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Minisode: Take Me Out Coach! Pro Sports and COVID

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode. 

Every day in the United States, 17 veterans die by suicide. This Veterans Day, President Joe Biden is putting their mental health in the spotlight. In the latest episode of RadioEd, veteran Evan Stratton explains why the conversation needs reframing. Then, a University of Denver associate clinical professor in the military psychology specialty, Kathryn Barrs, who works closely with veterans, service members and their families, shares mental health trends, obstacles to care and stories of resilience.

Show Notes

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Evan Stratton served in the United States Marine Corps. Some of his awards include a purple heart, combat action ribbon and Navy achievement medal. Now as a veteran, he dedicates his time to shifting the stigma around veterans' mental health. He is the president of Fight Oar Die and rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in 2019 for 50 days, 11 hours and 25 minutes with the Fight Oar Die team. 

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Kathryn Barrs is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinic director of the Sturm Center, a behavioral health training clinic for Veterans, Service members and their families. Barrs is also an Associate Clinical Professor in the Military Psychology specialty at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

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Part 2

Jessica Dale Bartley

Jessica Dale Bartley is a clinical assistant professor in the sport and performance psychology program at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology

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Intro, Lorne Fultonberg: You're listening to a minisode of RadioEd, a University of Denver podcast. I'm Lorne Fultonberg. Opening day is taking on a little bit of a different meaning this year. Baseball is back on Thursday, leading off a lineup with pro sports that are doing whatever it takes to get players back in the game. By the end of the month, the NBA and NHL expect to be back in action too, finishing seasons they postponed way back in March. But will players be ready? How will new precautions affect their performance? Will they actually be safe? Brian Garrity has been a coach, a trainer, a sports psychologist, and an academic. So when he zoomed into RadioEd, we first asked him in a time of isolation and precaution, why is there so much urgency to get sports up and running?

Brian Gearity: I think there's a lot of angles that you could take to look at it. You look at individuals, people, and like myself, too. I haven't been able to go to the gym in months. Like a lot of other folks, I've been riding the bike outside, I've been running more, I do have a little bit of weightlifting equipment here at the house. People want to be active. They want to be fit or healthy. They like to get out and move. Sports really are ubiquitous in the U.S., though—[they’re] everywhere. So economically, a lot of the leagues are eager to get back because they're losing millions or billions of dollars. Then you've also got the symbolic meaning of sport that sport is good for us, it'll bring us together again and unify us and all this other sort of stuff. Unless sport kind of gives us a vaccine for COVID, which I'm not going to hold my breath on, then that kind of stuff is nice, but it's also perhaps extremely irresponsible. We've already seen sports teams come back to practice and there have been outbreaks of COVID at the youth level all the way up through the professional level. It really touches everybody right now, and people have a variety of needs to get back into sports and why they want to do sports or fitness or exercise, but we do need to be mindful about what's going on in the possible unintended or intended negative consequences.

Lorne Fultonberg: We've seen all of the pro leagues take different approaches. Everyone's throwing out solutions from not playing in front of fans, is what the MLB has talked about. Hockey and basketball are trying to finish their seasons and so they are moving players to city specific bubbles where they can't leave their hotels except to go to the stadium and play. Do any of these seem like a best practice to you?

Brian Gearity: There's a variety of best practices and I too as in a former life, an athletic trainer as well, and you'd really want to have those isolations, the masks, [and] sterilization. It's such a hard thing in sports because you're so close together, especially in contact sports. It doesn't sound like it, but if one person has COVID and breathes on somebody else or the droplets spread, then it[‘s] on your equipment and then it[‘s] on water bottles. So the bubbles, the separation from people, [and] the cleaning down of things can help, but again, all it takes is one kind of strand to get in there and it could possibly create problems. So, it's a challenge of risk and reward there.

Lorne Fultonberg: Even if everything went perfectly—you've studied psychology too—what impact do you think being in a bubble shut off from the rest of the world will have on these players and their performance athletically?

Brian Gearity: Psychologically, you're looking at separating people from their families, perhaps. People are like, "Oh, woe is me," [about] these professional athletes or their teams and owners and coaches, [but] it's really still a hard thing to do. People don't realize that when you're away from your support system for months, and we know that it's an extremely hard transition. So the idea that these athletes are just going to be resilient and tough it out, hopefully nowadays with video conferencing and telephones, they can stay in touch, text messaging. But when you can't be around your family, your friends, [or] your support structures, some of these athletes, they're not all multimillionaires, the same with the coaches and especially the support staff. There are people that do not make a lot of money in these different settings, and we want to treat them all the same or ask them to basically sacrifice a lot in order for others to benefit. It weighs on people. We really need to be mindful of, in looking at who is winning in sport, when the owners or the coaches, athletic directors, are of a certain gender or race, are we really doing things and putting other people at risk for their benefit? If it's really not helping everybody a little bit more equitably, or if we're not providing healthcare and testing, for not only the individual but for their families, and providing maybe some short term and long term healthcare, we're really just saying, "We're willing to risk your health and safety for our benefit." And so, [that’s] when people walk away or they decide to retire or at least not participate for that year, to each their own. [We need to] let them think about what's going to be the best decision for them and the people that they care about.

Lorne Fultonberg: And we've already seen several players say, "I'm just not going to play this season. It's not worth it to me."

Brian Gearity: It's the beneficial thing to do, and you never see a lot of the coaches or the owners out there risking their health and safety and nor should they. That's their decision not to, but when the players decide those things, they get a lot of grief from a variety of different people. But people have the freedom to decide if they want to participate in the labor pool of professional sports or not, and let them live their lives.

Lorne Fultonberg: It's so interesting to me that these players are fit for a living, and then there's this interruption where for months they can't train in the same way that they're used to training. What do you think it's going to take to get them up to this professional level to compete for the championships in their sports?

Brian Gearity: I think it's a really interesting point because I've got some friends still—I was a strength conditioning coach— [and] that's what they're doing. They're trying to figure out how to keep people in shape and keep moving. And so I see now where manufacturers are building outdoor tents and outdoor training facilities. They're spending a lot of money on developing mitigation strategies that they can train and get in shape outdoors, [and] keep everybody six feet away. They're wearing masks during workouts, they're stopping the workouts to disinfect and spray down things. So I do think it's going to take some time for people to get in shape. When you're looking at preventing, we take ACL injuries or head injuries in sports, and that can be in soccer and it can be in football. Both of them sustain high rates of concussion. If you're not able to train your neck, shoulders, hamstring, [or] other stabilizers in the knee with hopefully the best in cutting edge technology and training methods, you could be more susceptible to an injury. So it's gonna take several weeks if not longer for teams and athletes to get back in shape.

Lorne Fultonberg: When these players do get back on the field, or the court, or the rink and there are no fans in the stands to watch them and cheer them on, do you think that'll have any impact on player performance?

Brian Gearity: There's been a little bit of research on whether you do have a home field advantage and that sort of thing. And I have to believe for most of the athletes, it's going to get pretty washed out for the most part that these athletes are pretty well tuned, or hopefully have somebody there like their coach or a sports psychologist that's working with them to help them refocus their attention, pay attention to things and the tasks that matter, and really not pay much attention to that. I think they'll probably joke too a little bit that it feels more like a high school or a youth setting where there's just not the fans there anymore, unless they were playing football down in Texas in front of 20,000 people at the age of 15. But I kind of like it actually, too. I like the idea that they're going to get out there and just play for the so-called sake of playing rather than all the fans and all that kind of stuff. I'm sure the athletes will say that they like the fans there and they get energy from that, but I'm fairly confident if they're worth their salt at all, they're going to figure out how to perform.

Lorne Fultonberg: You alluded to this earlier, but in the United States, sports is such a big part of our identity. I think people felt a huge sense of loss when the March Madness college basketball tournament went away and the prospect of having no pro football is frightening to people. How do you think sports intersect with our identity in the United States here?

Brian Gearity: This is more kind of my area in the sociology of sport. I actually love the idea of not having fans and kind of canceling so much of the TV stuff ‘cause I think it gets us back to the so-called more pure view, amateur view of sport. People that want to participate in sport do it for the love of the game, the expression, to be with their people and community, to enjoy the physical exercise and movement, [and] develop themselves. I know I sound like a naive, romantic person. March Madness, NFL football, college football on Saturday, Friday night football for high school, that night Sundays are saved for the NFL—these things are massively, symbolically important in the U S. Going forward, I think it takes a couple of years. Again, if we get a vaccine or we eventually get herd immunity, things will probably go back to normal. I think long term, we'll have probably a short memory and things will kind of get back to normal, too.

Lorne Fultonberg: Brian is also the coauthor of a new book, which takes a look at where conditioning and culture meet, including morals, ethics, and politics. There's a link on our website, Alyssa Hurst is our Executive Producer. Tamara Chapman is our Managing Editor. James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Lorne Fultonberg, and this is RadioEd.