The cancellation of Ivy League athletics due to the coronavirus has provided a respite for some of Harvard’s student-athletes, while causing others to lose their sense of purpose, they said.
During normal times, Harvard athletes spend several hours each day with their teammates on campus practicing their sport. Now, during the pandemic, they spend their time doing at-home workouts, interacting with teammates and coaches over Zoom, and trying to fill the void left by the absence of competition.
To recreate his experience on campus, football player Eric J. Wilson ’21 said he and four of his teammates lived together in Bethany Beach, Del. this semester, training together at a local gym and on the beach. His team also tried to stay connected through virtual chess and video game competitions.
Still, Wilson said the experience did not compare to playing football at Harvard.
“When you work your whole life for something, and then you’re told you can’t play, or you can’t participate in it...that just compounds and adds onto itself, kind of creating a dumpster fire of a semester for mental health,” he said.
“It’s not due to a lack of support from the school, from the football team,” he added. “It’s just — it’s so hard.”
Harvard’s Athletics Department offers a host of resources to support student-athlete mental health.
In 2019, the department teamed up with Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services to launch the Crimson Mind and Body Performance Program, which provides mental health services tailored to undergraduates on varsity sports teams.
Darryl Lemus and Melissa Nauman, Harvard mental health clinicians who work with student-athletes and coaches, wrote in an emailed statement that the program’s staff members are “working hard” to provide support for student-athletes regardless of where they are living this semester.
“We continue to offer our services virtually, including one-on-one therapy, workshops and team talks,” they wrote. “We have adjusted the themes of our programming to address current student-athlete stressors, including issues of loss of sports season, decreased structure, and a lack of physical contact with teammates.”
To support athletes during the pandemic, Harvard Athletics emails bi-monthly newsletters to athletes offering miscellaneous health information, ranging from nutritional tips on “building your plate” to single-leg strengthening exercises.
Even so, Student-Athlete Advisory Committee president Matthew R. Thomas ’21 said the discontinuation of athletics has eroded his “sense of identity.”
“Without a larger goal in mind or other people to know that I am working towards it with, it’s hard to sometimes find my footing and realize my motivation for doing what I do,” Thomas said.
“As a senior, all of that is only magnified now, knowing I may never do that again,” he added.
To promote athlete mental health, last year SAAC unveiled the Student-Athlete Wellness Leader program — which designates an athlete on each of Harvard’s varsity teams to help their teammates navigate the University’s health and wellness resources.
Heavyweight rower Jillian T. McEneaney ’21 said the semester’s remote format has limited her role as a head Student-Athlete Wellness Leader.
“Normally, whereas I’d see everyone on my team every day and get to have a personal conversation with them all, it’s been much more difficult to reach out and see how people are doing,” she said.
Without the ability to refer student-athletes to in-person wellness resources — such as workshops led by CAMHS clinicians — Student-Athlete Wellness Leaders are left to recommend online resources to their peers, according to McEneaney.
“We direct them to more online resources, but it’s not the same effect,” she said. “A lot of people say they’d rather not have an impersonal discussion online instead of being face-to-face with CAMHS providers.”
Women of Harvard Athletics, a student-run organization that aims to support female student-athletes, has also offered mental health support during the pandemic, per fencer Maria A. Theodore ’23, one of the group’s board members.
In September, the group hosted an event on the subject of “intuitive eating” — an issue Theodore said she believes is particularly salient during quarantine.
“What I struggled with at the beginning was not training all the time. I have to fuel my body differently. I'm not burning as many calories as I was on campus so I need to kind of adjust,” she said. “That became a little stressful and I was like, ‘I can’t have this, I can have this, I can't have this.’ And it was taking a toll.”
While some student-athletes said they miss the structure and purpose that sports provided them, others said the pandemic has given them a break from their lives on campus — when they juggled Harvard academics and Division I athletics.
Theodore said she had developed fatigue from giving “100 percent on both athletics and academics” on campus.
“I’ve taken more time for myself and care for myself,” she said. “I think it has allowed me to breathe a little bit more and gather my thoughts a little bit better.”
To prioritize her mental health this past semester, Theodore said she takes walks, practices yoga, and sings.
Harvard women’s basketball and lacrosse player Margaret P. “Maggie” McCarthy ’22 said she has taken advantage of the cancelation of sports to pursue new opportunities. McCarthy, who is on a gap year, spent a month backpacking in Colorado.
“I've always been on the go and working to the next thing, but I never imagined taking a gap year, but now I have the opportunity to do that,” she said.
Theodore, a Classics concentrator, said she has adopted the Latin phrase “mens sana in corpore sano ”as her motto during the pandemic. It translates to “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”
—Staff writer Alex Koller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.