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Sports psychologist discusses mental impact of COVID-19 on high school athletes

Posted at 6:51 PM, May 01, 2020

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Over the past month and a half 3 News Now has shared stories about how the coronavirus is affecting high school activities such as prom and high school sports. But how are these high schoolers supposed to handle these changes mentally?

“A lot of our kids haven’t had a lot of tough times in their life so when something like this comes along it really hits them extra hard,” said Jack Stark, a psychologist who specializes in sports and mental health issues. Stark has worked with Nebraska football, Creighton basketball, Olympic athletes and NASCAR drivers among others over his renowned 40-year career. “You think about what are the most important things in your high school career, it’s usually your senior year. Your senior year is defined by proms, award ceremonies, graduation and some individuals their senior year of sports.”

Stark said it’s important for high school seniors to have closure before starting a new chapter in college.

“It makes them profoundly sad because those are the memories you cherish forever,” Stark said. “Remember those special moments. It has a big impact on your self esteem and self confidence. Remember our personalities tend to be pretty well formed by the time you’re 18 or 19. When you get a big hit like this you’re not able to finish. People like to have closure to their high school memories and that has been short-circuited. You weren’t able to say goodbye to your friends or teachers and it leaves a big backing to a lot of people.”

Erin Morrissey is one of the students affected in the Omaha area. A senior at Millard North, Morrissey has been playing soccer since she was 4 years old and was looking forward to competing on varsity and contending for a state championship in 2020.

“It gives me motivation to get through the day and gives me something to look forward to,” Morrissey said. “It’s basically my whole world.”

Morrissey said when she found out it her season was canceled she was in a state of shock.

“You’re hoping for the best but you know it won’t happen,” Morrissey said.

Another group the cancellation affected were the student-athletes who just finished up their junior year of school. These students normally rely on game film and statistics from their junior season to get recruited to college.

“A lot of kids this is where they get looked at and get offers and they can’t tour and visit college campuses,” Stark said. “You’re committing four years of your life.”

Even for non-athletes, the cancellation of school events and activities can be hard on students. Stark said it’s important for high schoolers to talk about how they feel with friends, family and mentors. He recommends high schoolers practice mental skills, visualization and relaxation techniques while home and also said it’s important for high school seniors down the road to reconnect and say goodbye to coaches and teachers to help cope with the closure.

“Refocus your brain, think about the good things you have going on and stay active,” Stark said.

Morrissey gets to continue her soccer career in college and is playing at Kansas State this fall. She’s spending her free time training mentally and physically for the collegiate game. However, she said she will still be there for her high school teammates who lost their 2020 season.

“Since it was cut short for us we’re always going to be there for them because we don’t want them to feel the way we feel since we don’t get to play anymore,” Morrissey said.

Watch reporter Phil Bergman’s story in the above video.