Sports, mental health go hand-in-hand

Safety is priority No. 1.

And nos. 2-5, for that matter.

Especially when it comes to a global pandemic that shows no signs of slowing down.

We’ve also got other things to consider, though, as we sit on the eve of the high school sports season in Michigan and as we try to return to school in some way in the next couple of weeks.

Football practice starts on Monday in Michigan while volleyball, boys soccer, cross country, boys tennis, girls golf and girls swim start on Wednesday.

For now, practice begins largely as normal — with COVID-19 safety precautions all over the place.

Cross country, tennis and golf can begin competing between Aug. 19-21, as normal.

Football, volleyball, soccer and swim are on hold for competition until at least Aug. 20, pending a decision by the MHSAA as to what can happen.

We know everything — from a phased-in start, to a delay, to suspending some fall seasons — is on the table and there will be mixed reactions to whatever plan is set forth.

And if you think there are issues with fall sports, wait until winter. Have you ever tried to guard someone from six feet away in basketball?The only “COVID safe‘ winter sports are skiing and bowling. The rest are — basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer — are all about physical contact.

There’s a chance we might go almost a year without sports at the high school level.

There’s also a good chance the game will be changed medically with vaccines/treatments before 2020 expires.

That brings up why sports are more than just games for student-athletes. The benefits of all extra-curricular activities have long been documented because kids learn leadership, problem-solving, competition, etc. that they don’t necessarily get in the classroom.

I’ll add another hot topic to that — mental health.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison study released in May surveyed more than 3,200 young athletes across the Badger State a couple of months after schools were closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Reports of moderate to severe depression were up by more than 20 percent among those who took the survey at that time. According to researchers, this means 66,000 young athletes across the state could be at risk for depression.

Meanwhile, 65 percent of respondents reported feeling a level of anxiety that’s typically treated by medical intervention, said Dr. Timothy McGuine, who led the study.

“The worsening mental health and reduced quality-of-life scores reported by student-athletes in May can’t be attributed exclusively to the cancellation of organization athletics but it’s likely a factor,‘ McGuine said.

“There’s not a formula that’s one-size-fits-all for all schools, all districts, all counties in the state of Wisconsin but I think we need to be aware that there’s benefits and risks of continuing these closures and cancelations through the next school year.‘

Renee Brines, who will be a junior at Cadillac High School this fall, understands all of that.

Brines herself is in a good place mentally but she’s anxious, too, if she’s going to get to play the sport — volleyball — she loves this fall.

“I definitely see how those things could happen,‘ she said. “When you’re not in a sport…and that’s what a lot of us do…when you don’t have that, what else are you going to do?‘

Brines was playing AAU volleyball last March when everything shut down. She kept herself somewhat occupied with online schoolwork, setting a volleyball against the family’s basketball hoop and running a lot.

“I did sit around a lot, too,‘ she said.

The physical activity of sports is one factor but for high school kids, so, too, is the social aspect.“It’s just being around people,‘ Brines said. “I play volleyball all year, so it was really weird not having that. It’s just part of the routine for me.‘

She also lost out on track and field in the spring.

Brines is following what’s going on with the MHSAA and COVID. She’s got an inside source, too, as her mother, Michelle, is Cadillac’s longtime varsity volleyball coach.

“I talk to my mom a lot about the season and she’s very hopeful about it,‘ Brines said. “I can find out what Cadillac athletic director Mr. (Fred) Bryant and the MHSAA say.

“I’m pretty hopeful because she’s pretty hopeful. The stuff she tells me makes me hopeful.‘

One of the people in charge of that hope is MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl, who spent time on The Huge Show Wednesday giving an update as to where fall sports stand.

“What we’re hearing over and over and over again is student health and safety is at the forefront but what I hear almost as equally and aggressively is we also have the mental health of our kids to think about, as well,‘ Uyl said.

A handful of downstate districts are starting the school year entirely online because of COVID concerns and Lansing Public Schools on Thursday canceled all extra-curricular activities through the fall.

There’s no doubt a tough optic of trying to have sports if kids aren’t actually physically in school. Uyl and his staff understand that but they’re also trying to find safe ways to move forward.

“I’ve got a little mantle here on my desk that says ‘Kids Come First.’ If you’re really thinking about the needs of kids first then when it comes to some of those mental health issues that many of our young people have been dealing with for the last four months then you know what…giving them a safe avenue to connect with other students again, to connect with physical activity to get them moving and to have something to look forward to that’s positive right now,‘ Uyl said. “As long as we can do it safely…and we think that school-based athletics doing it the right way, I think is really going to pay off for a lot of our kids in their mental health and their overall health…certainly being mindful of the challenges of COVID.‘

Uyl agreed with the Wisconsin-Madison study, as well.

“You talk about all of the different (COVID) data and the things you’re balancing with this,‘ he said. “The health and safety of the athlete is the most important thing. We certainly know COVID is part of that but there are other health and safety factors that have to be part of this equation, too.

“So when you’re taking in all of this information, it’s certainly how do we stay as safe as we can in terms of COVID but yet we’ve got to look at the other part of kids’ health and welfare, especially that mental health piece. That, again, is why this is such a tough balance between the public health of COVID and the long-term mental health of our kids, too.‘

At this point, the MHSAA has time on its side, something it had little of last spring.

If fall sports have to be suspended or can’t happen, the plan is to go later in the school year with a changed calendar.

That means be ready for fall sports in March and April and baseball, softball, track and girls soccer in June and July.

That makes Brines feel better.

“I’m just going to go with the mindset that we’re having a season,‘ she said. “Honestly, I don’t care when our season is. I just want a full season…or even a few weeks cut down would be OK.‘

Cadillac News