Playing college sports is a great opportunity for young people to continue their athletic careers, travel around the country, and test themselves at a high level of competition. For some, it’s also a chance to show scouts that they have what it takes to play in the pros. Yet for all its advantages, collegiate sports also present some daunting challenges, and in the age of COVID-19, student-athletes are struggling to keep up with their studies, stay motivated in the face of canceled seasons, and deal with the emotional aftershocks of the pandemic. In this article, we’ll explore how some schools are helping their most valuable assets achieve holistic wellness.
Improving Injury Surveillance
One of the main challenges facing college athletic departments is tracking, managing, and reporting on student-athlete injuries. Sometimes bigger schools use an Electronic Medical Records (EMR) or Electronic Health Records (EHR) system for this, but more often than not, they still rely on archaic methods like listing athlete injuries in spreadsheets. This requires a lot of manual data entry, and such information is often outdated. Inputting and managing athletes’ status and which activities they’re cleared to participate in keeps athletic trainers (ATs) at their computers rather than face-to-face with students and fellow staff. And communicating with coaches is tricky when information is stored in siloes and not readily accessible on a single platform.
The lack of a unified system also makes it difficult for ATs, team doctors, physical therapists (PTs), and other members of the medical team to assess historical data, identify injury trends, and correlate these with certain types of training, student-athlete recovery, sleep, and wellness data and/or specific points in the competitive calendar. As a result, it’s harder to make informed decisions about what is working well and what needs to change based on a combination of objective and subjective information.
An athlete management system can help in all these areas. Northwestern University used to rely on an antiquated tool that was too complicated and cumbersome for their needs. “We were in a very archaic EMR system where our athletic trainers were trying to document in a very physician-driven system,” said Jen Tymkew, NU’s associate director of athletic training services. “My note was almost taking me longer to do than the encounter that I had spent with that student-athlete.”
Tymkew and her team solved the problem by building a customized EMR inside Smartabase that is easier to use, requires less touch points, and makes it simpler to pinpoint and act on pertinent student-athlete data. Coaches benefit from live status updates on their injured players, and the medical and performance teams can use historical data to gain deeper insight into injury trends and then make the necessary adjustments to their athletes’ preparation.
Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster
Over the past few years, mental health has become an increasing concern for colleges and universities. With COVID-19 forcing student-athletes off campus, isolating them from their professors, coaches, teammates, and friends, and prohibiting practices and games, the mindset component of post-secondary education has come into sharper focus than ever before. Students already face the typical struggle of juggling their studies, sport/s, and social life, now with the added pressures created by the pandemic.
The NCAA has done an admirable job shining a light on student-athletes’ mental health issues. It conducted a survey of 37,000 competitors across all sports in spring 2020 and found that depression, anxiety, and other concerns have increased by up to 250 percent since the ripple effects of COVID-19 hit higher education. A follow-up survey of 25,000 student-athletes yielded similar results, with “academic worries (43%), lack of access to sport (33%), COVID-19 health concerns (31%) and financial worries (24%) as the top factors negatively impacting their mental health” according to the NCAA report’s authors.
Mental health is not only tied to stress levels but also the amount and quality of student-athletes’ sleep. Getting adequate rest is a particular challenge at institutions like the United States Military Academy at West Point, where student-athletes also have military training duties to perform. “The biggest benefit of collecting sleep data is that it’s an educational tool for athletes,” said Scott Hobbs, associate strength and conditioning coach at West Point in a presentation at the North American Human Performance Summit. “They can see what they’re doing day to day and how their routine, nutrition, and sleep affects them.”
Monitoring athletes from a holistic standpoint also enabled West Point to begin holding “360 meetings,” in which Hobbs and his colleagues on the performance staff gather with a sports psychologist, coach, academic and ATC advisors, and a military instructor. “We sit down to discuss individual athletes and use a red light, green light system in each area,” Hobbs said. We can’t take all stressors away, but we can tweak things to adapt and overcome.”
Uniting Sports Medicine, Performance, and Nutrition
Before Northwestern University started using Smartabase five years ago, various departments stored athlete data in their own way. Once they rolled out the platform, staff in multiple specialties were able to see, manage, and utilize the same information via a single source.
“We needed to get sports medicine, sports performance, and sports nutrition on the same page, having one access point to get all the information they need to address the needs of athletes and coaches,” said NU assistant athletic director Jason Pullara. “Then we’re able to bring in our athletes and our coaches to that platform to make communication easier and give them consistent information daily to make better decisions based on where they’re at physically and mentally, and their ability to perform.”
The performance and wellbeing of student-athletes depends on many physical, emotional, and cognitive factors. While there is no single panacea for all the problems these competitors face on the field, in the classroom, and in life, providing access to current and comprehensive data to everyone who interacts with collegiate athletes can present a clearer picture of the past and present situations and help inform planning for the future.
“There is no one tool that’s going to tell it all,” said Travis Vlantes, director of applied sports science at the University of Texas, which uses Smartabase to manage athletes’ performance, wellness, and injury data. “That’s why an AMS system is so important – it allows you to integrate several different tools together and see the bigger picture.”