INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Michigan State forward Malik Hall noticed the difference during games in the height of the pandemic. Coach Tom Izzo saw issues percolating in other areas of player's lives.
In a season when athletes faced daily testing, regular isolation and quarantines, even uncertainty about whether games would be played or which teammates would be available, Izzo and other basketball coaches sensed the stress was taking a physical and mental toll on their players.
“We definitely didn’t have as strong of bodies," Izzo said Friday as Big Ten media days wrapped up. “Then when you struggle a little bit, mentally — as we all know mental health is getting to be a big issue — certain kids handled it, certain kids didn’t handle it."
Izzo and his colleagues didn't hesitate to sound the alarm, either.
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren told The Associated Press he heard routinely from concerned football and basketball coaches about what they were witnessing on campus last year. It led to daily meetings at league headquarters about issues ranging from the lack of exercise during the initial lockdowns to players coping with family members who contracted or died from the coronavirus and the uncertainty of what might happen if they went home.
Now Warren wants to take those lessons and use them to build a stronger future for athletes and students everywhere.
“What I learned most importantly is that we as a country, as a people, need to make sure we focus on the mental health of all people but especially our young people and our student-athletes and all of our students as much as we do on their physical health,” he said.
Suicide rates among young people and more questions about the long-term impact of concussions have put the topic into the headlines and prominent athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are making public their struggles with staying mentally healthy. Even the NFL's Indianapolis Colts have embraced the mission with team owner Jim Irsay's campaign to Kick The Stigma.
Still, finding answers has proven elusive — even for staunch advocates such as Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann.
In February 2020, Holtmann delivered an impassioned postgame message supporting guard D.J. Carton's decision to take a three-week leave of absence from school. He never played another game for the Buckeyes, instead transferring last season.
Holtmann started detecting other troubling signs within other players last season.
“You could really see guys who were struggling with whatever it was,” he said. “The grind of the season, not playing in front of fans, the daily testing. College kids don’t always love to get up and get a test at 7:30 a.m. every day. When you do that six days a week, it can take a toll. It made you aware, in some cases, your kids go through a lot of things maybe you can be oblivious to.”
Wisconsin forward Julie Pospisilova grew up in the Czech Republic and called the hardest part of the COVID-19 restrictions being told to stay home. Teammate Sydney Hilliard found the bigger challenge was Wisconsin's harsh winter weather.
“It was especially isolating in the winter because nobody had the motivation to go out in the snow to go to practice,” Hilliard said.
Yet all of it made an impact — sometimes on the court.
“I didn't think we were connected last season," Hall said when asked about the impact he saw at Michigan State. “I think being connected would have solved a lot of different issues. So it was partly our fault and partly not our fault."
So in an effort to prioritize mental health, Warren is offering the Calm app free to all conference athletes. So far, Warren said, players have logged more than 650,000 sessions and gained some prominent proponents like Indiana point guard Rob Phinisee.
After enduring another injury-plagued season, Phinisee used the offseason strengthening his mind by reading books such as “Intentional Mindset: Developing Mental Tenacity and a Killer Instinct” and using Calm routinely.
“It really is something that helps me with my mindset every day," he said before the Hoosiers played in the Bahamas this summer. “I really take it day by day — just waking up in the morning, really setting your goals out to win each day."
And in some cases, the challenges players and coaches faced over the previous 20 months may make this season's bonds tighter and a more typical season a welcome change.
“During times like that, it’s probably the best time to be around your team," Purdue forward Trevion Williams said. “For me, that’s what helped the most, trying to be with them as much as possible. At the end of the day, although there are distractions off the court, they are the ones you with. Just being with them helps."