SOWI athletes return to action with Strong Minds

June 4, 2021

The Strong Minds tent at the 2021 Region 6 Track Meet in Edgerton

When athletes in South Central Wisconsin competed at the regional track & field meet at Edgerton High School on May 9, they were returning to action after a very difficult year – one filled with unprecedented stressors and social isolation.

Thankfully, they had access to the Strong Minds clinic, an interactive learning program focused on developing adaptive coping skills to manage stress and strengthen emotional health.

The perfect time to focus on Strong Minds

According to Amy Yonker, the clinical director for Strong Minds, this competition and the clinic couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I talked with so many athletes, parents, and coaches who all shared the same sentiment: ‘this last year was so hard for our athletes,’” Yonker said. “One of the hardest parts of the last year for many was the increased isolation. We all depend on connecting with others for our mental wellness so when that was all taken away…the year took a toll.”

Amy Yonker shows some athletes some stress-reducing stretching techniques

Strong Minds debuted in Wisconsin in 2019 at the State Summer Games and its second clinic took place in March 2020 – just before the pandemic. With its emphasis on identifying and increasing awareness about active coping strategies, providing resources for athletes, coaches and caregivers, and promoting positive conversations about stress and emotional wellness, the clinic’s arrival could be a big help for the SOWI community as we begin to recover from the devastation of the global pandemic.

“I checked in with one mom who shared a lot about how challenging it was for her son to lose the structure and socialization that Special Olympics provided,” Yonker said. “We walked through the coping skills and she commented that she had wished her son had learned more about this prior to the pandemic.”

The five Strong Minds stations cover topics such as stress reduction tactics, positive messaging, and the importance of breathing, stretching and support systems. All of these topics can be critical to helping athletes and SOWI supporters manage their stress and anxiety after a nerve-racking and unpredictable year.

“Both sides of the table were helped”

The clinic wasn’t only beneficial to the athletes and their families. It also helped the volunteers, who were similarly excited to be back interacting with the athletes and working through stress relief strategies together.

Yilin Diao and Tashelle Peigen are roommates and classmates in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. They also volunteered together at the Strong Minds clinic.

Yilin Diao (L) and Tashelle Peigen at Strong Minds

After this past year, it was a welcomed opportunity for the two to once again lend a hand in their community.

“It was a really fun time to finally be out in the community when it’s been really limited. It was nice for me too, for my own mental health, being with people and getting to do what I love, which is helping people and volunteering,” Peigen said. “I think both sides of the table were helped. We gave strategies but we also got our own relief in a way.”

Returning to action can be stressful

While the stress of COVID was on the athletes’ minds, they were also vocal about their anxieties around returning to competition after such a long break.

“I know a lot of the athletes really love sports and haven’t had the chance to really participate with their teams, which has been really hard,” Diao said. “This being the first big event of the year, a lot of them were really stressed or nervous to return.”

Thankfully, Diao, Peigen and the other volunteers were there to share skills to help the athletes cope with the stress around competing once again or participating in an in-person event.

Diao shows an athlete a stress-relieving technique during Strong Minds

“I think everyone felt a little nervous transitioning back to in-person events, but we couldn’t have asked for a better Strong Minds event,” Yonker said. The event was extra safe thanks to COVID safety precautions like holding the event outside under tents and limiting exposure by keeping the athletes at one table for all five of the Strong Minds strategies instead of rotating them through different stations.

Overall, Yonker believes that the clinic was a huge success. “It was difficult to not see smiling faces behind masks though,” Yonker admits. While that’s not possible for the time being, she can take comfort in knowing that thanks to her and volunteers like Diao and Peigen, the athletes she worked with in Edgerton have Strong Minds.


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