How do you serve athlete spiritual needs during a pandemic? I asked BYU

Mental health may include a spiritual component as well. What does that mean at a school like BYU? I asked.

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

It’s no secret that every college athletic department is about to face huge financial challenges. But in reading over these last few months, and in virtually every conversation I’ve had with any college administrator, there’s another major concern.

Athlete mental health.

After all, playing sports is a major part of the identity for many young athletes. Once that is potentially taken away from them, along with shattering their routines, and many of their other support systems, you might have real problems.

What mental health support looks like varies from school to school. I was particularly interested in how faith-based institutions might try to support their athletes. After all, many athletes are religious, and view their faith and faith communities as critical support structures. What happens if they can’t go to church like they normally might?

I reached out to several faith-based institutions, but only one responded. That was Tom Holmoe, the athletic director for Brigham Young University, a school owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. You might know that group as the Mormons.

(Full disclosure here. I am also a Latter-Day Saint).

So what did BYU decide to do once the pandemic hit?

Right from the jump, Holmoe directed his coaches and staff to focus on the most important thing.

“We just grabbed our coaches and said, hey, as hard as this last last spring was, as hard as this is to lose these games and championships, our focus of attention right now has to be these players.”

One of the really challenging obstacles to serving mental health needs is identifying them. College-aged students aren’t always known for being the most vulnerable and self-aware, after all. Holmoe told me, “We've got to hope that we can really identify the individuals that are really hurting. You know that right off the bat, there's going to be a small percentage of kids that can really express themselves and share how they're feeling.”

That puts the onus on coaches to have truly strong relationships with their players. Phone calls, text messages and Zoom meetings are all useful, but for certain people, those contact points might not be sufficient. So some BYU coaches hit the road.

“It can't be a phone call for everybody. I know there were some of our coaches that had to go visit...they just jumped in the car. We didn't jump in planes to do that, but to get to the house to knock on the door and see the face...sometimes you can't really do that on Zoom. And if you're really a coach, then you should be able to feel when your players need that. Just from their voice, or from the look.”

“I was really impressed how some of our coaches handled that...with how compassionate they've been.”

COVID interrupted everything, not just athletics. And that’s sometimes where problems start

The cancellation of athletic seasons was a massive disruption for athletes, but it wasn’t the only one. Students lost socialization opportunities. Family members may have lost jobs, or become sick with COVID themselves. And for many students, religious services were canceled. Almost every routine a twenty year old may have enjoyed was turned upside down.

That can be stressful and challenging for anybody. Holmoe was particularly concerned about what this adversity might mean for an athlete’s spiritual well-being.

“Especially now, we're really hoping that kids are getting their spiritual needs met. Because it's not just the BYU thing.”

What it comes down to, Holmoe told me, is what helps athletes stay balanced.

“When we recruit kids, we always say how important it is that you continue to do the things that you did that brought you here…When I talk to kids who are struggling, one of the questions I ask is what are the things you're not doing to help keep you right, help keep you in balance? And a lot of times, we discover that they've gotten away from the things that help bring them spiritual strength.”

“If you have a strong church background, and you stop going, you stop praying, you start losing your spiritual connection to God....it's not good. It's not good for athletes. And I've talked to coaches of other faiths, and they agree. If you let that part of you go, you can leave a hole in your person. 

Under regular circumstances, maintaining that background might be a little easier at a place like BYU

Lots of big-time college football programs pitch faith and a “family-like” atmosphere as positives to potential recruits. Clemson, for example, makes zero effort to hide Christianity’s influence on Dabo Swinney and the Tiger football culture. Ohio State, Alabama, and plenty of other schools have been unafraid to discuss that as well. If you go into almost any college locker room, you’ll find players who place great personal importance on spirituality, and aren’t afraid to talk about those things with their teammates and coaches.

But there aren’t many places where religion is more intertwined with daily life than at BYU. Classes start with prayers. Social life often centers around church functions. All students take religion classes.

BYU doesn’t make this a secret, and Holmoe sees it as a positive. “In the 15 years that I've been here, I've never had anybody come up to me, and say hey, I don't want to be in a room where they're praying, or talking about God. Instead, it's more true that most of the time, the kids are like, ‘I appreciate this experience. I like it.’”

But what if you’re aren’t LDS?

BYU, for good or for ill, is really Mormon. Over 98% of the student body identifies as Latter-Day Saints, and 66% of them have served missions. Every single head coach at BYU is LDS. So is the university president, and most of the staff. The bulk of BYU’s football roster is also LDS, but certainly not everybody. And if you aren’t part of that specific faith tradition, there are certainly parts of BYU that could present a culture shock.

Many of BYU’s assistant coaches are not LDS, and Holmoe sometimes tells them to specifically look after non-LDS athletes who might be struggling to acclimate or find their own faith footholds.

“We reach out to all our kids, and say, hey, if you're feeling good about your walk with God, do your thing, we're good. Some of our athletes go out and find a different congregation and do a great job, and others, they don't...maybe they don't try very hard. We've even had kids go all the way to Salt Lake [about an hour’s drive from Provo], and get plugged into some incredible congregations up there. I know that's a big part of life for many other athletes.”

Holmoe even credits some of that spiritual diversity as a way to help build and strengthen relationships within the team.

“We have a lot of kids who aren't a member of our faith, and they talk to each other, and they help each other, and they serve each other. Our teams have a real diversity of spirit, which is sweet and one of my favorite parts of this job, to watch kids build their spiritual strength and bonds with each other.

“That's part of how they learn, hey, that's a guy I can count on.”

BYU admits there is more they could do

Even with assistant coaches checking up on non-LDS players, Holmoe admitted that BYU “doesn’t do a great job yet” of serving spiritual needs of non-LDS players, and that the program is working on it.

To me, this goes back to the very core of the issue. It can be challenging to get college students to really open up and be vulnerable, to let others know about their weaknesses, their fears, and when they’re struggling. In an environment where everybody is encouraged to speak openly and frankly about spiritual matters, perhaps you create an environment where it’s easier to have those deep conversations, which may build even stronger bonds within the program. But having those conversations requires trust, and it’s easier to trust somebody when you think you have something in common with them.

I don’t think this is a BYU-specific problem. Any program or institution with a dominant culture, be that religious, race, geographic, or anything else, needs to make sure they have mentors, coaches, or somebody to talk to for folks who aren’t a part of that dominant group. Every institution, be it large, small, religious and private or secular and public, could stand to learn and improve there.

And the end of the day, it’s all about relationships

The last several months have been hard on everybody. COVID has required every industry, every community, and every individual, to step outside of their comfort zones, and adapt quickly and constantly. The pandemic has created countless problems.

Sometimes those problems manifest themselves on the playing field. Sometimes those problems are financial. Even BYU worries about balancing budgets.

But other times those problems are much lonelier — grief, fear, pain, or worry. And those problems can’t always be faced alone.

“Do what brought you here” feels like sound advice, from nutrition, to academics, to the mental and spiritual practices that make one feel healthy and sound.

That’ll look different from school to school, program to program, and culture to culture.

For BYU, at least, it appears it’s something the department is comfortable talking about. And it’s hard to fix a problem if you can’t talk about it.

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