• Joe Puentes, Psy.D.

Supporting Student Athletes Affected by Wildfires


Supporting Student Athletes after Wildfires

Unfortunately it has become all too common in my home state of California to see student athletes impacted by wildfires. I’m currently writing this blog post, just returning to Santa Rosa, where for the third year in a row the high school and collegiate student athletes I work with are being impacted in a range of ways. I wanted to share below some tips I’ve learned in supporting them, so we might aid in their resilience and provide care where needed.


Tip 1: Check in with student athletes about how they have been uniquely impacted.


One thing I’ve come to find true in this work is that people in wildfire areas are impacted in a broad range of ways to varying degrees but EVERYONE IS AFFECTED IN SOME WAY. I think folks often get lost in thinking their situation is not as bad or could be worse. If we could first agree, we are all affected, often in different ways, then we can open up to ask the question to student athletes, “how have you been affected?” From there we can care, support, aide or just help them not feel alone in it.


Tip 2: Recognize interruptions in practice and game schedules, while needed for safety, can be very difficult for student athletes.


Routine, exercise, time with their teammates, having a sense of identity, all of this can be critical in helping student athletes feel well mentally and emotionally. Let alone that some teams and individuals might be chasing playoff runs, titles, records that they have been working so hard for, and many for most of their lives. It can feel like this has been taken away for some student athletes and can feel devastating. My recommendation is to be careful not to minimize this experience but instead, recognize it as truly difficult. Often when we validate folks like that (rather than invalidate them saying it is no big deal), they can start to open up to the other aspects of the experience, particularly things they are grateful for amid all the challenges.


Tip 3: Three skills can go a long way – a) connect with your social support, b) make a plan, and c) search for a helpful perspective.


a) Connect with social support.


This one is self explanatory but encourage student athletes to reach out to those who they feel supported and loved by during times like these. Help them identify specific people and know reaching out might mean talking about it directly or not. It might mean a text message, phone call, or meeting in person. The key here is to reach out and connect.


b) Make a plan.


We often feel overwhelmed with so much going on, so much unknown, and so many small decisions to make amid it all. Slowing down, sitting with someone and making a plan for the day, the next three days and then, to the best you can, the next week, can help us feel like we have a sense of direction, some things we can control, and a sense of security knowing we have something in place to follow.


c) Find a helpful perspective.


Naturally, negative perspectives dominate during challenging times, this is normal, natural and expected. Getting stuck in these can be problematic. For example, “things are terrible now and that means they always will be” can bring about hopelessness. Finding perspective is a skill, one from the tool bag that we can apply to all situations. I’ll quote my young adult student athlete (with his permission), “be able to use both the eagle perspective and the ant perspective.” Taking care of the details that are in front of us as we are struggling and then being able to zoom out and see a broader view, of our lives, of humanity even and know that both perspectives have their view of the truth of what is.


Tip 4: Allow for a grace period.


Yes, creating a sense of normalcy can be therapeutic and yes, many student athletes want to return to their routines and practice to cope. But, please resist any urge to march on as if nothing has happened. I think it ends up being counterproductive for people. Practicing in varying states of shock or overwhelm can lead student athletes to get discouraged, I would argue put them at risk for injury, and more than anything has them take a hit on their integrity. For many it might not feel right to go on as if nothing has happened and then if they have to, internally it hurts.

My advice instead, find some way to recognize how they have been impacted, have a team discussion, do individual check ins, allow for different student athletes to cope in different ways and give them a grace period. Student athletes can be really good at hiding when things are difficult, that works well in competition, but off the court/field/course that can start to pile up and lead to problems.


Tip 5: Refer and connect to extra support if needed


Some student athletes will be significantly impacted by the wildfires. Some will experience this immediately after, while others, the negative effects might present themselves after time has passed and things have settled. Referring and connecting them to a mental health professional can give them an extra support during an extraordinarily difficult time. The same goes for coaches, administrators, sports medicine staff and parents. If you’re significantly impacted, consider adding a support to your team, like a counselor or therapist. The website PsychologyToday.com is a great place to find a therapist in your area with the expertise you or the student athlete is looking for. On university campuses there are also counseling centers, that can be a great resource for short term counseling or in a time of crisis.


For more information, check out the American Psychological Association's recent article on recovering from wildfires: https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/wildfire.


If you have any questions, want to consult or share your thoughts, please don’t hesitate to contact us here at the Performance Psychology Center at info@performancepsychologycenter.com.

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