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The New Normal How COVID-19 is impacting life on and off campus for NCAA members

I feel so idle.

I am a doer, meaning that before COVID-19 social distancing, my days were filled with constant activity, from greeting student-athletes at grab-and-go meal pickups in the mornings to attending performance team meetings during the day, reviewing dietary supplements for NCAA compliance, consulting with athletes in the afternoons before practice, and plate coaching at team meals at night.

I truly miss being present with student-athletes and teams. I feel sad that many were robbed of their sports seasons and, for seniors, closure as Michigan student-athletes.

As a sports nutrition staff, in our new normal, we’re doing all we can to help them through this. We are holding virtual staff and athlete meetings on Zoom, developing sports nutrition education content for social media and changing in-person programs to webinars. All of it is helping me feel productive and confident that I am contributing to the well-being of Michigan student-athletes. I wake up every day and remind myself that by being “idle,” I am actually “doing” the most important task right now: staying home to flatten the curve on COVID-19.

Still, staying connected is important for both student-athletes and staff. While practicing social distancing, my staff and I have stayed connected through online staff meetings, brainstorming creative ways that we can support Michigan student-athletes through positive nutrition experiences.

We have sent email and text messages to teams with nutrition tips and reminders. We have added to our Instagram and Twitter feeds with infographics on meal planning, quick-and-easy recipes and food safety.

Athletes have been sending us pictures of their meals and snacks, which we have been sharing on social media to highlight examples of creative and balanced fueling. We created a “March Movie Madness” activity for athletes to vote using Instagram on their favorite sports movies. “Remember the Titans” beat out “The Sandlot” in the final, although I am still standing by my favorite sports-themed movie, “Miracle.”

Student-athletes who have been working individually with their team dietitian have scheduled video consults using the HIPPA-compliant UM Zoom or the university’s virtual meeting platform, continuing to set goals and plan for when they return to campus.

One challenge with online nutrition counseling is that different states have licensure laws for registered dietitians. So, for some athletes, Michigan dietitians can only stay connected and provide support rather than nutrition counseling. For the student-athletes who live in states with registered dietitian licensure, I am able to refer them to a registered dietitian in their area when necessary.

Before the university closed and athletes left campus, I was scheduled to co-facilitate with our athletic counseling staff on a workshop for graduating student-athletes titled “Preparing Mind and Body for Life After College Athletics.”

For many student-athletes, their college career came to an abrupt end. Our department would have missed the opportunity to provide this program if it weren’t for technology. We converted the workshop into a webinar and had even more student-athletes signed up to attend than when it was planned as an in-person workshop. This may be one of the many programs that the COVID-19 pandemic changes for the better in the future.

As the pandemic has grown and our social distancing time has been extended, our staff started planning for ways to present the menu planning workshops and cooking classes we do every year during spring term, targeting rising sophomores who are living off campus for the first time. We filmed a few cooking demos with our performance dining training table chef to post on Instagram, but he had the great idea to do the next cooking demos live using Zoom. This way, the student-athletes didn’t lose the interactive aspect of the in-person cooking classes we have done during past spring terms.

Another challenge we are all confronting is what steps will we need to take to reopen our athletic facilities post COVID-19. Some of our facilities have been converted to auxiliary COVID-19 patient care field hospitals. We moved our offices and fueling stations to other facilities. Before our return to campus, we have started planning how to safely reopen fueling stations and training tables and considering what additional changes our post-COVID-19 world may require.

Right now, the two biggest recommendations that I am making to athletes are twofold. The first is to create a routine. The second is to reach out for help and support.

A routine around meals and snacks, training, schoolwork and sleep are topics we discuss with student-athletes when they are on campus. Creating a routine when they are at home with little to keep them on a schedule is a huge challenge.

Some student-athletes are taking their classes online, which has helped them create a routine, but others are completing their classes whenever they want, which is proving difficult for many of them to find that rhythm. Whether the student-athlete is returning to campus with future athletic eligibility or is graduating and moving on to the next phase of life, learning how to create a routine and asking for help and support are valuable life skills. Our ability to collaborate messaging with the athletic counseling team about the importance of creating a routine for mental and physical well-being makes sure the student-athletes receive a consistent message and feel supported.

During student-athlete consults, I start by asking what it is like for them to be home and working to complete their classes, train and stay connected with teammates and friends. I end every session by asking what else I can do to support them during this unusual time. I also encourage them to keep an eye out for teammates and to let me or someone on the performance team (athletic trainer, strength and conditioning coach, academic counselor, team physician) know if someone is struggling and needs any kind of support.

Recently, I texted a nutrition challenge question to some of our teams. I call them “W.I.N. Questions,” which stands for “What’s Important Now.”

I have collected and shared their responses to the following questions: What has been your biggest nutrition challenge? What has been your greatest nutrition success/accomplishment? What nutrition advice do you want to give to your team’s rising sophomores to help them prepare for off-campus living next year? What nutrition advice do you want to give to your team’s incoming freshmen to help them prepare for life as a college student-athlete?

Sharing their responses has been a lot of fun and has been a valuable tool to help them feel connected and look forward.

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