Kenzie Mitchell: The Pandemic That Ruined College Sports & Our Mental Health

Kenzie first published this piece on her personal blog in February 2021. 

About two weeks ago, we started the Spring 2021 semester fully virtual. I had a professor ask me to introduce myself to my classmates. I was required to answer two questions:

1) Who are you?

2) Why are you here?

I answered the question of “who are you” without hesitation by stating: “I am a student-athlete,” followed by, “I am here because I got recruited to play soccer”.

Sports have been a part of my entire life. It’s a major reason I picked my university. It had an enormous impact on my future career and the major I chose. I identify myself through my participation of athletics, and it has made me the person that I am.

I built my life around being a student-athlete and I have gotten extremely comfortable with the lifestyle. However, the instant I stepped away from that life I have always lived, things fell apart.

I spent the spring semester of my sophomore year in my childhood bedroom. We had Zoom calls here and there with our teammates and coaches, but it didn’t suffice for the hours a day we would spend with each other normally.

I quickly learned that the soccer field was truly my safe haven. As soon as I cross that white line and lace up my cleats, all of my worries in the world become smaller. I use soccer as my escapism from anxiety, and I play soccer because the competitive, beautiful game releases serotonin for me like nothing else can.

The lifestyle of being a student-athlete is what got me out of bed in the morning. But, I lost that drive and I lost my purpose.

Let’s fast forward to the summer when I found out that I wasn’t having a Fall season. I vividly remember the nervous hope expressed by the soft smiles of my teammates when we were all together on that Zoom call. I really thought that we were going to have a season. We all did.

But, to my surprise, my head coach proceeded to tell us the complete opposite news. Our 2020 Fall season was cancelled.

I was devastated. My eyes filled with tears and my heart sank. After the coaches left the meeting, a majority of my teammates stayed on the call to mourn together from a distance. It was incredibly difficult to hear such news without the physical comfort of each other. You see, if I ever had a bad day at school, I could step into my locker room knowing damn well I had 29 shoulders to cry on. I also knew that my coach’s door was always open to chat. But I didn’t have that luxury anymore.

I didn’t get out of bed for three days after that. It was hard for me to eat and fully accept the situation as it was. I delt with the guilt of not appreciating my last spring practice. I dealt with the fact that I wouldn’t ever get to play with the seniors again. I’d do anything for another game with them.

When I arrived back to school, I embraced the situation and decided to run with it. I forced myself to develop the mindset that I had to make the most of the cards I was delt. I had a moment of clarity and I found my silver lining. I learned more about myself and my friends than I ever have before. When you take the time to get to know people and listen and converse and observe them, they can have a great impact on you.

Like you really begin to care about them.

When you sit with yourself for months on end, you discover the roots of so many of your issues. That is time to myself would have never been possible without the pandemic, if my world had just continued at its fast pace.

Forcing an attitude or a mindset isn’t always easy though. I will be the first one to admit that. It got extremely exhausting mentally, as well as physically. Each and every practice, my teammates and I showed up and worked incredibly hard in hopes that our Fall season would be moved to the Spring. We showed up for each other. We followed rules for each other. It has always been a ‘we over me’ mentality.

Towards the end of the semester, there was COVID outbreak on my team. It was bound to happen. We lift on the same racks, we live together, we eat together, and we are each other’s best friends. Obviously, we were all forced to quarantine. This is when things really started getting tough, and it was difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Towards the end of November, the days started getting shorter and the sun started setting sooner. I woke up, joined my Zooms in bed, did more work, went to virtual therapy, and by that time, I would look at the clock and it would be 5pm and I still hadn’t eaten a thing. The days started to blend together. There was no structure, and what felt like no support.

On the second day of quarantine, I found out that my Spring season was cancelled. Once again, there was no one to hug or to mourn with. We were all individually left to feel the hurt all over again, but this time, alone, sick, and quarantined. I laid depressed in my frigid third-floor attic during one of the darkest times of my college experience.

I have never felt so alone in my life. My intrusive thoughts were shouting at me. It felt like everything that I had worked for in the past eight months were for nothing.

I think one of the most frustrating parts about this situation was that I saw other people playing. I saw some of my friends that play at different schools having an entire season. I saw their snapchat stories where they posted game day hair, followed by sick goal highlights on Instagram. It was just like… how are they allowed to play but we aren’t? Unfortunately, we didn’t get the opportunity to have a season like they did. It hurt that I wasn’t playing, but it hurt even more to see others doing so.

I felt like I put so much effort in, built up so much hope and excitement just for it to be stripped away from me. We wanted to play. So badly. I would do anything to have my name announced on that loud speaker, run a full 90 minutes on that turf field in Robb Sports Complex in 90 degree weather.

People like us rely on our sport. It has been a part of our identities our whole lives. To have that taken so abruptly, and a lack of support –we have mentally and physically suffered internal conflicts.

The NCAA recently conducted a study called the NCAA Student- Athlete Well-Being Study.

Just a few of their findings:

93% of women and 78% of men felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.

85% of women and 66% of men felt mentally exhausted.

38% of women and 24% of men felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.

I’m going to repeat that so you can hear that statistic again. 38% of women and 24% of men felt so depressed that it was difficult to function. There were 24,974 student-athletes that participated in this survey, so I will let you do the mental math to come to the conclusion that I’m talking about thousands of these student-athletes having these collective feelings.

I hope you know how many student-athletes feel like they have lost themselves. I hope you know how many of us have struggled to get out of bed in the morning because we feel like we don’t have a purpose anymore. I hope you know that there are student- athletes who feel like they cannot eat because they haven’t played to earn those calories. I hope you know that some of us are so depressed that we don’t know how much longer we can go. It is sad and it is scary to have these feelings, but what hurts the most is that I feel like no one is paying attention to them.

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