[SPORTS OPINION] Sports provide necessary exercise, improved mental health amid pandemic

The+resumption+of+school+winter+sports+offers+students+the+chance+to+get+activity+and+connect+to+the+SPA+community+during+the+COVID+pandemic.+

Jonas Bray

The resumption of school winter sports offers students the chance to get activity and connect to the SPA community during the COVID pandemic.

On Jan. 4th, teams across the state and at St. Paul Academy resumed winter sport practices and activities after the completion of a month-long pause which had been implemented by Governor Tim Walz in late November. After a month of anticipation, players were introduced to stronger COVID-19 protocol as they ran, skated, and skied with their teammates and coaches once again. This protocol included measures such as mask-wearing while playing, restricted locker room access, and a further emphasis on social distancing in order to keep the students in the game and, more importantly, safe. The decision to allow sports to come back, along with the protocol that has been put in place, is one that should be celebrated especially due to the fact that it comes at such an important moment. In a time of isolation and uncertainty, the safe return of high school sports brings a sense of familiarity and a crucial connection for students back to the school community.

For students at Saint Paul Academy and Summit School, school in late November and early December often feels like a 400-meter sprint as semester one comes to a close with capstone projects and exams, all while the harshness of a Minnesota winter moves in with grey skies and snowstorms. Add on top of that all of the effects of the global pandemic creating long days of online classes followed by severely limited options for after school activities, and it is clear to see why this was a time of great stress in the community. The numbers from several mental health organizations show that this feeling of stress and anxiety during the pandemic is one that is tangible and that what we were doing to fight the virus, in the majority of 2020, severely exacerbated mental health issues for teenagers around the country.

A Gallup poll in early December found that the mental health of Americans had hit a 20-year low. Not only that but visits to the doctor over mental health problems increased as well. According to research from the CDC, “Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health–related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years [in 2020] increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively.” Finally, in this time of great isolation and limited social interaction, the Mental Health Association found in their poll that “In November, 53 percent of those 11 to 17 years old reported—so more than half of them—having frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm.”

It is crucial to create opportunities for students to safely connect in-person with their classmates and teammates. One of these opportunities comes in the form of the return of school sports which not only create a social atmosphere, but also an avenue for students to exercise which has been shown to have significant benefits for mental health.”

Teenage mental health during the pandemic has taken a large hit, especially for athletes. A recent May 2020 survey of over 13 000 student-athletes found that 40% reported moderate to severe depression symptoms and 37% reported moderate to severe anxiety.

From this data, it is clear that complete lockdowns, while helpful in the fight to lower COVID-19 numbers, are detrimental to the mental health of teenagers around the country. Because of this, it is crucial to create opportunities for students to safely connect in-person with their classmates and teammates. One of these opportunities comes in the form of the return of school sports which not only create a social atmosphere, but also an avenue for students to exercise which has been shown to have significant benefits for mental health. Giving students the chance to get back on the field, court, and rink, allows them to get needed exercise and time in a social space.

COVID-19 has already taken away a spring sports season, a prom, a homecoming, and social activity for many students across the country leading to record levels of poor mental health. By safely bringing back the winter sports season, a sense of normality and connection is brought back as well, as students begin to focus on the things they can do rather than dwell on the things they cannot.