Keeping Spirits Fit During COVID

Posted in Crosswalk, Summer 2020, News Briefs

When college sporting events were suspended and the campus closed, it became more important than ever for Drexel Athletics’ nutrition and mental health experts to help student-athletes care for their minds and bodies.

Even in the best of times, the work undertaken by the Drexel Athletics sport performance team is vital. But in this unprecedented stretch of sheltering at home, the contributions of staff from sports medicine, athletic training, academics, strength and conditioning, sports psychology and sports nutrition is even more critical.

“These kids are processing a lot right now, so we want to take care of them holistically,” says Andrea Irvine, a sports dietician and assistant director of the Center for Nutrition and Performance. “One of the biggest things for us to do is let them know that no one’s left them.”

Since its creation in 2016, the sport performance team has worked with Drexel’s student-athletes to improve all aspects of their lives. Usually that’s done through face-to-face meetings and activities, but now those things are happening through digital platforms like Zoom.

Still, the core of what the sport performance team does has not changed, says Madeline Barlow, a mental performance coach. She works with teams and individual athletes to help them increase their self-awareness and confidence, enhance their focus and concentration and feel more positive about themselves.

“Getting into our new normal is the goal right now,” says Barlow, speaking in March a couple of weeks after Drexel closed the campus and sports facilities. “I’m going to be giving them mental skills for dealing with what’s happening in the world right now, dealing with the adjustment to being at home, potentially not having much access to exercise equipment, and finding ways to stay motivated.”

Irvine’s job is to counsel coaches and teams on healthy nutritional practices. She also runs the John and Jinnie Chapel ACHIEVE Center and Dragon Lounge, a fueling station in the Daskalakis Athletic Center built for student-athletes to relax and grab a snack before or after a workout when they’re on campus. As Drexel transitioned to remote learning at the end of the spring term, Irvine sent the student-athletes tips about what to buy at the grocery store and how to prepare healthy and balanced meals.

“Good nutrition is all encompassing,” she says. “It’s making sure that over a long period of time you’re eating the correct macronutrients and micronutrients. Food is not clean or dirty; it’s not good or bad. Food is food. It’s fuel. If you really like nachos, there’s a time and a place for that. You don’t have to have negative feelings around that. There are a lot of variables. How many times are you eating that food? The quantity of what you’re eating, the time in your training. We’re teaching them how to eat, how much to eat and what they need. I want them to have good relationships with food as athletes and beyond.”

The outbreak caused an abrupt end to several teams’ seasons and student-athletes’ careers. That can be extremely difficult to accept for those who are single-minded in their approach to their sport and life, Barlow says. She should know — she wrote her dissertation on the transition out of sport.

“When it comes down to it we’re never truly ready to move on, fully, especially when our identity is rooted in sport,” she says. “Acknowledging that this was ripped out from underneath them is important. Feeling that sense of loss, grief, anger, disappointment, whatever emotions they’re having.”

With Drexel’s student-athletes scattered around the world, she is connecting with them through phone calls or video chats.

“Even if you think you don’t need to check in with a person, check in with them,” she says.

Each individual will have a different experience during this crisis, especially considering the differences in physical environments. A person living by themselves in a one-bedroom apartment in New York may have different dietary or emotional needs than someone living with their family in a big house in the suburbs. There’s the potential to feel isolated, which can lead to exacerbated feelings of depression, Barlow says. That’s why in her online meetings and messages with coaches and student-athletes, she stresses the importance of hope.

“Having a sense of hopefulness that we will be able to play again, we will be able to go back to work again, we will be able to interact again, is essential,” she says.

Andrea Irvine (left) and Madeline Barlow (right).