With the announcement from Governor Baker that all schools would remain closed for the school year, and continue virtual learning, the slim chance of a shortened spring sport season was over. As student athletes across the state try to process this loss, we at BC High have a great resource: Massachusetts General Hospital Psychologist Dr. Steve Durant ’71, who was kind enough to offer insight and suggestions for the BC High student-athletes, as they navigate their feelings through this loss. As an alumnus of the school who played football at BC High, Dr. Durant stayed active by playing Rugby for the Wolfhounds well into his 60’s. Dr. Durant also had two sons attend BC High, each playing Football and Rugby while at the school.
Q#1: As a Mass General Hospital Psychologist working with athletes from the Professional, Collegiate, and High School levels. Has anything in your 40 plus years of experience helped you prepare for something as extreme as this, seasons getting cancelled at all levels?
SD: “Well, professionally I’ve had a lot of experience with people who have gone through their own trauma and I had my own little experience with fear and serious injury, so that does give me some foundation for trying to navigate these rough waters. Also, here in Boston, we had the experience of the lockdown during the Marathon Bombing and nationally with the post 9/11 response. But due to the global nature of this pandemic and its economic fallout, there perhaps is even more anxiety and fear.
As I refer to in the video for Boston First Responders, we are faced with a global threat of trauma with serious illness and/or economic loss. There are definitely predictable emotional responses when we are traumatized or even just threatened over an extended period of time. We all get these reactions, not all at the same time or in the same way. But for us to feel fear, a sense of being trapped, a sense of our lives being disjointed and disconnected, these are the predictable immediate responses to trauma. They engage our fight or flight responses. This can result at various times and levels, with a revved up hyper-response, a pre-occupation with the event or the threat which intrudes upon our usual good habits and routines, like sleep,and finally we can feel the need to emotionally avoid and withdraw.
We recover as we can re-establish some sense of relative safety and predictability. We get the best advice from our professionals like Dr Fauci and we take reasonable steps for protecting ourselves and each other. We then do our best to accept the situation and come up with the next best thing we can do. We recognize we are not alone and take steps to stay in contact. We recognize we can manage our fear, sadness and anger and we find those moves that we can make that help us adjust and stay connected.
I would remind everyone that in some ways this is similar to being the injured athlete who has lost playing time for an entire season. In fact, that, in some ways is harder since there is a greater sense of suffering alone and missing out. This pandemic is a shared experience. All athletes; high school, college and pros, are in a shared experience and this opens the door for a shared, resilient response. We are all in this together.”
Q#2: How difficult is it for a BC High student-athlete to hear the news that the spring season is over, and yet with the quarantine still in effect, know they need to process the finality of the season without the company of their teammates, classmates, and coaches. What advice do you give them to help cope through this time at home?
SD: “It is very painful, to state the obvious. And it does no good in my opinion to skirt that issue or plaster a happy face emoji on it. It sucks, period. Parents naturally do not like to see their kids suffer so they may try and coax teens out of their bad feelings. I am more of the opinion that we should be aware of those feelings without immediately jumping to judge or eliminate them. We move to accept them as a natural human response to a bad situation. We are aware of what we are going through emotionally. We move to accept it and we commit to the next best thing to do.
In terms of advice, I would go back to the #1 Rule of Emotional Health—DO NOT SUFFER ALONE. Stay connected to your Go-To people and your Go-To behaviors.
For student-athletes, if you want to avoid your parents hovering over you and incessantly asking how you’re doing, then demonstrate your ability to check in with them on your own. Your parents are often your best Go-To’s, but Coaches, Captains, Teachers, Best Friends, Girlfriends, Uncles, Aunts, Grandparents, all can play that role. They should be trustworthy, able to hold a confidence and be supportive with good advice. Even though the face-to-face get togethers we all prefer are unavailable or more difficult right now, there is no reason you cannot stay connected to your friends. Now is the time to rely on and deepen these relationships via video, phone or safe physical-distancing visits.
Go-To behaviors. With injured elite athletes, we often encourage using healing time to build mental toughness and a more resilient game. 20 minutes a day of gratitude-based prayer or meditation actually increases the functioning of your cortex. So this 20 minutes of meditation can build your ‘mastery’ brain that allows you to perform in adversity. “Head Space” or the “Calm” app are excellent ways to build this ability. Also, we encourage the use of imagery with sport specific cues to keep the athlete’s’ brain immersed in his sport, even if they are unable to practice in real time. Watching highlights for 30 second clips, then pausing the video and closing your eyes to replay what you have just seen yourself do, as if it were really happening, is a good example of the use of sport specific imagery.
Besides Prayer and Meditation, Exercise, even if it’s at home and not ideal like being at the gym. Helping Others. Music. Art. Nature. Fishing. Woodworking, etc.are examples of Go-To behaviors. Cultivate those healthy things you can do. Watch out for addictive things like too much video gaming. I’m not against video games but it shouldn’t be your all-day thing. Now is a good time to pick one new thing, you’ve never had the chance to do, but wished to do. For example, I know NHL players who used extended injury-time to improve their cooking skills or improve their French. I’ve used this time to learn some very simple tai-chi exercises online. There are lots of online options for self-improvement.”
Q#3: What emotions will these seniors feel these upcoming weeks, and what are some helpful tips they can use to process these feelings they are going experiencing?
SD: “Well I know I’d be plenty pissed, very anxious and quite sad. As I mentioned, in my work, I do not hold to the notion that we always have to avoid, eliminate or run from negative thought and feeling. I believe in fact that it’s is impossible and counter-productive to do so. We’re human. And while, yes, it’s generally better to be immersed in a positive mindset, it is not always possible.
There are the inevitable ice bergs of Anger, Sadness & Fear and we are at our best when we find a way to accept their presence. Then, we must negotiate those threatening waters with awareness, acceptance and commitment to do our best regardless of emotion or doubt. So especially for this Class of 2020. You are entitled to feel a lot of hurt, anger and sadness, but you are not entitled to make a snow angel and stay stuck in your unhappiness. The most successful among you will accept it. ‘It is what it is’ and then you will move on to win and do what’s important now.
As mentioned, Go-To People & Go-To behaviors are more important than ever now. I would remind you that your athletic career need not be over. Once and Athlete, Always an Athlete. Be open to explore, in time, other sports and other ways to be athletic.”
Q#4: You are an alumnus of the school, your two sons are graduates of the school, and you have a clear understanding and respect for the school’s mission. What positives can our seniors, and not just the athletes, but the entire senior class, take away from what has happened to their senior year?
SD: “I would answer that by raising another question. What is the ultimate goal of sports at a Jesuit high school? I would submit that one answer is sports are vehicles for building character and life-long friendships. Sports is another way to build Men For Others. We cannot always choose our teachable moments nor the adversity that arises in our lives. All we can do is make the most of the time we are given. The loss of sport, although incredibly painful, I think most of all for a high school senior athlete, need not result in the loss of that opportunity to build character and crucial friendships. In the shared trial of this pandemic adversity there is the great opportunity to make that extra effort to live by your code and fight to stay connected, not just for the present but for the years to come. Once a teammate, always a teammate.”
Q#5: Last question, separate from the COVID-19 topic, but more of a general question: what characteristics do you have today that you can attribute to playing a sport at BC High? Thank you, Dr. Durant!
SD: “Playing at BC High gave me an overwhelming appreciation for the camaraderie, affection and connectedness of friends and teammates. I so cherished that connectedness from that sense of team at BC High, that I sought to continually replicate it after high school, with over 42 years of rugby, often with or against other BC High friends, or alums, including my sons and sons of friends. I would say I learned this continually over the years, but the foundation was built by Coaches Cotter, Casey, Molloy, & Ananis. They taught us to be Men for each Other and others. And I’ll end by saying I am most grateful for all that I received at BC High. My hope is that despite the losses you’ve experienced, you too will stay connected over the years and you will be strengthened by your own good character and that sense of deep connectedness.”