If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.

Normalcy has been tough to come by during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for school-age children whose classroom routines haven’t been the same in nearly six months.

That loss has been compounded for Maine’s sports-minded youth by the loss of their after-school passions, beginning with the spring sports season and now stretching into the start of fall activities.

The Maine Principals’ Association is working with several state agencies to develop safety guidelines to address the coronavirus threat in an effort to offer interscholastic sports this fall. In the meantime, student-athletes remain detached from that environment, and not only from the competition but from close relationships with teammates and coaches.

“When we talk about something like athletics being taken away, for somebody that’s far apart from that experience it can be like ‘What’s the big deal, it’s just a game,’” said John Quinn, a pediatric psychiatric clinician at Northern Light Acadia Hospital in Bangor. “But for those kids that are in it and are in that developmental stage it can be such an important part of their identity, such an important part of how they navigate through school and the after-school times.”

John Quinn, pediatric psychiatric clinician at Northern Light Acadia Hospital in Bangor. Credit: Courtesy of John Quinn

Quinn stressed that having those outlets taken away can create challenges at home and at school in terms of mental health.

That sentiment is reinforced by a nationwide study conducted by the University of Wisconsin during the coronavirus pandemic. Approximately two-thirds of 3,243 high school student-athletes surveyed who had lost the chance to play a spring sport reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that in most cases would require medical attention, the report said.

“This is a piece of the puzzle that everybody needs to consider when they decide whether or not to move forward [with restoring sports],” said Tim McGwine, UW Health athletic trainer and lead researcher on the project.

The study also reported that physical activity levels were 50 percent lower than they were for the respondents prior to the pandemic and cited quality-of-life scores lower than researchers had ever found in similar studies of adolescents.

“The common denominator is this idea that kids don’t do well when they’re isolated and withdrawn from the people and activities that are important to them,” Quinn said. “Those are pretty big protective factors for kids. That doesn’t mean that a team or after-school activity is the only way to achieve those protective factors, but take those things away and it does have an impact on kids.”

Quinn said one key to helping young athletes cope with their loss of normalcy in sports is the support of those closest to them. That often includes not only parents and close friends, but coaches.

“Coaches are really up there in terms of having contact with kids, really knowing who kids are and recognizing when things aren’t going well,” Quinn said.

Listening skills, a positive attitude and an alert eye are pivotal qualities when interacting with athletes who may be struggling without sports or other activities that have become central to their lives.

“That listening is really asking questions about their experience, checking for your own understanding as the person talking to the athlete, trying to avoid assuming what their response to this loss might look like, or bringing your own emotional response in right away, and just providing them a space for them to be heard,” Quinn said.

Quinn said parents, friends and coaches also can help athletes address the loss of a favorite activity by helping them find other things that provide a similar sense of satisfaction and community.

“Where else can we find those social aspects of working with other people to help fill some of that gap and build up some of those pieces of resiliency?” Quinn said. “I think a lot of kids already are diversifying some of those activities and interests.”

He stressed that struggling student-athletes should be reminded that plenty of their peers are facing the same challenges in not having access to a sport they have come to love.

“There’s a big spectrum of typical and normal and it’s really important for kids to know that they’re not alone in how they’re feeling,” he said.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...