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An inside look at how Virginia Athletics supports student-athletes’ physical and mental well-being

Virginia’s 765 student-athletes have an abundance of physical and mental health resources at their disposal

<p>Virginia Athletics’ doctors, trainers, nutritionists and psychologists cover every aspect of student-athlete wellness.</p>

Virginia Athletics’ doctors, trainers, nutritionists and psychologists cover every aspect of student-athlete wellness.

The physical and mental toll that college sports take on student-athletes is well-documented. As athletes face grueling schedules both on- and off-the-field, their health is often challenged. In response to this high-priority issue, Virginia Athletics has invested substantial resources into multiple health-related departments — Sports Medicine, Strength and Conditioning, Sports Nutrition and Sports Psychology.

These four services support Virginia student-athletes in various ways with the goal of maintaining their health and wellness as well as enhancing their athletic performance, even during a global pandemic. While they frequently work together, each service has a different set of responsibilities and focuses on a different area of student-athlete health.

Sports Medicine

Virginia Athletics’ Department of Sports Medicine aims “to provide the ‘Gold Standard’ of health care for Division 1 intercollegiate student-athletes.” The department strives to be a model for sports teams at every level. According to Kelli Pugh, associate athletics director for sports medicine, continuous learning and cross-functional collaboration are the keys to providing cutting-edge, high-quality care.

“The sports medicine staff improves our skills and furthers our knowledge through continuing education and participation in clinical research,” Pugh said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We work closely with our team physicians, strength coaches, sports dieticians, and sports psychologists to provide evidence based care to all student-athletes.”

The chief responsibilities of the sports medicine staff are injury prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. Like many Cavaliers, women’s soccer senior goalkeeper Laurel Ivory has seen the benefits of the service firsthand. Ivory highlighted that she appreciates her routine interactions with Virginia’s sports medicine professionals, including Associate Athletic Trainer Bill Parente and Siobhan Statuta, sports medicine primary care specialist.

“I am in frequent communication of aches and pains that I get in training or in competition with [Parente], and there is always a remedy,” Ivory said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Aside from him, I see the doctors on average around once a month or once every two months. If I need to be seen about anything major, illness-wise or injury, I will quickly stop in and see them to hear what they have to say about my situation.”

Ivory added that she always admired the speed of the department in terms of getting diagnoses and test results. She said that the staff always made her feel valued with their commitment “to get [athletes] back on the field as soon as possible and as healthy as possible.”

The sports medicine team also played a crucial role in Ivory’s recovery from her season-ending injury last year. Late in the 2019 ACC Championship finals, Ivory collided with a North Carolina player and broke her jaw, preventing her from playing in the NCAA Tournament.

“I worked closely with Dr. Statuta throughout my injury, and there were constant check-ins and immediate remedies to the pain I would have after my [jaw] surgery,” Ivory said. “There was such an incredible effort to make sure I was on the right recovery path from the surgery and from the nutritional side of things since I was on a liquid-only diet for so long. Everything I needed was taken care of in the blink of an eye from both Dr. Statuta and Bill Parente.”

On top of its normal duties, the sports medicine department has had to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While other athletics programs have struggled to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Pugh and her team have been relatively successful in limiting the number of positive cases within Virginia Athletics. Notably, Pugh recently estimated that there had been 10 or fewer positive COVID-19 tests total in the Virginia football program this season.

“We performed a lot of education regarding COVID-19 transmission prior to the return of student-athletes and staff,” Pugh said. “Our success is attributed to the student-athletes and staff being diligent with the prevention strategies of mask wearing, distancing, and hand washing.”

Despite having to adjust its operations during the pandemic, including rearranging the clinics to allow for social distancing and spending significant amounts of time administering COVID-19 tests, the sports medicine department continues to provide best-in-class care for hundreds of athletes across Virginia’s 27 varsity sports.

“I am in awe of our sports [medicine] staff each and every time I am in contact with them and their investment in both our abilities as an athlete and us as people too,” Ivory said.

Strength and Conditioning

Virginia’s Strength and Conditioning team designs year-round, sport-specific training programs to help athletes maximize their potential. Ed Nordenschild, associate athletics director for strength and conditioning, explained that “the main goal of the S&C Staff is to provide all the student-athletes with a program and the corresponding training to help prevent injuries and assist them in improving at their chosen sport.”

Each team’s strength program varies depending on the area of emphasis, Nordenschild said. Some programs focus on power and speed while others focus on strength or endurance. Moreover, the strength coach will adjust the regimen based on the most common injuries and the prime mover muscles associated with a particular sport. Finally, the strength and conditioning staff also considers other factors including the athlete’s training age and whether the team is in season or in the off-season.

“Strength is the basis for all other athletic qualities — agility, endurance, power, speed, etc. — so a well-designed strength program can make a difference in any athlete’s performance,” Nordenschild said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

According to Rachel Robinson, Virginia field hockey captain and senior back, the staff pushes her to improve every aspect of her game — both the physical and mental sides. She specifically spotlighted Josh Miller — the assistant strength and conditioning coach that works with the field hockey team — who she says goes above and beyond to care for the players.

“I would definitely agree that strength and conditioning helps me perform at my best,” Robinson said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Because of them, I have become faster, stronger and overall fitter. Without them, our coaches would have to do everything. I think it’s a great situation when you have certain people focusing on what they know best.”

However, Robinson understands that the staff’s role is more than just designing training plans. Drawing from her own experience as an intern with the football strength and conditioning staff in 2019, Robinson knows that it's also important that a strength coach can motivate athletes to play to their full potential.

“I love the U.Va. strength and conditioning coaches,” Robinson said. “They go far and beyond for the players. Even when they are stretched thin, as they are now, they still do everything they can do and more to help each player become the best athlete they can be.”

Sports Nutrition

Another way Virginia Athletics supports its student-athletes is by making sure they have access to healthy food to fuel their bodies. Randy Bird, director of sports nutrition, emphasized that “nutrition is a critical component of athletic development” and leads to increased energy, faster recovery and less downtime due to illnesses or injuries.

“Sports dietitians focus on designing, implementing, and managing safe and effective nutrition strategies that enhance lifelong health, fitness, and optimal performance,” Bird said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

According to Bird, Virginia’s sports nutrition staff offers various services to student-athletes including nutrition education, medical nutrition therapy and body composition testing. The staff also provides personalized or team meal plans based on athletes’ specific needs and goals from gaining muscle to losing fat and boosting energy levels.

Bird noted that sports nutrition has only become a priority for athletics departments across the country in the last decade. Around just 30 schools had a full-time sports dietitian back in 2010, but now 99 college programs have at least one, Bird said. Virginia was an early adopter as it was one of the first Division I programs to hire a full-time nutrition specialist.

Along with adding nutritionists to the staff, Virginia Athletics established the student-athlete training table at John Paul Jones Arena which serves athletes high-quality, nutritious meals prepared by a certified executive chef. For example, if a Virginia athlete dined at JPJ — which has been using a grab-and-go system during the pandemic — they might find grilled chicken drumsticks, penne pasta, green beans and more on the menu.

All-ACC cross-country standout graduate student Randy Neish — facing the strenuous physical demands of long-distance running — has taken advantage of many sports nutrition services over the course of his collegiate career. 

“Sports nutrition was very helpful in my first year when I was attempting to figure out what I needed,” Neish said. “At this point, now that I know what I need, sports nutrition provides me with the resources I need to compete at high levels.”

Early on, the sports nutrition staff helped Neish identify the foods he needed to eat to perform his best. Neish said that “sports nutrition typically recommends we eat calorie-dense foods with plenty of protein and healthy fats,” which include avocados, rice and eggs.

However, Neish — now in his fifth year at Virginia — believes the most important service the sports nutrition staff provides is access to supplements. For example, iron deficiency anemia is a major concern for competitive runners, but the sports nutrition team can provide the necessary supplementation through blood tests that identify each athlete’s iron levels.

“Iron is just one example of supplementation our nutrition department provides for us,” Neish said. “Competitive running deprives our bodies of many essential vitamins. Only with the help of our nutrition department am I able to remedy possible adverse outcomes and perform to the best of my ability.”

Sports Psychology

While it's not always talked about, mental health is a key factor in student-athlete wellness. Given the rigors and pressures of playing competitive sports at a high level, mental health has become a strategic priority for both the NCAA and athletics departments. In his introduction to “Mind, Body and Sport” — a comprehensive overview of mental health challenges in college athletics — NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline emphasized that mental health and wellness is the number one concern for student-athletes.

“As more media coverage, commentary and public scrutiny are devoted to what student-athletes do off the field, along with the accompanying pressures to perform — and win games — on the field, student-athletes are inundated with factors that may affect their mental health and wellness,” Hainline wrote.

As the NCAA and its member institutions continue to learn more about mental health and discover better ways to support athletes, the demand for sports psychologists has soared. Virginia Athletics currently has two licensed clinical psychologists on staff — Sports Psychologist Jason Freeman and Associate Sports Psychologist Karen Egan. According to the 2020-2021 University of Virginia Student-Athlete Handbook, the sports psychology team’s “mission is to promote mental well-being, safety, and optimal performance in all aspects of student-athlete life.”

Freeman and Egan provide a diverse array of services ranging from mental health and well-being treatment to athletic performance enhancement. Any Virginia athlete can schedule a confidential one-on-one meeting with Freeman or Egan to address topics like performing under pressure, managing negative thoughts, goal setting, anxiety and depression.

“[The sports psychologists] help with everything from how to break down a run test and improve your times to things student-athletes struggle with in everyday life, both in and outside of athletics,” field hockey junior goalkeeper Lauren Hausheer said. “They also meet with us as whole teams to go through team goals and work through any rough patches the team may be facing.”

Hausheer — who was named to the All-ACC Academic Team in 2019 — also said that working with a sports psychologist has actually improved her play on the field.

“Working with Jason [Freeman] has helped me perform better in games by helping me handle the challenges occurring in other parts of my life so things that don't have to do with hockey stay off the field,” Hausheer said. “He has also helped me with little tricks to think about during games that help bring me out of my head and back to paying attention to the present.”

The mental health challenges that college athletes face have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, a majority of the 37,000 student-athletes who participated in the NCAA Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well-being Study “reported experiencing high rates of mental distress since the outset of the pandemic.”

In an interview with Medill Reports Chicago in April, Freeman said that student-athletes were grieving the loss of the normal structure and routine of college sports which felt like a “little death” to them. To continue to meet the needs of Virginia athletes in a pandemic, Freeman and Virginia Athletics have ensured that mental health resources remain accessible by leveraging virtual communication when in-person contact isn’t possible.

“The pandemic has stressed the mental-health of all students, including student-athletes,” Pugh said. “We have worked with sport psychology to help recognize and support student-athletes through that distress, in addition to the normal stresses caused by the demands of their sport or an injury.”

From hiring knowledgeable health professionals to building state-of-the-art facilities, the University’s athletics department has demonstrated its commitment to supporting the medical, physical, nutritional and psychological needs of its athletes.