One of the things I enjoyed most about high school was participating in organized sports. I ran cross country and track year-round throughout all four years, and my experience competing changed my life. I made so many new friends, most of whom are still my closest friends to this day, and I learned how to challenge myself. It taught me valuable lessons like how to work as a team, how to communicate with others and how to push myself to be the best teammate and person possible. Although I owe much to organized sports, they did not prepare me for adapting to life after running.
Once the pandemic forced schools to switch to online learning, my final season of high school track was cut short. I knew I wouldn’t be a competitive runner forever, but I didn’t expect to lose my team so soon. As weeks trickled into months of no practice, my hopes of finishing the season dwindled. I lost motivation and missed the structure organized sports provided. Although my coaches could never have planned for this to happen, I was angry that they had not given us any direction as to how to be active without practices. As the pandemic continues, it is evident that coaches have not given their athletes the necessary resources to continue an active lifestyle after school sports come to an end. A greater emphasis must be made on helping athletes find substitutes for what would otherwise be time spent at practice.
Ciara Summersgill, the Virginia Tech Running Club Women’s Distance captain, reflected on her experience with organized sports and her time with the club.
“Being a part of Club Running has shaped my college experience,” Summersgill said. “I’m a senior, and the best memories I have from college are from club events. Organized sports kept me in shape by allowing me to do something I love, while making lifelong friendships along the way.”
However, the indefinite pause in practices caused by the COVID-19 pandemic did not come without its challenges.
“Trying to stay motivated to run was difficult,” Summersgill said. “Being able to run with teammates makes running 100% easier and overall more enjoyable.”
Playing an organized sport is hard, but practicing without the instruction of a coach is exponentially harder. On my high school team, we were required to run on our own once a week, typically the day after competition. My teammates and I dreaded the infamous run-on-your-own days because it was so hard to not only run by yourself, but also to maintain motivation. After these days turned into run-on-your-own months, I found it hard to hold myself accountable without a schedule and the excitement of seeing my teammates at practice.
Not only is it easy to lose motivation, but abruptly stopping something so consistent as organized sports can change an athlete’s body and mentality.
“After taking some time off, your body and mind don’t get the usual endorphins from the ‘runner’s high,’ and it can become very apparent in day to day life, especially during quarantine,” Summersgill said.
The body and mind feed off of exercise. It lowers stress, keeps the body healthy and can be an escape from reality when it is needed the most. Once you stop exercising, however, it can be hard to find a replacement. Some athletes, especially runners, may often experience changes in their bodies as well. Because organized sports can be physically demanding, some athletes may experience weight gain and muscle loss once these sports stop. A delayed puberty can also occur in some female athletes after they stop partaking in organized sports. As my body began to change after running, I was struck by the fact that no one had prepared me for weight gain and loss of muscle. It is imperative that organized sports prepare athletes for all the physical changes that may follow.
Summersgill was one of many who missed the structure provided by organized sports.
“College gives us the most sporadic and busy schedules we will ever have in our lives,” Summersgill said. “Having a practice to go to every day gave me (something) constant to look forward to. It gave me a safe place I felt welcomed at, an adequate amount of socialization and kept my mind happy and healthy.”
The role organized sports play in the lives of athletes is much bigger than most people expect. Many athletes train every day for hours on end, so when they can no longer train, they are left feeling lost, desperately seeking new ways to fill that void. While coaches focus primarily on preparing their athletes for their next meet, it is important that there is a greater emphasis on preparing athletes for life after organized sports. For this to happen, more resources must be available to help athletes develop their own schedules so that they can continue to train while they are not actively competing.
Not knowing what to do after participating in organized sports can be incredibly frustrating. I tried many different activities, from biking to yoga to HITT exercises, but I couldn’t help missing the feeling of competing with my team. If an athlete is feeling lost, Summersgill has advice for where to start.
“Keep up with playing the sport you love,” Summersgill said. “Get together with friends and family who also enjoy the sport. The best thing you can do for yourself is to keep that constant in your life. Do what makes you happy.”