The coronavirus era has had its way with college athletics, completing a tear down with record-setting physical, emotional and financial carnage.
Can any good come from the pandemic?
Ever the optimist, Dr. Doug Aukerman hopes that is the case. Oregon State’s senior athletic director for sports medicine anticipates a day where athletes can address their mental health with a coach as if it were ankle sprain.
“I hope we get to a point where it’s acceptable to pick a mental health day. Things get so overwhelming, things are so challenging that it’s not the end of the world to miss a day,” Aukerman said.
“Whether it’s the flu or we need a personal day to do some self-care, some work on our mental health … we need to make both of those equally acceptable. I’m hopeful that once we get through this whole coronavirus thing … that that piece sticks.”
For now, the pandemic is battling the mental well-being of college athletes. At Oregon State, the routine for football players has been eviscerated. They don’t know when their next practice, let alone game, will take place.
“It just throws everything off,” OSU junior safety David Morris said. “I came home (to Sherwood) just to get in a little normalcy because everything’s so messed up right now.”
It’s a familiar refrain heard during the past five months by Dr. Fernando Frias, Oregon State’s coordinator of sports psychology services. Frias says uncertainty and fear coming from the pandemic has led to a significant increase from OSU athletes for his services.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Frias said he was starting to see the stigma toward mental health erode. National focus on mental health and Oregon State’s Dam Worth It – a athlete-drive campaign focusing on mental health issues – is leading athletes to seek advice and, in some cases, treatment from university psychological counselors.
The loss of routine among athletes is a significant topic of discussion for Frias during the past five months. Student-athletes have among the most regimented schedules on campus, from class to study to practice, games and travel. The outbreak has taken away much of the routine, and with it, human interaction.
“The very nature of athletics is it’s a social endeavor, right?” Frias said. “We thrive with human connection. I’ve noticed a lot of people come in looking for that loss of camaraderie.”
For many athletes, the solution is straight forward: maintain routines. That includes regular sleep, diet and exercise. Frias also encourages athletes to remain social, even if it’s often through video conferencing.
“In this time where so much is out of our control, I encourage people to focus on things we can control,” Frias said.
Frias says he also encourages athletes during the pandemic to “diversify one’s social portfolio.” Athletes often spend much of their time around other athletes. Frias asks athletes to think about broadening their circle to outside athletics.
“When sports does return, we return stronger both athletically and personally,” he said.
Frias said OSU athletes have access to anyone in the counseling center, but he’s often requested because of his background in athletics. Frias is the only counselor with an office in Gill Coliseum, though he also works from an office in Snell Hall.
Frias said Oregon State coaches are supportive of his role. They often reach out to Frias for suggestions about communications and red flags. During the pandemic, coaches have occasionally invited Frias to participate in Zoom meetings with the team to talk about ways to manage mental health.
Frias believes someday Aukerman’s hope will come true. Frias said even before the pandemic, coaches and athletes were beginning to communicate a little more about mental health issues.
“The more these conversations happen, the more that we’re going to view mental health in the same way we view physical health,” Frias said.
–Nick Daschel 5/8 firstname.lastname@example.org 5/8 @nickdaschel
Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories.
©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.