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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone’s lives in one way or another, but student athletes have faced their own challenges. They pour their hearts into their sport but are unable to play this season following the NCAA’s decision to suspend all fall sports. This difficult decision hurts the student athletes on multiple levels, particularly mentally.

College can be considered the best four years of young adulthood with its extra curriculars, academics, personal freedom and devoted sports following. At JMU, sports are a passionate topic for fans, students and faculty. The student athletes welcomed to a team immediately join a family that they grow close to over the years and have a school that supports them with every win and loss.

Many student athletes rarely have the chance to travel or play for a full crowd in high school prior to coming to college, making the experience completely different when they come to JMU. Incoming freshman athletes look forward to this new experience, but now the excitement’s been put on a pause that leaves all teams disappointed.

JMU volleyball’s head coach Lauren Steinbrecher has been actively working alongside her team to have conversations about the importance of maintaining mental health. She’s been communicating specifically with the freshmen on the team and trying to build an early connection with them prior to having an actual season.

The team’s now faced with the hardship of practicing with no sign of upcoming competition ahead. However, individual students and entire teams are still making an effort to do the best they can to keep their skills as sharp as possible.

“I think that the first initial reaction was just sadness,” redshirt junior field hockey goalie Caitlin Nelson said. “We all of a sudden don’t get the opportunity to experience everything the university has to offer, including classes and games.”

Nelson would’ve begun her second season as a member of the field hockey team after transferring and redshirting following her freshman year. The NCAA has allowed for athletes to receive an extra year of eligibility despite the plans to attempt having fall sports play in the spring alongside regular spring seasonal play.

Team chemistry is more important than in previous years. Upperclassmen are forced to make different decisions about how to help foster team bonding. Many students have previously interacted with other students, both athletes and nonathletes. The lack of a season puts the seniors under higher stress. Not only are they helping freshman teammates adjust to a new life, but they’re also dealing with the potential loss of their final collegiate season.

“I definitely use my teammates as resources,” Nelson said. “I try to let them know what’s going on with me mentally. I definitely turn to my teammates who have my back to let them know and have that open conversation and know that they are going to hear me.”

JMU made the decision to pause all fall sports from practicing — with the exception of both basketball teams and women’s golf — for a minimum of two weeks. Days prior to this announcement, the university also made the decision to hold all online classes through Oct. 5 and send on-campus students home during that time frame as well.

Athletic Director Jeff Bourne made the announcement that fall student athletes are exempt from the order to leave campus to continue practices once they’re tested to be negative. However, both decisions made in a short period of time may be extremely stressful for the athletes.

“This past week we were lucky enough to have practices, so it was great to see them then,” Steinbrecher said. “We always have an open-door policy as well; we had a Zoom call with our freshmen following the announcement to check in and let them ask questions.”

Teams have relied more on continued use of Zoom to stay connected. Sources such as JMU Athletics’ Director of Sport Psychology Dr. Robert Harmison is an active help for the Dukes, providing counseling and other services to students during this time.

“We always make sure that if the freshmen do need anything they are always welcome to talk to us,” Nelson said. “We use FaceTime, Zoom or anything we can think of within putting anyone in danger to make sure they are doing okay and let them know they have options to talk to us.”

With practices currently on hold, the athletes are now relying on practicing on their own. Coaches are able to send information about keeping active through workouts similarly to how they communicated with athletes during quarantine and over spring and summer breaks. With teams holding out hope that there’ll be a spring season, athletes are doing what they can to stay motivated and in shape.

“The hardest part is definitely the uncertainty about if there will be a season or not,” Steinbrecher said. “But we’re really lucky our group is super motivated to play volleyball. So it’s one thing I never have to worry about because they would do anything to play.”

Freshmen have spoken about the difficulty of readjusting to a new life even after they’ve been told they’ll remain on campus. Many are quarantining and isolating to help stop the spread and prevent exposure while also having the hardship of leaving new friends made in residence halls and classes.

It’s a collaborative effort from everyone to help check in on student athletes in whatever ways possible. Without the ability to talk to nonathletes, coaches are becoming creative with ways to build chemistry even with the difficulties COVID-19 has presented them with.

“At JMU, I’ve had the ability to not only build my mental health but also maintain it,” freshman field hockey forward Brooke Wilson said. “I was able to ease into a new environment with the help of the coaches by providing peer assistance and doing a lot of team Zoom calls and being vulnerable during those calls.”

September is still mental health awareness month, and despite the pandemic, the student athletes are maintaining a strong mental health to keep themselves motivated while facing busy schedules. There’s no certainty of what winter and spring will hold even with the lack of announcements from the NCAA. However, to persevere when there’s nothing available and the only option is to wait for news takes mental strength through care and connection.

“I think our emotions really changed to just being resilient and facing it head-on,” Nelson said. “We know that everything happens for a reason and they’re doing this for our best interest. It’s not something that was to hurt us but rather push us to be better as a group.”

Contact Madison Hricik at hricikmn@dukes.jmu.edu. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.