Author: Isabella Q. Liu1

1John McCrae Secondary School, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Corresponding Author:
Isabella Q. Liu
P.O. Box 34102, 3781 Strandherd Drive
Ottawa, ON, Canada, K2J 5B1
isabellaqqliu@hotmail.com
613-825-6788

Isabella Liu is a rising senior student in the High Performance Athlete Program at John McCrae Secondary School in Ottawa, Canada. She has been doing artistic swimming for the past nine years, and is currently training with GO Capital Synchro Club’s national-stream program. She was a member of the 2019 Ontario Artistic Swimming Junior Provincial Team and competed with them at the 2019 UANA Pan American Artistic Swimming Championships.

The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on High Performance Secondary School Student-Athletes

ABSTRACT

Purpose: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a worldwide disruption of the sporting industry. Secondary school student-athletes, as a distinct population, are facing unique social and academic challenges. It is important to identify some of the unique challenges this population currently faces, and understand where our student-athletes are at mentally and physically. This is in order to ensure their needs are addressed, and the health and wellbeing of this population is protected. This study aimed to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian high performance secondary school student-athletes.

Methods: On April 29, 2020, six weeks after a lockdown was imposed in Ontario, Canada, a Google Forms online survey was sent out to local secondary school students participating in high performance sports to collect data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their sports and themselves.

Results: In 24 hours, 115 surveys were completed. The median age of respondents was 16/17, with 66 (57.4%) females and 49 (42.6%) males. 93% of respondents had at least one cancellation or postponement of important competitions or meets due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The athletes reported negative psychological impacts from the pandemic, with 90.5% expressing feelings of isolation and disconnection and 79.1% having feelings of anxiety, depression, and frustration. 86.1% of the respondents identified a worry for a loss of fitness during this time, with 91.3% concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their next season. Nonetheless, 84.3% of the respondents still plan to return to training once the pandemic is over, and 74.8% believe they can catch up to their previous strength/technical level after the pandemic.

Conclusions: Findings of this study suggests that more attention should be paid to secondary school student-athletes, as they are young and tackling both academic and athletic challenges.Student-athletes should be provided additional mental health support during this maelstrom of changes. Specific in-home virtual training during COVID-19 outbreak may be further strengthened and improved to protect the mental health of the athletes, especially to reduce the risk of anxiety and depression.

Key Words: COVID-19, sport, athlete, student, training, mental health , lockdown

INTRODUCTION

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a new respiratory infection outbreak that started in China in December of 2019 (1). As of March 2020, COVID-19 has become a global pandemic (2), which has resulted in a maelstrom across the globe, bringing the world to a standstill. Various social and physical distancing measures have been introduced by the authorities including: lockdowns of non-essential businesses, closings of schools, universities, and bans on travel, cultural and sporting events as well as social gatherings (3, 4).

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted many regular aspects of life, but also led to a halt of athletic competitions worldwide. The sporting industry has seen the postponement and cancellation of sporting events at regional, national, and international levels. The Olympics and Paralympics have been postponed for the first time in the history of the modern games, and will instead be held in 2021 (5). The subsequent restrictions on group training due to social distancing measures, closure of training facilities and loss of face-to-face access to coaches and support personnel has caused uncertainty and immense stress, anxiety and frustration among the athletes (6).

Student-athletes, as a distinct population who are constantly facing unique social and academic challenges, are at an increased risk for developmental and psychological problems that may later result in several stressors during their athletic careers (7). With the COVID-19 pandemic crisis forcing schools to close and athletic seasons being cut short or cancelled with future training uncertain, it is important to identify some of the unique challenges this population currently faces. It is also imperative that the mental and physical position of student-athletes is understood, in order to ensure their needs are addressed, and the health and wellbeing of this population is protected.

In this survey study, we aimed to assess the impact of the COVID-19 on Canadian high performance student-athletes through the grades 9-12. Specifically, we assessed concerns regarding the current competition season, possible psychological impacts due to COVID-19, and individual actions that have been taken in response to the pandemic.

METHODS

The author of the current report employed a convenient sampling method by using an online survey. On April 29, 2020, six weeks after a lockdown was imposed in Ontario, Canada, an online survey was sent out to local secondary school students participating in high performance sports to collect data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their sports and themselves. It was ensured that only students that fit the “high performance athlete” category (either 15+ hours of training a week or a certain level of competition) were allowed to respond. Consent was obtained from the participants, and no personal information was collected.

A link to the online Google Form survey was distributed to a convenience sample of student-athletes via the social media apps Snapchat and Instagram, on 29 April to 30 April 2020. Although data from social media platforms do not warrant the validity and representativeness of the population (8), it was deemed appropriate for understanding public perceptions during time-sensitive events where a rapid analysis is needed.

A cross-sectional survey was designed, based on the perspectives of secondary school student-athletes, regarding the feelings, concerns, and challenges they experienced during the lockdown period. The structured questionnaire consisted of 25 closed-ended questions. In addition to demographic data relating to grade, gender, team/individual sport, training hours prior to pandemic, competition years/level, the author included additional questions that were tailor-made for the secondary school student-athletes facing the COVID-19 outbreak, which covered several areas (1) direct impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on the current season (competitions/meets cancellation or postponement, current training status, involvement in other physical activities); (2) psychological impacts (isolation, fear, frustration, lack of initiative), and (3) sport-related concerns (loss of fitness and physical preparedness, competitive disadvantage, and concern for the following season). The participants were also asked how they were coping with the pandemic and whether their lifestyle would change after the pandemic.

RESULTS

In 24 hours, between April 29 and 30, 2020, 115 surveys were completed. The characteristics of the participants are listed in Table 1. The median age of respondents was 16/17, of the grade 11 age group, with 66 (57.4%) females and 49 (42.6%) males. The majority of respondents (83.5%) were participating in a team sport. 86.9% of the athletes were competing at provincial level or above including 27.8% at national level and 11.3% at international level. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the majority (78.3%) of respondents trained for over 15 hours a week, with more than half of athletes (52.2%) having been involved in their sport for over 8 years.

Table 1. Characteristics of secondary school student-athletes who completed the online survey

Athlete demographics Responses
  n %
Age
Grade 9
Grade 10
Grade 11
Grade 12

12
19
53
31

10.4
16.5
46.1
27.0
Gender
Male
Female

49
66

42.6
57.4
Team sport
Yes
No

96
19

83.5
16.5
Competition level
Regional
Provincial
National
International

15
55
32
13

13.1
47.8
27.8
11.3
Years in sport
Less than 3 years
3-5 hours
5-8 years
More than 8 years

5
14
36
60

4.3
12.2
31.3
52.2
Weekly training hours prior to lockdown
Less than 15 hours
15-20 hours
20-25 hours
More than 25 hours

25
54
25
11

21.7
47.0
21.7
9.6

All major sports leagues and tournaments have been suspended or cancelled due to COVID-19 since early March 2020. 93% of respondents experienced at least one cancellation or postponement of an important competition or meet during the COVID-19 outbreak (see Table 2). Most coaches or their associated clubs arranged in-home training to help the athletes retain their strength and fitness throughout this unprecedented time. It has been found that more than half  (60%) of the athletes are still continuing to receive some form of virtual training (training plans, online sessions, etc.) from their club and coaches, however 77.4% are now training less than 8 hours a week. In addition to any mandated training from club or coach, 22.6% of the athletes are participating in other strenuous activities, while 54.8% are doing moderate activities regularly.

Table 2. Athletic impacts from COVID-19 pandemic on current competition season of the secondary school student-athletes

Impacts on current season and training Responses
  n %
Cancellation or postponement of important competitions or meets
Yes
Maybe
No

107
5
3

93.0
4.3
2.6
Current training status: whether receiving virtual training from club or coaches
Yes
No

69
46

60.0
40.0
Weekly training hours amid the COVID-19 pandemic
Not training at all
Less than 5 hours
5-8 hours
8-12 hours
More than 12 hours

18
25
46
21
5

15.7
21.7
40.0
18.3
4.3
Other physical activities in addition to any mandated training
Strenuous activities
Moderate activities
Light activities
Not at all

26
63
20
6

22.6
54.8
17.4
5.2

The athletes are also reporting psychological impacts from the pandemic (see Table 3). A significant number of student-athletes (90.5%: 52.2% with an answer “yes” and 38.3% with an answer “sometimes”) feel isolated and disconnected all the time or sometimes. 79.1% of athletes have also expressed feelings of anxiety, depression, and frustration, whilst 4.3% of athletes were not sure about their feelings concerning anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, 89.6% of athletes are experiencing a lack of initiative and 87% agree with the following statement “I am no longer looking forward to anything”. 94.8% of athletes believe that the current situation involving the pandemic is a tough situation to deal with. However, only 20% of respondents reported a fear of being infected by COVID-19.

Table 3. General psychological impacts from COVID-19 pandemic on secondary school student-athletes

Items Responses
  n %
Feel isolated/disconnected
Yes
Sometimes
No
Maybe

60
44
10
1

52.2
38.3
8.7
0.8
Fear of being infected by COVID-19
Yes
No
Maybe
 
20
68
27
 
17.4
59.1
23.5
Have anxiety/depression/frustration
Yes
Sometimes
No
Maybe
Prefer not to say

36
55
17
5
2

31.3
47.8
14.8
4.3
1.7
Lack of initiative to complete tasks
Yes
Sometimes
No
Maybe

70
33
11
1

60.9
28.7
9.6
0.8
Not looking forward to anything
Does not apply to me at all
Applies to me at some degree, or at certain times
Applies to me at a considerable degree, or a good part of the time
Applies to me very much, or most of the time

15
59
28
13

13.0
51.3
24.3
11.3
Thinking tough to deal with this situation
Yes
No
Maybe

87
6
22

75.7
5.2
19.1

Observing the sports-related impacts on the athletes (see Table 4), 86.1% of the respondents identified a worry for a loss of fitness during this time (falling behind in physical preparedness, developing a competitive disadvantage), with 91.3% concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their next season. Nonetheless, 84.3% of athletes still plan to return to training once the pandemic is over, while 11.3% have not yet made a decision. The decision of returning to sport appears to have not been affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A significant portion of athletes (96.5%: 74.8% with an answer “yes” and 21.7% with an answer “maybe”) believe they can catch up to their previous strength/technical level after the pandemic. 91.4% of respondents consider previous sports-related mental /resilience training is now beneficial in helping them get through this difficult time.

Table 4. Sports-related impacts from COVID-19 pandemic on secondary school student-athletes

Questions Responses
n %
Are you worried of a loss of fitness, falling behind in physical preparedness, or of a competitive disadvantage during this time?
Yes
No
Maybe

91
16
8

79.1
13.9
7.0
Do you think the mental training and/or resilience training from your sport will help you get through this difficult time?
Definitely
Moderately
A bit
No
Maybe

41
37
27
7
3

35.7
32.2
23.5
6.1
2.6
How concerned are you about the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for your next season?
Not at all concerned
Somewhat concerned
Very concerned
Extremely concerned
Not applicable

8
50
39
16
2

7.0
43.5
33.9
13.9
1.7
Do you plan to return to training for your sport once the pandemic is over?
Yes
No
Maybe

97
5*
13

84.3
4.3
11.3
Has your decision to return to your sport been affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes
No
Maybe

21
84
10

18.3
73.0
8.7
Do you believe you can catch up to your previous strength/technical level after the pandemic?
Yes
No
Maybe

86
4
25

74.8
3.5
21.7

* Note. Reasons for not returning are: Mountain will be close; Too expensive; Retiring; My career is over because I am over the age limit; and Going away for university and not playing varsity.

In response to COVID-19 pandemic, student-athletes are using emotion-focused or behavioral-focused dimension ways of coping. In detail, from all the respondents, 90.3% turn to other activities (e.g., watching movies, reading books, running) to take their mind off things, 54.9% have been looking for something good in the current situation, and 44.2% have taken action to try and make the situation better. The other ways of coping include trying to come up with a strategy about what to do, making jokes about the pandemic, getting help, advice and emotional support from other people, as well as expressing negative feelings (see Table 5).

With regard to whether lifestyle would change after the pandemic, 45% of respondents answered a definite yes while 37% answered maybe (see Table 5).

Table 5. Ways of coping with the pandemic and lifestyle change

  Responses
How are you coping with the pandemic? (check all that apply) %
– turning to other activities (watching movies, reading books, running, etc.) to take my mind off things.
– looking for something good in what is happening
– taking action to try and make the situation better.
– trying to come up with a strategy about what to do
– making jokes about the pandemic.
– getting help and advice from other people
– expressing my negative feelings.
– getting emotional support from others.
90.3
54.9
44.2
36.3
30.1
28.3
26.5
23.9
 
Do you think your lifestyle will change after the pandemic? n %
Yes
No
Maybe
52
20
43
45.2
17.4
37.4

DISCUSSION

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures significantly affected high performance secondary school student-athletes in Canada. A vast majority of respondents (93%) had at least one cancellation or postponement of important competitions or meets due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite home confinement and high levels of uncertainty regarding returning to sport and the next season, most student-athletes are continuing to train daily, either through virtual training from their club and coaches, or doing strength or cardio workouts according to their coach’s plan. However, it is noted that 77.4% of athletes are now training less than 8 hours a week. The drastic drop in training time and the change in setting influences the ability of the athletes to maintain their peak fitness. Solo training and a lack of sport-specific training may also be challenging for athletes who participate in team and very technical (e.g. artistic swimming, skiing) sports. Besides the guided training, the athletes are participating in regular physical activities including both strenuous and moderate activities. Maintaining moderate activities allow for recovery (9), particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid blunting of the immune system (10).

In addition to having direct disruptive impacts from COVID-19 on the current competition season, the student-athletes are also exposed to the negative psychological consequences of COVID-19 (frustration, anxiety and depression), which has been found to be common during this stressful time. A significant proportion of athletes reported feelings of isolation and of being disconnected. This may be associated with the majority (83.5%) of respondents participating in a team sport. Having the social aspect of participating in team sports removed due to social distancing measures leads to the feelings of isolation and disconnection in the respondents. With cities and countries in lockdown, alongside the urging from authorities to maintain social distancing, a feeling of isolation can spread amongst the athlete population. It is natural for athletes to experience an array of emotions with regard to the current situation. A vast majority of student-athletes are experiencing a lack of initiative with energy loss and a lack of motivation to train. This can be connected with the impact from COVID-19 on the competition season of athletes with 93% of the respondents having competitions or meets cancelled or postponed in response to the pandemic. As athletes, a full season of training filled with dedication and sacrifices is completed to prepare for a regional, provincial, national, or international meet. By cancelling those competitions, the time appears to have been wasted. Interestingly, even though most athletes felt isolated, depressed or anxious, many of them do not have a fear of being infected by COVID-19.

With regard to the sports-related impacts on the athletes, the majority (86.1%) of the respondents showed worries for a loss of fitness during this time. They are also afraid of  falling behind in physical preparedness, or developing a competitive disadvantage due to the long time period of lockdown measures. A significant number of athletes (91.3%) had concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic would continue to have impacts on their next season, possibly owing to global uncertainty about the pandemic and lack of adequate communication by national and international federations and sport governing bodies. Nonetheless, 84.3% of athletes still plan to return to training once the pandemic is over. A significant portion of athletes believe they can catch up to their previous strength/technical level after the pandemic. These high performance student-athletes have also consistently received mental training and/or resilience training from their sport over the past many years, and 91.4% of respondents consider mental and resilience training is helpful to getting through this difficult time. It demonstrates that participation in high performance sport provides athletes with mental skills that make them strong competitors: competitive drive, resilience, mental toughness, adversity tolerance. These mental skills make athletes not only strong competitors in the sporting fields, but also provide them with skills that can be adapted for life in times of adversity.

Ways of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and possible lifestyle changes after lockdown were of concern. Stress theories that focus on coping with stressful life events have shown that many strategies can essentially be reduced to an emotion-focused dimension and a behavioral-focused dimension. Based on the results of this study, most high performance student-athletes have found effective strategies in coping with the pandemic. A majority of them turned to other leisure activities to take their mind off things, half of them looked for something good in what is happening or took action to try and make the situation better. Pertaining lifestyle, it is noted that almost half of the student athletes considered their lifestyle would change after the pandemic. This apparently shows that COVID-19 has brought about significant impact on our future.

The present study has some limitations. First, the studied participants were only from local secondary school student-athletes, and this limited sampling may weaken the generalizability of the findings in the present study. Second, the online survey may not be able to reach those student-athletes who are not comfortable with or unable to use technology and the internet. Lastly, it is possible that respondents provided responses that were affected by social desirability factors.

CONCLUSIONS

The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenging time for high performance secondary school student-athletes. During this time, the large majority of athletes have faced the cancellation or postponement of important competitions or meets. It has been found that more than half of the athletes continue to receive virtual training from their club and coaches, but with severely decreased training hours. The feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression and frustration is clear among the student athletes, although many have found effective strategies to cope with the pandemic. Most prevalent amongst the respondents were worries surrounding the loss of fitness during this time and concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their following season. However, the majority of the athletes still plan to return to training once social distancing restrictions are lifted, and they are confident that they will be able to catch up to their previous strength/technical level after the pandemic.

Findings of this study suggest the following recommendations for future interventions: (1) more attention should be paid to high performance athletes, especially secondary school student-athletes, as they are young and simultaneously tackling both academic and athletic challenges; (2) the health and wellbeing of this population should be addressed, in particular, additional mental health support for student-athletes should be anticipated in this maelstrom of changes; (3) specific in-home virtual training during COVID-19 outbreak should be further strengthened and improved to protect the mental and physical health of the athletes, especially to reduce the risk of anxiety and depression.

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in disruptions of all areas of life, bringing the world to a standstill including sport events. How athletes, particularly student-athletes have been impacted and responded to such adversity, and how they can cope with this dramatic challenge is useful for coaches, clubs, parents, support staff and sporting bodies to understand many topics including crisis response, emotion regulation, coping strategies, resilience, mental health, and well-being of athletes.

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