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Mariah Monroy, a junior, is a three-sport star for the Cherryvale Chargers. A front row talent in volleyball, first team all-league in basketball and reigning Class 3A triple jump state champion in track, Monroy bears more than her fair share of the load for the school’s girls athletic program.
So it was no surprise that, when an emotionally taxing basketball season ended with a loss in the sub-state championship, Monroy was completely gassed.
“She was literally dead,” Cherryvale girls basketball head coach Kelsey Overacker said. “In the last game of the year, I had to pull her out of the game because I was frustrated with her. Later that night, I thought to myself that she would’ve made the plays if she wasn’t exhausted. In the few games before that, she was on the floor the whole game carrying us.”
Monroy’s case may be an outlier on the spectrum of student-athlete health — three starters for Cherryvale suffered knee injuries, two of them season-ending, that forced Monroy into a role where she rarely sat on the bench. She missed most of the prior volleyball season in the fall due to a back injury.
By March, Monroy’s body was breaking.
“I had to spend a lot more time with a sports medicine doctor at the time,” Monroy said. “They said I probably shouldn’t be playing and told me nothing would get better until I sat out.”
Monroy was set to go straight from basketball to track to defend a state triple jump title before the COVID-19 pandemic forced KSHSAA to cancel all spring sports.
The psychological and social impact of the loss of sports has been felt all around the country. The loss of games is one of the loudest voids created by the coronavirus pandemic.
But a silver lining for Monroy is that, after months of nearly non-stop athletics in an era where youth sports injuries are on the rise nationwide, she is finally getting much-needed rest from the rigors of being in season.
“It’s getting better. My body’s getting to rest,” Monroy said. “I’m not in constant pain anymore.”
How much of an outlier is Monroy?
While she was a starter on a team riddled with injuries that came one game short of a state tournament berth, athletes across all levels are constantly pushing their bodies to the limit. Breaks are few and far between for multi-sport athletes. Couple that with rigorous, frequent summer programs hosted by schools and club sports and the workload has unquestionably swelled.
With sports at a standstill, awaiting the passage of a global pandemic, athletes are forced to get off their feet.
“This rest is going to be good for the small and big issues in injuries,” said Chris Brown, the athletic trainer for both Parsons and Labette County who is employed by Labette Health. “A lot of athletes go from football to basketball to track and never get a chance to take a breath. As the saying goes, time heals all wounds.”
Anna Dean, a sophomore three-sport athlete at Labette County, acknowledges the need for near-constant training balanced with time off.
“I think all the activity helps everybody get stronger and ready for the season, which is tougher on the body,” Dean said. “I also feel like resting is important. Your body is so worn out. Your energy is gone. You need that time to get it back.”
Many in the Labette County athletic department, including the basketball coaching staff, highlighted Dean as one of the athletes in most need of rest.
“She hasn’t had a week off,” Labette County assistant volleyball and girls basketball coach Brianna Volmer said. “This time lets her get her legs underneath her.
“I’d say 75% to 85% of our volleyball and basketball athletes were three-sport athletes They don’t get time off. We know the kids are tired. So now this forces kids to get some rest.”
There are a myriad of variables that contribute to the rise of injuries in youth sports around the country. A chief culprit is specialization — according to an ESPN report last year, athletes that participate almost exclusively in one sport are 125% more likely to suffer serious overuse injuries.
Specialization is more rare in smaller communities like Southeast Kansas. More common is the case of athletes participating in multiple sports simultaneously.
“Kids generally don’t only play the sport they’re in,” Parsons Athletic Director Rob Barcus said. “Kids will go to the rec and do other things. A lot of these kids get zero rest. This shutdown is forcing them to rest.”
With spring sports lost, fall sports coaches anxiously await for if, and when, sports will return. While coaches and schools are sending athletes workouts to stay in shape through the stoppage, it’s expected that many athletes will return to school workouts out of shape to varying degrees.
“That’s going to fall on the coach’s shoulders. They’ll have to adapt as we see that the end is near,” Brown said. “If we get a date where we can get back in the swing of things, the coaches can tell their athletes to start getting back in shape.”
Kurt Friess, the Parsons head football coach, anticipates inheriting a team with a renewed enthusiasm.
“How can we make this situation as a potential negative and make it a positive? I jump to getting fresh legs,” Friess said. “Once you move past that, these athletes will get a clarity of focus. A lot of these kids never get a chance to take a deep breath.”
The acclimation process back for athletes will likely prove as arduous as the wait time for the pandemic to pass.
“At the end, what’s best for the kids is best for the program,” Overacker said. “Say we get a shortened summer, we’ll have to come together as coaches and figure out what’s best. You don’t want to cram in as much as you can, that won’t benefit anybody.”
While shaking off the cobwebs will be a wall to break through initially, coaches and schools across the region, state and country will see players return as healthy as they’ve ever been — no nagging injuries that inhibit production.
Will the value of that health spark a cultural shift in the workload commanded of athletes?
This is where opinions diverge.
“I hope so. But I wouldn’t bank on it,” Friess said. “There’s a lot of coaches that are ultra competitive and don’t want to lose any time. I’m a big believer in kids playing multiple sports and being active. But I also believe that in the summertime, it should be a chance where kids aren’t being overworked. Coaches need to be aware of the miles on the bodies these keeps are putting on.”
The months off because of the pandemic is obviously on the extreme end of a spectrum, but Brown anticipates coaches may make minor adjustments to ease the stress put on athletes’ bodies in the future.
“Obviously it won’t be the extent of multiple months,” Brown said. “But maybe we give them a week in June truly off. We can start letting them be kids a little more. The body needs rest and time to recover. If you’re always on the go, something is bound to break. It’s never a matter of if but when. So I can see little small breaks throughout the summer being more common.”
Normal life post-coronavirus will not mirror life prior to the pandemic.
For now, athletes are getting rest that they need. But we also need sports to come back the right way, and that includes managing the health of athletes.
“Coaches will have to find the balance of getting kids back in shape without injuring them,” Barcus said. “Coaches generally aren’t known for their patience. Now we’ll be forced into it.”