By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There will be a gathering offered to the nearly 1,000 student-athletes who call themselves Wolverines late Monday afternoon (March 30). However, it won’t be at Michigan Stadium, Crisler Center, Yost Ice Arena, Fisher Stadium or Alumni Field.
It will be on the Internet — a webinar hosted by University of Michigan assistant director of athletic counseling Abigail Eiler — and they will congregate on their laptops, phones and other devices to learn and discuss what they’re all dealing with. The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the NCAA canceling the remainder of the winter and spring sports seasons March 12, and life has been an adjustment ever since.
The webinar, focused more on seniors but available and relatable to every class, will connect them all again, the vast majority of whom have left campus and are now in nearly every state in the U.S., and countries on different continents.
“It’s called ‘Managing My Mental Health After Collegiate Athletics,’ ” said Eiler, who works with counseling director Greg Harden and oversees day-to-day counseling operations. “It’ll be live next Monday. I mean, there are a lot of moving pieces, right? We’ve got a lot of student-athletes who have located back to home, those remaining in off-campus housing and the dorms.”
That webinar is just one example of what staffs in various athletic department offices are offering Michigan student-athletes as coping mechanisms.
Eiler said: “We quickly went into a crisis-management approach, figuring out what kind of help they needed academically, mental health, nutritional, medical, those on rehab. We had to consider all of that. So, we are trying to support them to the best of our ability regardless of where they are.”
Athletes, perhaps as much anyone, are creatures of routine and habit. But now they have no games to play, facilities open to them for conditioning and practice or even classes to attend. They take those classes online now.
Eiler and other mental health counselors attended all of the team meetings held by head coaches to announce what had happened two weeks ago, and she’ll never forget them. She recalled the “sadness” and the “stages of grief and denial” that come with traumatic life events.
“The women’s gymnastics team broke two records this year for their season (highest team scoring average, 197.128, and vault, 49.32),” said Eiler, “and were on the way to do big things at the NCAA (Tournament as the No. 5-ranked team nationally). In speaking with the teams, that was the time when there were tears in my eyes. They’re done.
“For all of them, there was this shock and disbelief in what was happening. The connection, support and compassion that they had for each other was really powerful. And, over the next three days, they went from being extremely happy and upbeat to wanting to do anything they could to change this situation to eventual acceptance. ‘This is going to be OK. We don’t like this; we’re not happy about this. But we’re going to be OK.’ Their resiliency shines through really quick even though it was a pretty significant loss for all of them.”
From left: Harden, Eiler and Tiana Luton.
NCAA and Big Ten tournaments were called right in the middle of competition.
“The immediate response of our (mental health) team was to be present and offer counseling for our student-athletes,” said Eiler. “Their seasons were ending, and in some cases, their careers were ending. Those who weren’t in their seasons were asking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what happens now?’ There was so much unknown, and we needed to help them adjust to the best of their ability and the best of our ability.
“One of the best things about them is that they are so good at adjusting and persevering through difficult things. So, we had to ask, ‘How do we put their skills to work to adjust?’ “
The University of Michigan and Ann Arbor Pioneer High graduate said the words of one senior participating in a women’s sport made a particularly lasting impact.
Eiler recalled: “Her response was, ‘Who am I now?’ It’s such a huge shift in identity — one that is typically well thought out and planned and organized in how we celebrate our seniors and their transition into life post-collegiate sports.”
There is no quick fix to answer that question, but counseling and teaching new skills have helped. “Who am I now?” is one of the components to Monday’s webinar.
“She’s actually doing very well right now,” Eiler said of that senior. “It’s about establishing that new routine, healthy eating (with the help of Michigan director of performance nutrition Caroline Mandel) and staying connected. Our student-athletes know that we are available to them at any time.”
“What we did was give them the immediate skills to navigate through crisis. Also, helping them find hobbies and a sense of self outside of sport.”
Eiler was a Michigan undergrad when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred in 2001 and said similarities exist between then and now.
“The correlation that I see is the sadness, worry and concern for each other,” said Eiler. “And a concern for our country.”
Wolverine counselors are continuing “face-to-face” talks with those remaining in the area, but Eiler added that is “a small percentage” of the overall group. Eiler noted that “my clinical license is in Michigan” for “psycho-therapy” sessions, and she can’t conduct therapy with student-athletes who’ve left the state.
It’s an obstacle collegiate counselors nationwide are encountering.
“Those out of this state that we’d already established care with or any new things that came up, we’ve been able to provide support with them and check in with them,” said Eiler. “But we’re not able to engage in therapeutic interventions across state lines right now – which is a huge barrier.”
She noted that it’s been “a huge disruption” for many student-athletes receiving therapy.
“That increases how much we’re checking in with them or how much they’re contacting us,” said Eiler. “If they need local care, then we are connecting them with somebody locally.”
Michigan has a list of 300 providers worldwide as referrals. However, it also takes time to develop the two-way trust necessary in therapy.
“But it’s a sense of relief to know that student-athletes all over the world are in this together,” said Eiler, “and are supporting one another, and that actually helped manage some of the mental health issues that we were seeing before this crisis.”
Eiler said she’s been coordinating with the National Association of Social Workers in regard to that organization’s efforts in working with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and other licensing boards across the country in hopes to “open up that interstate ability to practice” in a pandemic and national emergency.
Student-athletes also have the need to connect with their teammates and coaches, and Eiler said many teams are having “group BlueJeans” network video conferencing.
On Wednesday (March 25), Michigan softball head coach Carol Hutchins tweeted a photo of just such a video connection:
Eiler said one group of students had a FaceTime brunch together as a class.
She added, “We’re so used to seeing each other socially every day and have to figure out ways to maintain that. People are going to get to know each other on a much different level, and it’s only going to strengthen the student-athlete experience.”
Student-athletes now also must individually create structures for athletics and academics that had been provided them before in group schedules.
“The big thing is to establish a routine in all areas,” said Eiler. “Some of it’s trial-and-error or having a sounding board, where we can help them do that online. We know student-athletes thrive through routines, and now that routine is going to look very different for everyone. Flexibility is important there.”
What’s the most important point she would like to convey during this challenging time?
“I think it’s taking time to reflect on each of our individual experiences,” said Eiler, “and taking time to improve oneself while connecting with others. Our mental health, across the board, is being significantly impacted by this current pandemic, and so establishing a routine and practicing self-care is instrumental (to success).”
She believes most are effectively establishing new routines, but said those now back home in California are having to take an online class with an 8 a.m. start in Ann Arbor at 5 a.m. local time.
“And we’ve got people all over the world (with even more drastic time differences),” said Eiler, “but I think most are doing relatively well.”
Monday’s webinar will provide every student-athlete who wants to connect with Eiler and others the opportunity to do so.
Eiler said: “We’ll really look at how you take care of yourself after sports — how do you engage in mental health services, find a provider should you need one, find a balanced routine, take care of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health, if that’s applicable.
“So, we’ll go into all different domains of life and also give them some skills that hopefully will resonate with them and keep them motivated moving forward as they face and venture on into adulthood post-collegiate sports, knowing they’ll always be connected to the Michigan family.”
- Public health expert warns virus not going away – KSAT San Antonio
- Tesla asks employees to resume production at Fremont car plant despite coronavirus health orders – CNBC
- Major health groups and charities urge Trump to reverse World Health Organization funding decision – CNN
- Public health officials push back on May opening | TheHill – The Hill
- Analysis | The Health 202: Los Angeles is racing to discover the true coronavirus infection rate – The Washington Post
- Some Public Health Officials Not Releasing Coronavirus Hospitalizations : Shots – Health News – NPR
- Covid-19 health-care crisis could drive new developments in robotics, editorial says – The Washington Post
- Lost Your Health Insurance During the COVID-19 Crisis? Here Are Your Options – The Motley Fool
- El Paso virus cases jump to 35 as health leaders warn of increased risk of ‘community spread’ – KVIA El Paso