The life of Division I collegiate student-athletes is not a typical one. Not only do they have the same demands as any regular student on campus, but they also have a litany of responsibilities outside of having to maintain a good grade point average.
Illinois State student-athletes often start their day as early as 6 a.m. in order to get a lift in before grabbing a quick breakfast and heading to class. Between the regular demands of classes and homework, Redbird athletes also must manage a schedule filled with team meetings and practices.
It can be taxing on them, both physically and mentally. The physical part is taken care of by the department’s athletic trainers, team doctors, strength and conditioning and nutrition staff. The mental part is taken care of by Dr. Samantha Kurkjian, ISU’s resident Sport Psychologist, better known to ISU coaches, student-athletes and staff simply as Dr. Sam.
Kurkjian joined Illinois State in the fall of 2016 after completing a Clinical Sport Psychology Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Southern California (USC). She completed her pre-doctoral internship at the University of Connecticut (UCONN) and earned her Psy.D. in Clinical and Sport Psychology from the Arizona School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, Phoenix in 2015.
Her primary focus at ISU is working with student-athletes, both individually for clinical and/or sport performance concerns and, in a team format, developing mental skills for performance. She uses an integrated approach to clinical services, incorporating psychodynamic, interpersonal, cognitive-behavioral, and dialectical behavioral theories and interventions to address a wide range of presenting concerns facing student-athletes, from depression and anxiety to sport-injury and retirement issues. She also has a background in treating substance use and eating concerns.
Maybe now more than ever, Dr. Sam’s skills are being put to the test as the lives and normal routines of ISU student-athletes have been drastically altered due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. With people quarantined at home and separated from family, friends, and co-workers, stress and anxiety levels can be extremely elevated.
“I think it’s so important to stay connected to teammates, coaches, friends, and family at this time,” Kurkjian said. “There’s some argument that social media is too overwhelming during this pandemic, but there are others out there that feel it’s the main way for them to still feel connected to the world at large right. That’s why I’ve tried to use my platform with ISU Sport Psychology on social media to provide links and resources to get the help they need. That’s most of what Student Counseling Services, myself included, have been working on since this started.”
With the inability to meet face-to-face with student-athletes in need of assistance, Kurkjian has modified many of her techniques to offer them the help they need.
“Like many other groups around campus, Zoom has been the tool of choice for us. In terms of individual clients, Student Counseling Services and the University attorneys worked very hard to get a telemental health system set up that is secure, confidential and meets all the state and federal guidelines,” Kurkjian stated. “That launched recently and allows us to meet with our clients online. Before that was ready, we had to do case management appointments just to keep them afloat, but now we can actually resume our regular services.”
Illinois State student-athletes are a diverse group, comprised of women and men from all over the United States and countries overseas. When student-athletes returned from spring break and were told to head home, that meant that many of them hopped in cars, trains, busses or planes to protect their health and safety. That added another wrinkle for Kurkjian, who, in some instances, cannot practice across state lines. However, she immediately went to work and reached out to a network of sport psychology professionals around the country and world to combine lists and set up services for student-athletes close to home.
With individual services now up and running as best as they can due to the circumstances, the focus has shifted to the second portion of her job with ISU Athletics in team services. It was not uncommon to see Kurkjian at a team meeting or on the sidelines at practice to keep tabs on the teams she assisted, but that too has changed with all practices and contests canceled for the spring.
“One team that I was working with had a whole spring program set up that was going to span five weeks and include various topics,” Kurkjian said. “So, what I’ve done is modify that a bit and use technology like chat features and small-group features on Zoom to continue to help teach them those skills. I have also used some online games that would be helpful for them in and out of their sport. Mindfulness is going to be key for students who are struggling to maintain their focus through all of this. I’ve had a couple of check-ins with teams just to see how they are doing and adjusting to their new routines and I’ve also checked in with seniors who had their final seasons canceled unexpectedly. The key is to keep them connected as teammates and re-enforce those existing relationships.”
Illinois State is committed to the well-being and success of all students. Student Counseling Services, in conjunction with Student Health Services, Health Promotion, and Wellness and Campus Recreation, have a myriad of programs available to students that can help them succeed. The last few weeks have brought unprecedented levels of change to student lives including changes in how they learn and go to school, changes in work and employment, and changes in their social lives.
In response to the unprecedented challenges facing students, the ISU Division of Student Affairs is now offering resources to help Redbirds continue to thrive, even though they are separated and away from campus. It includes ways to help manage anxiety, social isolation, grief, financial stress, and physical fitness help.
“The University is providing a lot links to our student-athletes and all students on campus through Redbirds Keep Thriving,” Kurkjian commented. “They are doing Zoom meetings on a variety of topics like managing anxiety, financial stress, and grief at this time that students can just drop-in on. There is also a relaxation room that offers resources on how to de-stress and stay calm. When I can provide these options to the student-athletes, in addition to what I can do to help them one-on-one or as a team, it only gives them more resources to help manage during this difficult time.”
Armed with tools for success and resources at their fingertips, ISU student-athletes are in good hands when it comes to their mental health thanks to Kurkjian. Despite all the challenges they are facing and the uncertainty that lies ahead, she believes ISU student-athletes have risen to the challenge.
“I’ve been so impressed with our student-athletes’ resilience throughout all of this because it is a scary time for us all. The teams I’ve checked in with are using all of the strengths and skills that make them good student-athletes and they’ve put that into making sure their days are structured and efficient,” Kurkjian stated. “They’ve done a great job of checking in with each other via their team communication apps to make sure everyone is connected. Now they have even more resources available to them that should make things easier as this continues on.”