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One year later: How the return of prep sports is affecting mental health

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Wausau, Wis. (WAOW) -- A lot can change in a year.

That's true pretty much every year. But this year, it's especially true.

Last year as the calendar ticked into May, the reality of life without a spring prep sports season was sinking in.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) made the call in late April in 2020. In the weeks and months to follow, fields, pitches and tracks across Wisconsin sat empty.

For many area athletes, it was a hard time.

"Being cooped up inside, being in my house for however many months. Mentally, it was exhausting. You get a depression," said Newman Catholic senior Angela Donath.

Angela missed out on her junior year in softball. That came just a month after her chance at a state basketball game was claimed by the pandemic as well.

As we now know, that shutdown had a major affect on many high school athletes both here in Wisconsin and across the country.

"It was pretty dire," said Dr. Claudia Reardon, a sports psychiatrist with the University of Wisconsin.

She, along with many others, have been studying how high school athletes coped with losing last year's spring season.

"What we found was that the mental health of our high school student athletes was significantly worse. On the order of 40 percent higher rates of depressive symptoms and anxiety systems," she said.

Angela wasn't the only one dealing with those symptoms.

"I was kinda realizing how much I miss it all," said Connor Healy, a senior baseball player at Wausau West.

"Especially when it gets to June, and you're playing baseball in 90 degree weather, but once we weren't able to do stuff for a few months, you really realized how much you missed stuff, and how much you were really bummed out when you couldn't do it anymore."

For Dylan Ackermann, last year's shutdown was a lost chance to play one final season with some of his closest friends.

"I was really looking forward to playing with the seniors from last year," Ackermann said.

Fast forward a year, and things look much different.

"It's just nice to be with everyone again, and start playing," said Newman senior Taylor Repinksi.

She's been playing softball her entire life, and missed out last year on the chance for her first season at the high school level.

Now with a chance to compete, Taylor said her mental health has made a big leap.

"Definitely I think it's been a lot better. I have something to release emotions and not be cooped up in the house anymore," she said.

Connor feels the difference too.

"Oh yeah, it's insane. Just to be outside, play baseball with the boys, going to school seeing everybody, it's a whole different lifestyle. You don't talk to anyone during the quarantine, and now you see your buddies everyday, playing the sport you love, it's a good time," he said.

It's obvious from these players, and more, that getting back to playing sports has made a huge difference.

Dr. Reardon said the numbers back it up.

"What we found is those kids who were able to resume high school organized sports were substantially less depressed, substantially less anxious," she said.

Despite all the hardships these athletes have faced, many of them said they've come out stronger and wiser on the other side.

"Yeah, it's been really preparing for my future, especially if I ever have kids, or have a family, it just makes me want to be safer, and safer for my friends and family," said Angela.

Connor added, "I've realized what it's like to be shut out of the world, and be quiet and away from everything, and I know it's always important to check in on guys and see how people are doing, and it's really important to be a good friend and good person and a good teammate."

Dr. Reardon did add that sports aren't the end all, be all when it comes to improving mental health among prep athletes.

The stress of competition, and the pressure to succeed can sometimes be detrimental to good mental health.

But she said the majority of students they've surveyed send a resolute message: sports can make a big difference.

Brad Hanson

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