Authors: JoAnne Barbieri Bullard
Department of Health & Exercise Science, Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, USA

Corresponding Author:
JoAnne Barbieri Bullard, Psy.D., CSCS
201 Mullica Hill Road
Glassboro, NJ 08028
bullardj@rowan.edu
856-256-3709

JoAnne Barbieri Bullard, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Health & Exercise Science Department at Rowan University.  She holds her doctorate in Sport Psychology and Performance and is a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.  She also serves as the NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative for Rowan University. 

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Well-Being of Division III Student-Athletes

ABSTRACT

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused societal impact that has been intense and fast-paced, especially for college students when education was transitioned quickly into a distance learning format during the spring 2020 semester raising numerous health concerns. Spring athletic seasons were cancelled abruptly raising concern about the mental distress student athletes could be experiencing that could impact their future.  The National Collegiate Association of Athletics (NCAA) addressed the disruption that COVID-19 has caused and the negative impact it has made on both physical and mental health of athletes (14).  The purpose of this research study was to examine the mental distress and programming needs of Division III student-athletes in response to COVID-19.  Through the use of the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-Item Scale (GAD-7) and the Coronavirus Anxiety Scale (CAS), anxiety was assessed among participants suggesting that both genders and all academic years have experienced some level of anxiety during this pandemic which deserve to be addressed and explored on a deeper level.  Significant findings revealed that female participants were more likely than male participants to effectively manage their schoolwork, use social media at least four hours per day, express worry for the future and the fall 2020 semester related to COVID-19, experience challenges moving home, and to utilize mindfulness practices.  Findings also revealed that as compared to other races/ethnicities, white participants indicating experiencing higher challenges regarding social distancing.  Mental distress was associated with lack of resources and  the absence of available facilities to train for their sport.  This setback led student-athletes to experience decreased levels of motivation, increased feelings of stress, and general feelings of helplessness. The need for interventions to be provided both remotely and in-person to provide modalities assisting in coping with anxiety is apparent.

Key Words: collegiate athletics, student-athlete mental health, COVID-19 and collegiate students, programming needs of collegiate student-athletes, collegiate athlete mental distress, collegiate student-athlete perception of COVID-19, COVID-19 anxiety

INTRODUCTION

The Coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is a virus that causes an illness and can be spread person to person (5, 14, 17, 22). It has been identified as a global pandemic that is rapidly spreading throughout the world with an estimated 14,043,611 confirmed cases reported as of July 19, 2020 (22).  In the United States, 3,630,587 cases have been confirmed and 138,782 deaths have been reported as of July 19, 2020 (5).  The societal impact of COVID-19 has been intense and fast-paced, especially for college students where education was transitioned quickly into a distance learning format.  The importance of an asynchronous approach is necessary because while some students might be able to attend session, complete work on time, etc., others might struggle to take care of their families, not have the proper technological needs and could be essential workers (2).  This feeling of uncertainty can lead to fear, frustration, anger, exhaustion, anxiety, relief, and disappointment (3).

The American Psychological Association stated that college students might be experiencing increased stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and sadness during this pandemic due to a number of causes including changes from seated to virtual classes, moving back home, missing friends, job loss, and family responsibilities (1). While being instructed to participate in public health measures such as social distancing, it is expected that the spread of COVID-19 will trigger mental health issues resulting in larger feelings of isolation, worry, stress, depression, anxiety, and financial distress (17). 

Athletic teams have faced disruption as this pandemic has led to athletic seasons being cancelled, training facilities being closed, and immediate contingency plans having to be made (3).  The National Collegiate Association of Athletics (NCAA) addressed the disruption that COVID-19 has caused and the negative impact it has made on both physical and mental health of athletes (14).  The executive summary of the NCAA study, “The NCAA Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well-being Study,” was based on the results of over 37,000 student-athletes among all three divisions.  This study examined mental health concerns of student-athletes, living environments, barriers to athletic training, the impact COVID-19 had on academics, ability to maintain athletics connections, and the resources desired by student-athletes and served as a strong reference for comparison of results related to this research study (15).  The NCAA also provided resources for all three divisions which include daily strategies to assist student-athletes and coaches in coping with the pandemic.  One of the suggestions is that student-athletes become aware of their mental health during this time and understand the degree of impact this situation might have on aspects of their life, such as motivation (3).

Impact of COVID-19 on Academics and Athletics

College Campuses

Remote Learning.  As of March 12, 2020, majority of college campuses began to transfer their courses into a distance learning format and evacuate students, faculty, and staff from campuses (24).  This fast and drastic shift of learning environment and social isolation and quarantine could lead to negative mental distress.  According to Zhai & Du (24) there is value in remote learning which includes college students experiencing less anxiety by being able to “sustain their academic routine” (pg. 1).  Although this added value might be true for some individuals, the transition to the online format for course delivery could also cause some college students to feel uncomfortable , especially if they do not have the proper technology needed to properly engage with their classes (23). 

Receiving support remotely, such as through telephone or virtual counseling services, could be challenging for some college students.  This challenge could be due to the perception that online support would be less effective than if the individual were meeting face-to-face or because of a  lack of privacy that might exist in college students’ home life (23). 

Zhai and Du discussed the challenges college students faced during the COVID-19 pandemic leading to diminished mental health such as anxiety, loneliness, isolation, and distress (24).  Zhai and Du (24) also addressed the role universities could take to support students and provide appropriate accommodations.  Some examples included encouraging faculty and staff to hold virtual office hours, discovering alternative plans for canceled internships, work to provide “innovative methods” to support research and capstone projects, and to have counseling services utilize telemental health counseling (pg.2). 

Mental Distress.  Changes and disruptions to ordinary circumstances may trigger feelings of anxiety, frustration, isolation, and loneliness in students (23, 24).  There are elevated rates of individuals reporting depressive and anxiety symptoms due to COVID-19 (6, 8, 12, 15).  According to a study conducted by Cao, Fang, Hou, Han, Xu, Dong, and Zheng (4), college students reported that they experienced anxiety symptoms related to concerns regarding “academic delays, economic effects of the pandemic, and impacts on daily life” (pg. 3).  Additional struggles for college students could include issues with moving home, lack of resources, having to stop internship programs and research projects, and increased worry about a depleted the job market after the pandemic is over (24).  These challenges could lead to college students experiencing decreased motivation to take part in their studies, issues with sticking to a daily routine, and heightened pressure to perform at the same level in which they were performing prior to the pandemic (8).  Additional concerns include loss of contact with friends, grade concerns, loss of structure regarding schoolwork, and loss of college being a safe place if a student’s home life is difficult or dangerous (23). 

Disruption to normal routine due to the pandemic can lead to mental distress and lack of normative coping mechanisms such as physical exercise and mindfulness activities, which includes an individuals’ ability to act moment-to-moment in non-judgmental awareness (12, 23).  Some examples of mindfulness activities include yoga, meditation, and diaphragmatic breathing exercises.  Instead of productive activities, college students might turn towards negative coping strategies which may be accompanied by self-harm (23).  The Coronavirus has the potential for individuals to feel isolated or lonely which are considered “negative mental health effects resulting from worry or stress.” (17, pg. 1).

Some college students are worried and fearful of not only contracting COVID-19, but also passing it to a loved one, especially since individuals can be asymptomatic (15, 23, 24).  Healthy Minds Network (9) reported results of a survey including college students that indicated “25.8 percent are “very” or “extremely” concerned about contracting the virus and 64.4 percent are “very” or “extremely” concerned about a person they care about contracting COVID-19” (pg. 4).

Programming and Interventions.  Being able to understand the psychological effects and impact on college students’ well-being encountered during the pandemic  is very important to assist institutions in developing and implementing appropriate programs and resources to support students.  Grubic et al. (7) stated the importance of providing “immediate intervention” due to the burden the pandemic has placed on the mental well-being of students (pg. 1).  The Healthy Minds Network (9), which examined the impact of COVID-19 on college student well-being, reported that college students overall feel their campus administration and professors have been supportive.  These programming efforts are not based solely on the interaction between a professor and their students. Further efforts to minimize the psychological impact of COVID-19 on students also suggest incorporating interaction from other departments on campus such as student advising centers, career centers, counseling centers, and student success centers. 

It is suggested that the main focus of these interventions should be to address the “disturbances to educational progress, adaptations of habitual coping strategies, and approaches academic institutions have taken to reduce adverse academic and psychosocial outcomes” (8, pg. 1).  Zhai & Du (24) suggested advising centers should provide services via telecommunication options and professors should maintain virtual office hours.  Providing an alternate plan for students in a critical part of their course work, such as internships and research, is also important (24).  In addition, it is also important for college institutions to develop and revise their emergency preparedness plans to proactively address unforeseeable that might occur in the future (20). 

Finding Support.  According to YoungMinds (23), the pandemic can cause additional feelings of anxiety and uncertainty for individuals when there is a challenge in finding support.   Healthy Minds Network for Research on Adolescent and Young Adult Mental Health and the American College Health Association conducted a survey among college students from 14  institutions finding that since  campuses closed in March, depression rates of students were “30.5 percent compared to 21.9 percent in the fall” (9, pg. 2.).  According to Redden (18) and Healthy Minds Network (9), many college students have who have experienced challenges during the pandemic have received mental health care.  Recommendations have encouraged institutions to offer counseling through telemental health sessions which have been found to be effective in managing depressive and anxiety symptoms while also having the ability to offer virtual support groups (24). 

Uncertainty for Fall Semester.  Uncertainty existed regarding how courses would be delivered during the fall 2020 semester.  Institutional decisions are first and foremost, based on the needs of students.  For institutions that move to online-only classes, educators note the importance  of taking into account the quality of online instruction to minimize anxiety especially for  students who may experience issues with technology, dependable internet connections, and a lack of resources (4, 9, 15, 20, 24).

Attention towards campus services such as academic services, housing, dining and work-study programs are also necessary during a pandemic.  According to Smalley (20), some students rely on these services to ensure “housing, food, and income” (pg. 4).  If institutions would remain closed for the fall 2020 semester, some students would struggle with financial hardship, safe and secure housing, and the ability to be provided healthy food options (18, 20).  Redden stated the importance of making sure students are aware of resources that are available on campus to them including mental health services, including telehealth modalities, and financial aid services (18).

Impact of COVID-19 on Collegiate Athletics and Cancellation of Sports

Cancellation of NCAA championships.  On March 12, 2020 the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) cancelled championships for both winter and spring sports of all divisions (15).  The cancellation of practices and competitions of all Divisions were cancelled to ensure the safety of student-athletes, coaches, game management personnel, and spectators (7).  On August 5, 2020, the Division II and Division III President’s Councils cancelled fall championships, and shortly thereafter Division I followed on August 13, 2020 (14).  All three divisions of athletics were instructed by the NCAA Board of Governors to engage in legislative modifications regarding waivers for the relief of student-athletes (15).  For example, Division III student-athletes are provided an extra semester and season of eligibility and are allowed to pursue minors and certificate programs during their final season of eligibility (15).

As of August 21, 2020, the Division II Presidents Council approved protections for student-athletes including prohibiting institutions reducing or canceling athletics aid for any student-athlete who chooses not to participate during the 2020-20201 academic year (15).  Division II student-athletes that choose not to enroll in the 2020 fall term will be allowed to us the missed term exception (15).  Division I has also made adjustments.  As of August 21, 2020, the Division I Board of Directors stated that fall championships could be played during the spring if the federal, state, and local health guidelines are met (15).  Division I fall sport student-athletes will also receive not only a year of extra eligibility, but also a blanket waiver for an additional year of competition (15).  

Resocialization of sport.  The NCAA shut-down sports to adhere to the federal guidelines enforcing social distancing and stay-at-home orders to assist efforts in preventing the spread of COVID-19 (16).  The NCAA Sport Science Institute released information regarding principles of resocialization of collegiate sport where it was stated that in order for the steps of this process to occur, COVID-19 infection rates must decrease for at least two weeks (16). When resocialization could occur would be dependent on decisions of an institution’s leadership team under the guidance of both local and state officials to  determine how and when to practices and competition could be resumed (16).  As of August 20, 2020, the NCAA Division III Administrative Committee recommended that institutions should not compete during the fall semester in an effort to avoid the potential increased health and safety risks student-athletes could experience (14).  This was then followed by on offer for DIII student-athletes enrolled full-time during the 2020-2021 academic year that choose not to engage in activity during or after the first contest to receive a second semester or third-quarter extension (14). 

During this period, research regarding higher education and this global pandemic is focused on understanding well-being and programming as well as intervention needs for college students as a whole.  Lacking is a focus on the unique concerns of collegiate student-athletes during this unprecedented time such as mental health, resource availability while at home, concerns for the future, and ability to effectively train for their sport.  Although steps are in place for the resocialization of a sport, concerns for the well-being of collegiate student-athletes, coaches, and staff of all divisions remain.  Student-athletes  experienced drastic changes to their spring 2020 semester in terms of academics and having their athletic seasons cancelled so abruptly.  It is anticipated that these college student-athletes would experience some level of mental distress due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19.  Now that fall athletic seasons are starting to be cancelled, it is important have a clear understanding regarding the overall well-being of  student-athletes so that proper resources and programming interventions can be provided to assist with their preparations for the fall semester, both academically and athletically.

METHODS

Participants

Participants of this study included New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Division III student-athletes who participated in the 2019-2020 athletic season (N=682).  Of the 10 NJAC institutions, seven agreed to participate in the research study.  Athletic Directors from each participating institution received an email with information regarding the study and a hyperlink to the Qualtrics questionnaire which they distributed to their athletic teams.  The survey was available for four weeks to provide ample time for participants to respond.

Instrumentation

Demographic questionnaire.Participants received an informed consent form to acknowledge their volunteer participation in this study. Participants completed a demographic questionnaire reporting: institution attended, gender, sport, academic year, race and ethnicity, and if they were a spring sport athlete.  The demographic questionnaire served as means to avoid disclosure of any personal identifiers in this research study.

Additional questions were asked to gather a general understanding regarding the individual’s coping abilities and needs where participants were provided the opportunity to respond in an open-ended format.  These questions inquired the prior use of mindfulness activities/self-care practices, perception of stress as a student-athlete during the pandemic, challenges of social distancing, being away from teammates, moving home, taking online classes, seeking help from a mental health professional during the pandemic, and having anyone close diagnosed with COVID-19.

Participants were also asked to elaborate on concerns they had regarding the upcoming fall semester related to academics, athletics, and personal life, as well as worries they might have for their future related to COVID-19.  Another variable examined was social media use during the pandemic including tele-communication with coaches and teammates, hours of utilization of social media formats, and feeling overwhelmed in response to social media and new platforms during the pandemic.

Open-ended questions regarding athletics and academics were also included.  Participants were asked if they had ample resources to complete schoolwork while away from school, what affected them the most regarding academics, what affected them the most regarding athletics, and what programming they would want to receive from their institution to assist with overall well-being.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-Item (GAD-7) Scale.  The Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-Item (GAD-7) Scale was utilized to identify generalized anxiety of participants through the use of self-report scales (10).  The GAD-7 assessed how often participants have been bothered by seven potential problems over the past two weeks.  Participants are asked to rate each problem on a scale from zero to three, by selecting not at all sure, several days, over half the days, or nearly every day.  The GAD-7 is considered to be a valid and reliable tool (21).

Coronavirus Anxiety Scale Instrumentation.The Coronavirus Anxiety Scale (CAS) is a five-item scale was utilized to assess “dysfunctional anxiety associated with COVID-19” of research participants (12, p. 393).  The constructs of the scale related to hearing information regarding COVID-19 include examining dizziness, sleep issues, feeling paralyzed, lost interest in eating, and feeling nauseous. According to Lee (12), individuals with elevated CAS scores are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with the virus, coping with drugs and alcohol, experiencing extreme hopelessness.  The CAS is considered to be a reliable mental health screener with “90% sensitivity and 85% specificity” (12, p. 398).

Data Analyses

Statistical analyses were performed using SPSS.  Pearson bivariate correlations and crosstabulations were calculated to determine significance of variables.

RESULTS

Demographics

Participants of this research study included Division III New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) student-athletes that participated in the 2019-2020 academic year.  Of the 10 NJAC institutions, seven institutions participated.  Of the 682 participants, 308 (43.7%) were male and 374 (53%) were female. Participants of this study were members of various sports, as shown in Table 1.  Since men’s wrestling is not identified as a NJAC sport, one university had their men’s wrestling team select men’s lacrosse for their response to this question.

Table 1: Descriptive Data NJAC Sport Participation (N=682)

Sport Number of Participants Percentage of Participants
Football 104 14.8%
Men’s Soccer 37 5.2%
Women’s Soccer 32 4.5%
Field Hockey 42 6%
Volleyball 38 5.4%
Women’s Cross Country 37 5.2%
Men’s Cross Country 19 2.7%
Men’s Basketball 19 2.7%
Women’s Basketball 43 6.1%
Women’s Swimming & Diving 45 6.4%
Men’s Swimming & Diving 30 4.3%
Softball 42 6%
Women’s Lacrosse 34 4.8%
Men’s Lacrosse 24 3.4%
Women’s Tennis 7 1%
Women’s Rowing 1 0.1%
Men’s Rowing 1 0.1%
Baseball 45 6.4%
Men’s Track & Field 42 6%
Women’s Track & Field 88 12.5%
Golf 2 0.3%

Regarding academic year, 196 participants stated they were freshman, 181 stated they were sophomores, 192 stated they were juniors, and 112 stated they were seniors.  Of the 682 participants, 163 (23.9%) did not respond to the question regarding race and ethnicity.  A total of 519 participants did respond with the following breakdown: 395 (76%) identified as White,  50 (10%) identified as Hispanic or Latino, 46 (9%) identified as Black or African American, 12 (2%) identified as Asian, 4 (1%) identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native, and 12 (2%) identified as Other.

Stress Experienced During Pandemic

Participants were asked if they perceived being a student-athlete during this pandemic to be stressful with the option to select either  yes, they were experiencing stress as a student-athlete or no, they were not experiencing stress as a student-athlete.  Of the 643 participants that responded to this question, 423 participants (66%) identified that they were experiencing stress during this pandemic.  Participants provided numerous reasons as to why they felt stressed as a student-athlete with “lack of resources” being  the most common response.  The lack of resources referred to difficulties experienced regarding not being able to efficiently practice and train for their sport since training facilities and gyms were closed. It also referred to having limited resources and equipment at home to take part in what is considered normal training programs.  Many identified a fear of becoming out of shape due to the lack of resources to train and from being away from campus and their team.  Another example of the lack of resources referred to not being able to use rehabilitation services which were closed and not being able to receive hands-on treatment for injuries sustained prior to transitioning to remote learning. 

Difficulty staying motivated and engaged was another common response among participants in defining sources of stress.  This response referred to being away from teammates and school which caused a feeling of being overwhelmed, isolated, and helpless.  Since the spring season ended abruptly, there was increased concern regarding the upcoming fall season, feelings of frustration since it was their senior year for some participants, and  a general feeling that  athletics was taken away.  Concerns of participants stemmed into shared feelings of stress, fear, and depression referring to challenges of the unknown for their future, fearing not knowing if they have contracted the virus and unintentionally spreading it to others, and feeling increased pressure to make up for lost time.  Participants also indicated that athletics usually helped relieve their stress and during this time, they felt there was no physical outlet to alleviate the stress they were experiencing. 

Another common theme included the impact not having a set schedule was having since student-athletes are so accustomed to having a strict schedule to follow when with their team and in school.  Some participants expressed the challenge they had experienced trying to set goals for themselves and sticking to their goals during this pandemic.  Associated with this challenge were issues experienced in balancing schoolwork while at home.  For some, being at home was not a strong environment for them to learn effectively.  Many participants identified that they experienced extreme difficulty and more issues trying to learn while they were at home. 

Spring Sport Athletes

Since athletics were cancelled during the spring athletic season, it was important to identify the experiences of these participants and how they felt during this uncertain time.  Of the total participants in the study, 305 (44.73%) identified as being spring sport participants.  In response to how they felt when their season ended abruptly, many participants stated that they felt sad and depressed, as well as heartbroken.  A sophomore, women’s lacrosse athlete stated, “Having our season end so abruptly was extremely hard to process. In the beginning it almost didn’t feel real, but once everything set in, it was not only saddening but also shocking that things that we sometimes take for granted can be ripped away from us so quickly.” 

Some participants expressed how sad they felt for the seniors on their team and others shared that they felt they lost their identity.  A sophomore, women’s track and field athlete stated, “I immediately thought of the seniors that would not get a chance to finish their college athlete careers on the track surrounded by teammates who love them.”  A number of participants stated that they cried when they received the news from their coach and athletic administration.  As stated by a women’s track and field and cross-country athlete, “I cried when I first heard when I didn’t think I would be sad. It hit harder than I thought it would because you don’t know how much you love it until you can’t have it. I was also scared I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the work required of me from home, academically and athletically.”

Feeling upset was another common theme among participants.  Some stated how difficult it was to see their teammates distraught when receiving the news that the spring season was cancelled.  Other elements of concern include participants feeling lonely and wondering when they would get the opportunity to play with their teammates again.  As stated by a senior women’s track and field athlete, “Hearing about the spring season being cancelled, I mainly thought about the significant amount of time that I abruptly lost to make a bigger impact on my team, build relationships with my teammates, and just enjoy the last couple months of my college career.”  Some participants also expressed that they felt everything was stripped from them  and that they never had the chance to play in their last college season.

These feelings of being sad and upset were also conveyed by participants that felt worried for the unknowns they still had to face, especially regarding what might happen to their fall athletic season leading to confusion.  Some participants communicated feeling worried that they only had one year left of their eligibility and were concerned about further NCAA cancellations.  Fear was also stated by participants, especially regarding eligibility concerns for the upcoming season and losing their normal routine that they were comfortable having while at school.  A sophomore baseball athlete stated, “ I was scared.  It happened when the pandemic really started to hit New Jersey so I didn’t know how bad it was gonna get.  I was scared for my teammates and coaches in case they contracted the virus and not knowing when life could get back to normal was concerning.”  Some participants shared feelings of disappointment regarding coming back from an injury to have their season cancelled and others expressed disappointment because they knew how successful their team was going to be this season. A sophomore baseball athlete stated, “I was disappointed because I know how successful we would have been if we had the rest of the season.” 

Anger and frustration were also conveyed.  A few participants even stated feeling rage when receiving the news.  Some communicated that the elements leading to anger was due to the fact that this lost season could never be replaced.  Also, some felt that they were not receiving direct answers regarding elements of their athletics and academics.  A common emotion many participants identified was feeling shocked that it all happened so fast.  Many participants were in denial that it occurred and mostly because the abrupt season cancellations and shift to online learning did not seem real.  A sophomore baseball athlete stated, “It still hasn’t fully sunk in yet.  It is still such a hard thing to wrap my head around.  When I first got the news I instantly broke into tears alongside my teammate.  To know that I was not going to be able to take the field with my ‘brothers/family’ was devastating.”  An interesting statement was that some stated how they did not know that their last practice was truly the last practice they would have with their team for the year.

Mindfulness and Self-Care Practices

Participants were asked if mindfulness and self-care practices were utilized during the pandemic.  There was a negative correlation regarding gender and taking part in mindfulness and self-care practices during the pandemic at the p<.01 level, two-tailed (-.128). Overall, there were 319 (63%) participants that stated they took part in mindfulness and self-care practices and 197 participants that did not.  Female participants (69.96%) reported utilizing mindfulness and self-care practices more often than male participants (53.36%).  Primary themes of mindfulness activities of participants included yoga, meditation, prayer, working out and stretching, reading, painting, visualization, journaling, mindful breathing, self-reflecting, and listening to calming music.

Effectively Managing Schoolwork

Since coursework during the pandemic for institutions transitioned into remote learning, it was important to examine the effectiveness of participants being able to manage their schoolwork in this distance learning format.  Significant findings were found regarding gender, race, and institution.  In terms of managing schoolwork, negative correlations at the p<.05 level, two-tailed, were found for gender (-.081), race and  ethnicity (-.090), and among institutions (-.135).  As indicated in Table 2, a majority of male and female participants were successful with managing their schoolwork.  Female participants generally perceived that they were more likely to feel able to effectively manage their schoolwork as compared to male participants, except for those that identified as Black/African American and Hispanic/Latina. 

Table 2: Gender Differences Among Effectively Managing Schoolwork and Having Someone Close Diagnosed with COVID-19

Gender Number of Participants Schoolwork Someone Close Diagnosed with COVID-19
Male 182 74
Female 206 90

Participants were asked to rate how challenging it was to take online classes on a scale of 0-10, lowest to highest.  Significance was found among gender, institution, and academic year.  A positive correlation was found between gender and the challenge of taking online classes at the p<.01 level, two-tailed (.081).  Negative correlations at the p<.05 level, two-tailed, were found among both institution (-.091) and academic year (-.091) related to the challenge of taking online courses.  Of the 478 participants that completed this question, 74 (15.48%) selected the number “10” which indicated that transitioning to online delivery was extremely challenging.  Examining the differences between gender, the highest selected number for male participants was number “5” and for female participants the highest selected number was “10.”  This finding indicates that female participants may find transitioning to online classes to be more of a challenge as compared to male participants.

Differences were also found among academic year.  Among all academic years, the highest selected numbers were “5” (n=95) and “10” (n=93).  As for the individual academic classes, the middle-class years including sophomores and juniors found the transition to online classes to be less challenging as compared to freshman and seniors.  Both the sophomore and junior participants selected the number “5” most frequently, 19.41% and 16.18% respectively.  Freshman participants selected number “7” most frequently (15.46%).  Senior participants selected number “10” the most, indicating the highest challenge (14.4%).  This variance demonstrates  the disparity that exists among the transition to the online learning environment among academic years.  In addition, a negative correlation was found between the institution of participants and participants having sufficient resources to be successful with schoolwork at home shown at the p<.01 level, two-tailed (-.129).  This result showed that differences existed among participating institutions with students indicating they felt they were prepared to take part in distance learning formats.   

Impact of COVID-19 on Academics

Participants were asked what affected them the most regarding the COVID-19 pandemic related to academics.  Responses were grouped into three categories: 1) challenges transitioning into the distance learning format, 2) issues regarding their professors, and 3) struggles being off campus.  Some concerns participants shared regarding transitioning into the distance learning environment were related to not receiving the help and assistance they would receive when on campus, such as study hall and academic assistance.  Participants also stated their concern that the quality of education they received during spring semester was less than what they would have received in-person resulting in grades suffering and material not sticking with them.  Some participants indicated they were  not online learners and felt that they were not comfortable asking questions to professors during live class sessions pertaining to a loss of social aspects of the class.

Professor performance was also a concern of some participants such as communication issues, course delivery problems, and lack of developing relationships.  Some participants stated that they felt they were unable to connect with their professors through distance learning platforms causing their relationships to deteriorate.  Regarding course delivery, it was conveyed that some professors did not know how to properly use technology which led to inconsistency in courses and the feeling among students that they were assigned too much “busy work” or were expected to teach themselves.

The transition into being off campus and living at home was also an area of concern for participants evidenced by statements concerning an increase in the lack of motivation to complete assignments, difficulty in being able to concentrate (on schoolwork), and the abundance of distractions while in their home environment.  Some participants stated that they did not have the proper resources or space to take part in academic learning while at home.  Others conveyed that they had no outlet for various stressors and had stopped caring about their academic pursuits.

Someone Diagnosed with COVID-19

In response to being asked if participants knew anyone close to them being diagnosed with COVID-19, there was significance found among both race and institution at the p<.01 level, two tailed (.141 and .133) respectively.  Table 2 depicts the differences among participants’ gender and having someone close diagnosed with COVID-19.

Challenges of Social Distancing

Significant findings for both gender and race/ethnicity were found regarding the challenge of social distancing.  There was a positive correlation between gender and the perception of social distancing at the p<0.01 level, two-tailed (.107).  A positive correlation also existed between race/ethnicity and social distancing significant at the p<.05 level, two tailed (.107).  Participants were asked to rate this question on a scale from 0-10, lowest to highest.  The highest selected number between both genders, with 61 participants, was 8.0 indicating that social distancing has been challenging for some of the participants.  Regarding race, participants that identified as white (n=48) selected this number (8.0) more frequently than individuals of other races and ethnicities.

Being Away From Teammates

It was important to examine how challenging being away from teammates was perceived by participants.  Participants were asked to rate this challenge on a scale from 0-10, lowest to highest.  A positive correlation was found among race at the p<.05 level, two-tailed (.096).  A negative correlation was found among institutions at the p<.05 level, two-tailed (-.090).  The most selected number was 10, representative of 136 male and female participants.  This number indicates that participants of both genders found being away from their teammates was extremely challenging during the pandemic, which aligns with the results of research conducted by Young Minds and Zhai and Du regarding feelings of loneliness and isolation (23, 24).

Of the total participants, 552 (81.81%) stated that their coach had implemented a form of telecommunication while being away from campus, such as Zoom calls, FaceTime, or WebEx.  Responses varied from some participants stating that they met with their coach and team at least one time per week, whereas other participants stated that they met with their coach and team once a month which is consistent with the findings NCAA stating that approximately “56% reported their coaches reached out to them multiple times a week, while a quarter connected with their coach once a week” (15, p. 7).

Moving Home

Both positive and negative significance was found regarding the challenge participants felt when moving home during this pandemic.  Participants were asked to rate this overall transition based on how challenging it was on a scale of 0-10, lowest to highest.  Gender significance was at the p<.01 level, two-tailed (.198) and institution significance was significant at the p<.01 level, two-tailed (-.123).  Of the 478 participants that responded to this question, the most selected number was “1” with 49 male respondents and 31 female respondents.  Overall, male respondents had a higher overall selection for numbers 1-5, indicating a lower challenge of moving home, and female respondents had a higher overall selection for number 6-10, indicating a higher challenge of moving home.  This rating difference indicates that female participants potentially could experience more of a challenge as compared to male participants.

Seeking Help

Participants were asked if they looked to receive help from a mental health counselor or psychologist during the pandemic.  A negative correlation at the p<.01 level, two-tailed  (-.132) was found among gender.  There was a higher number of female participants (n=34) that reported seeking help as compared to male participants (n=10).  For both genders, the number of participants that did not seek help was higher than those that did with 218 male participants and 210 female participants (n=472).

Concerns and Worries

Since institutions shifted to distance learning formats during the spring semester, concerns and worries for the future of participants were addressed.  Significant findings were found among gender and institution regarding participants having concerns related to academics, athletics, or personal life for the fall 2020 semester.  A senior women’s lacrosse athlete stated, “All of my plans, for post-graduation, have changed; my future is just full of so much unknown right now it is scary to look at the future.”  A freshman football athlete stated, “Not having much access to my advisor, I chose my courses without consulting my advisor.  I am concerned we will be using online schooling again.” 

There was a positive correlation between institution and worries or concerns for the upcoming semester of participants at the p<.05 level, two-tailed (.083).  There was a negative correlation found between gender and concern and worry for the upcoming semester found at the p<.01 level, two-tailed (-.151).  There were 150 male participants that indicated having concerns for the fall semester, representing 65.38% of total male participants.  Female participants had a higher percentage of concerns for the fall semester which resulted in 79.5% of total female participants.

Participants were also asked to respond if they had any worries for their future regarding COVID-19.  Significance was found among gender, academic year, and institution. Negative correlations were found at the p<.01 level, two tailed between gender and worries for the future (-.209), as well as academic year and worries for the future (-.139).  A positive correlation was found among worries for the future and institution of participants at the p<.05 level, two-tailed (.087).  There was an inverse relationship among gender and this variable.  Female participants had a higher level of concern (30.91%) as compared to male participants (18.76%).  Regarding the academic year, it was found that junior and senior participants expressed higher worries for the future as compared to freshman and sophomore participants as indicated by Table 3.

Table 3: Differences Among Academic Year, Gender and Worries for the Future Due to COVID-19

Academic Year Gender Yes, I am Worried No, I am not Worried
  Male 88    (18.76%) 139 (61.23%)
  Female 145  (30.91%) 97 (40.08%)
Freshman (n=196)   76 (38.77%) 100 (51.02%)
Sophomore (n=181)   73 (40.33%) 94 (51.93%)
Junior (n=192)   88 (45.83%) 80 (41.67%)
Senior (n=112)   66 (58.92%) 38 (33.92%)

When asked if participants had any concerns related to academics, athletics, or personal life for the fall 2020 semester, 439 (71%) stated that they did not have concerns.  One area of concern was related to athletics in the fall, if the season will be cancelled, if they will be physically prepared to compete, and if incoming freshmen would be prepared.  Regarding academic concerns, many participants expressed worry regarding classes being delivered in the online format for the fall semester with fears such as the quality of education lacking and that they may not pass classes.  Also conveyed were concerns regarding applying to graduate school as well as securing an internship for their academic program.

Adjusting to the new normal of everyday life was a concern some participants communicated.  Examples included participants stating their concern for how socializing with their friends on campus might change and when would be able to see their friends.  Other participants expressed concern for the length of the pandemic, as well as feeling that it was difficult to receive answers regarding changes they might experience both athletically and academically in the fall.  Changes to campus life were also a concern.  Some participants expressed confusion regarding how housing and the dining halls would work efficiently.  Others stated that they did not want to miss out on their college experience.

Fear regarding safety were additional concerns of participants.  Some participants stated that they were fearful of contracting and spreading the disease to others, which was consistent with the findings of NCAA Research (15), YoungMinds (23), and Zhai & Du (24).  Other participants shared concerns regarding how college campuses would ensure the safety and health of all members of their institution, if sports would increase the spread of the virus, and the general fear of being diagnosed with COVID-19.

In response to participants having any worries for their future related to COVID-19, 336 (49.27%) stated that they did not have such worries.  Worries regarding the long-term impact of the illness were expressed with participants concerned for what effects they might experience later in life  if they were to contract the illness.  Others were concerned whether the illness would resurface, especially during flu season.  Many participants expressed concern not only for themselves in contracting the disease, but also for one of their family members or friends contracting the disease, especially if they were considered high risk.

Feeling uncertain about the future of COVID-19 was also stated.  Some participants stated that there would need to be new ways of living to be adopted, including ways in which individuals would interact with each other.  A sophomore men’s cross country and men’s track and field athlete stated, “How different our world will be interacting with each other; I need physical interaction (high-fives, hugs, etc.) and socialization and without that I have felt restricted.”  Job security and graduate school acceptance were worries also addressed.  Some participants stated worries over the job market and if they would be able to secure a job after graduating, which is consistent with the findings of Zhai & Du (24).  A sophomore field hockey athlete stated her worries included, “how the economy will change and how the job market will be effected because of all of this.”  Other participants addressed worries regarding having to delay applying to graduate school or having to suspend post graduate work or observation hours due to the circumstances.  A sophomore men’s swimming and diving athlete stated, “My internship may not happen due to the virus.  I don’t know either how much the virus will impact not only my learning, but my ability to be hands on and involved with the time I have left in my college career.”  These concerns were similar to desired resources expressed through participants of the 2020 NCAA Research Study (15).

Social Media

Participants were asked how many hours per day they were utilizing social media formats such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok platforms.  Significance was found among gender and institution.  A positive correlation between gender and social media use was found at the p<.01level, two tailed (.243).  A negative correlation between institution and social media use was found at the p<.01 level, two tailed (-.128).  Overall, it was found that female participants (66.67%) were more likely than male participants (35.71%) to utilize social media at least four or more hours each day.  Male participants (61.16%) were more likely that female participants (36.25%) to utilize social media formats three hours or less per day.

The impact of social media and news platforms were also evaluated.  Participants were asked if they felt that these platforms were overwhelming during this time.  A negative correlation was found between gender and feeling overwhelmed due to social media platforms at the p<.01 level, two-tailed (-.160).  Of the 464 participants that responded, female participants reported higher levels of feeling overwhelmed due to social media and news platforms versus male participants, 32.75% as compared to 23.06% respectively. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-Item (GAD-7) Scale Division III Student-Athletes COVID-19 Results

Significant correlations among gender and academic year were found within all categories of the Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD-7) Scale as indicated by Table 4.

Table 4: GAD-7 Gender and Academic Year Significance

GAD-7 Construct Gender Academic Year
Feeling Nervous, Anxious, On Edge .319** .100*
Not Being Able to Stop Worrying .230** .121**
Worrying About Different Things .243** .110**
Having Trouble Relaxing .185** .120**
Being Restless .163** ——-
Becoming Easily Annoyed or Irritable .259** ——-
Afraid Something Awful Might Happen .185** .086*

Note.  The first and last construct were significant at the p<.05 level, two-tailed.  All other constructs were significant at the p<.01 level, two-tailed.

Similarities among academic year and gender were found among all seven constructs of the GAD-7 scale.  Both male and female participants in their freshman academic year were more likely to select “not sure at all” in response to all constructs as compared to participants in other academic years.  Male participants in their junior academic year selected “several days” more often than male participants of other academic years.  There was consistency among female participants in their freshman, sophomore, and junior academic years selecting “several days” among all constructs as compared to participants in their senior year.  For both genders, freshman and sophomore participants were more likely to select “over half the days” as compared to participants of other academic years.  Male participants in their senior year were more likely to experience these seven constructs “nearly everyday” as compared to female participants and participants of other academic years.  Female participants in their sophomore year were more likely to select “nearly everyday” in response to the seven constructs as compared to female participants of other academic years.  These findings suggest that participants of both genders and all academic years have experienced some level of anxiety during this pandemic.

Coronavirus Anxiety Scale (CAS) Division III Student-Athletes COVID-19 Results

Significant findings were found among gender and academic year among the five constructs of the Coronavirus Anxiety Scale, as indicated by Table 5.  Regarding gender, female participants were more likely than male participants to select response options indicating that they experienced these activities over the past two week several days, more than seven days, and nearly every day over the last two weeks.  The majority of male participants were more likely to select “not at all” as their response among all constructs.  In response to academic year, freshmen were more likely than participants in other academic years to select “not at all” for the constructs regarding sleep and feeling nauseous when thinking about the Coronavirus.  Overall, the findings indicate that participants have experienced varying degrees of anxiety related to the Coronavirus.

Table 5: Coronavirus Anxiety Scale Significance Among Gender and Academic Year

CAS Construct Gender Academic Year
I Felt Dizzy, Lightheaded or Faint, when I
Read or Listened to News about the Coronavirus
.133** ——-
I Had Trouble Falling or Staying Asleep Because I
Was Thinking about the Coronavirus
.204** .082*
I Felt Paralyzed or Frozen When I Thought About or Was
Exposed to Information about the Coronavirus 
.146** ——-
I Lost Interest in Eating When I Thought about or Was
Exposed to Information about the Coronavirus
.126** ——-
I Felt Nauseous or Had Stomach Problems When I Thought
about or was Exposed to Information about the Coronavirus
.121** .097*

Note.  Significance for correlations among gender were found at the p<.01 level, two-tailed.  Significance for correlations among academic year were found at the p<.05 level, two-tailed. 

Correlations Among Mindfulness/Self-Care Practices and Anxiety

Examining the relationship between mindfulness/self-care practices and both the GAD-7 and CAS constructs were important to determine if correlations were present, since it could be assumed that those practicing mindfulness would have lower levels of anxiety (15, 22).  Negative correlations were found at the p<.05 level, two-tailed between participants using mindfulness/self-care practices and feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge (-.087) and between use of mindfulness/self-care practices and worrying about different things (-.104).  Negative correlations were also found at the p<.01 level, two-tailed among mindfulness/self-care practices use and becoming easily annoyed or irritable (-.162) and between mindfulness/self-care practices use and being afraid something awful might happen (-.142). 

Differences were noted among participants that incorporated mindfulness/self-care practices during the pandemic (n=372) and those who did not (n=220). Participants who incorporated mindfulness practices during the pandemic more frequently reported experiencing problems identified on the inventory “several days,” “over half the days,” and “nearly everyday over the last two weeks” than participants who did not identify as utilizing mindfulness/self-care practices during the pandemic (see Table 6).  Differences were found among gender, the use of mindfulness practices, and experiencing the GAD-7 constructs on a “nearly everyday” basis.  Female participants (n=184) reported experiencing the constructs “nearly everyday” and also utilizing mindfulness practices at higher levels than male participants (n=135). 

Table 6: Differences in GAD-7 Results Comparing Differences Among Participants Use of Mindfulness/Self-Care Practices Over Last Two Weeks

Construct Use Mindfulness/
Self-Care Practices
Percentage of Experienced Problem
Several Over Half the Days Nearly Everyday
Feeling Nervous,
Anxious, or On Edge
Yes
No
41.93%
39.54%
12.36%
11.36%
13.44%
9.00%
Worrying About
Different Things
Yes
No
43.01%
40.90%
14.78%
11.81%
11.82%
7.72%
Becoming Easily
Annoyed/Irritable
Yes
No
38.97%
34.54%
24.73%
18.18%
13.17%
8.18%
Afraid Something
Awful Might Happen
Yes
No
31.18%
25.45%
7.79%
6.36%
10.21%
4.09%

Similar to the results from the GAD-7 constructs shown in Table 6, participants incorporating mindfulness practices during the pandemic reported experiencing the identified problems of the CAS inventory, “rarely, less than a day or two”, and “several days” over the last two weeks at higher overall percentages than participants who did not identify as utilizing mindfulness/self-care practices during the pandemic, (see Table 7).

Table 7: Differences in CAS Results Comparing Differences Among Participants Use of Mindfulness/Self-Care Practices Over Last Two Weeks

Construct Use Mindfulness/
Self-Care Practices
Percentage of Experienced Problem
Rarely Several Days
I Felt Dizzy, Lightheaded or Faint,
when I Read or Listened to News
about the Coronavirus
Yes
No
9.75%
7.3%
3.25%
0.04%
I Had Trouble Falling or Staying
Asleep Because I Was Thinking
about the Coronavirus
Yes
No
20.85%
17.5%
9.21%
6.9%
I Felt Nauseous or Had Stomach
Problems When I Thought about
or was Exposed to Information
Yes
No
10.29%
7.8%
4.0%
0.09%

DISCUSSION

Participants were asked to describe programming they would like to receive to assist in enhancing overall well-being.  One theme of the responses from participants included the need for stress management and time management skills.  A sophomore, women’s lacrosse athlete stated that the programming she needed is, “definitely stress management; there were so many things happening all at once that I had no control over but was responsible for.” 

Participants also addressed the need for developing coping skills for the anxiety they have experienced during this pandemic, especially from being away from friends and family.  A senior, field hockey athlete stated she needs, “coping skills for being away from friends and teammates and assistance with time management while away from campus.”  Learning to stay positive and be optimistic from the future was also expressed from participants.  Some participants also described the need of receiving counseling services so that they knew they would have someone to speak to about their concerns for their overall well-being and future.

This project has significant implications for research and practice producing evidence of the needs for the overall well-being of Division III student-athletes to be addressed based on the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic.  Significant findings were related to constructs based on gender, race and ethnicity, institution, and academic year, including taking part in mindfulness and self-care practices, effectively managing schoolwork, academic concerns, and concerns for the future.  Since the beginning of the pandemic mental distress of student-athletes was found to be significant as feelings of anxiety, depression, sadness, worry, fear, anger, and feeling overwhelmed were reported by participants, which is in alignment with the findings from the NCAA Research 2020 report, as well as additional studies indicating the impact this pandemic has had on overall well-being of college students (4, 8, 15, 23).

Limitations to the study that might have impacted the results included the following.  First, the study was conducted only with Division III student-athletes.  The second limitation was that the participants were from one athletic conference.  Future research including either Division III from all athletic conferences or participants from all three athletic divisions could provide valuable information for athletic departments and athletic conferences. 

CONCLUSIONS

Underlying reasoning related to enhancing mental distress was associated with lack of resources and available facilities to train for their sport.  This issue led student-athletes to experience decreased levels of motivation, increased feelings of stress, and feelings of helplessness.  These elements of mental distress were similar to the findings of the NCAA noting that student-athletes have been challenged by barriers to their athletic training regime such as the lack of access to work out facilities and the absence of necessary equipment (15).

According to both the GAD-7 and CAS inventories, significant correlations were found among gender and all constructs of both generalized anxiety and anxiety regarding the Coronavirus.  This finding suggests the need for interventions to be provided both remotely and in-person when permitted to provide modalities to assist in coping with anxiety.  

One primary theme and area of concern among participants in the study included challenges of transitioning to distance learning environments, a finding that was significant among gender and academic year.  Although both genders felt that they could manage the transition successfully, males were more likely to respond that they were not successful in this transition period as compared to female participants.  Also, senior year participants were more likely than other academic years to indicate that this transition was extremely challenging.  This finding indicates the need for providing programming and services in a proactive manner to student-athletes for institutions continuing with distance learning in the fall semester in alignment with the suggestions provided through Grubic & Badovanic (8), Healthy Minds (9), and Smalley (20).   

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT

This information from the study herein is beneficial for athletic departments, academic advisors, student success centers, and educators so that they are better prepared to assist student-athletes during a unique period in their lives. Future research regarding the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the well-being of student-athletes in other Division III conferences, as well as Division I and Division II institutions, would prove beneficial. It is also ideal to conduct similar research on the impact of COVID-19 on student-athletes representing all divisions in the upcoming academic year to explain and validate the  challenges experienced in academics and athletics.

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