they would continue to receive their treatment. Mental health care in particular became a focus amid concerns about the effects of social isolation and new stressors.
Would people continue to speak with counselors and therapists or meet with doctors? Or would valuable appointments and check-ups slip through the cracks?
Once again, student-athlete communities faced the same questions as others.
“It's interesting, initially, we thought that with navigating the pandemic and going virtually that it may be a little bit more complicated for student-athletes to carve out time,” Director of Athletic Counseling Abigail Eiler told The Daily on Oct. 1. “Or maybe they would be engaged in too much screen time and wouldn't want to kind of set that time aside for their health and wellness goals.”
Considering these concerns, it would’ve sounded preposterous to say 11 months ago that the forced transition to online counseling would actually yield benefits for Michigan’s student-athletes.
But, with months passed and the benefit of hindsight, such a claim is plainly obvious.
“Our student athletes are more in a place of, ‘Hey, I don't need to actually physically go anywhere, I'm at home can. We log in and have a session that way’ ” Eiler said. “And so it's actually been more to me that we've seen an increase in requests for athletic counseling right now.”
Increases in counseling requests are not inherently a good thing, of course, as they demonstrate the increased needs due to COVID-19. But the method of setting up sessions that Eiler describes has helped countless student-athletes.
“That's something that I've talked to quite a few people about that they've enjoyed, even though there's a trade off of not getting the same in person feel,” senior rower Ally Eggleton told The Daily on Jan. 13. “But I think it's especially being a student-athlete, not having to think about block(ing) out that extra half hour of time.
“I want to make sure that I catch the bus or have time to walk up to campus, or then rush home from class and change really quick and get ready for practice. I think it just makes things a lot easier and more relaxing in a way.”
Student-athletes have busier schedules than most, so it’s not surprising that cutting the time down on something as important as counseling helps them fit it into their schedules.
But that isn’t to say that this benefit was easily earned.
“I mean, this kind of goes back to the resources that Michigan has, the work that they did to put in all that time and energy to make those online sessions feel the most comforting and just so beneficial, was just incredible,” junior rower Caroline McGee told The Daily on Jan. 19.
The value of these online sessions didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was a result of Athletes Connected’s long-time focus on easily accessed, constantly available resources, like videos and articles and the diligent efforts of Michigan’s staff that McGee mentioned.
The concerns about changes to mental health care are no less valid because of the successes and benefits of Michigan athletics’ online format.
It was well-planned, good-hearted actions that allowed Michigan Athletic Counseling and Athletes Connected programs to elicit reactions like this from McGee. And even when in-person interactions become the norm again, online counseling may be here to stay.
“I think that it would be really helpful, because it's another form of a resource, you know, very easy to access,” McGee said. “And I think that it could be a great option for people who maybe, you know, they're on their way to class, or they eat lunch before practice, and they don't have time to go to the office and see someone, I think it's really great to just have very easily and ready at hand. And I hope that that can stay around as well as getting back to some in person communication, but I really think that it would be super beneficial to have it online.”
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