The clunk from weighted discs getting secured to barbells precedes the command of a masked coach: “First person, first set, GO!”
Estancia High School’s athletic director and head football coach Stewart Burnett paces about 10 to 15 feet away from his pods of student-athletes as they take their reps in the school’s weight room.
“Second person, first set, GO!” Burnett says a moment later through his mask. He repeats the commands as the athletes go through multiple sets, his voice echoing in the dimly lit weight room.
The student-athletes answer Burnett’s commands with bursts of heavy breathing and grunting as they thrust their arms and push their muscles to their limits.
With Covid-19 still a threat and high school sports seasons on hold until at least next semester, student-athletes are understandably stressed. A recent survey of high school athletes across the country found that the cancellation of youth sports since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on their mental health and well-being.
The study, completed by physicians, child health experts, and researchers from UW Health and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, found that approximately 68% of the 3,243 student-athletes surveyed reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention.
But dozens of Estancia and Moriarty High School student-athletes are hitting their schools’ weight rooms a few days a week, separated in pods on different days, and reaping the physical benefits of pumping iron while finding an oasis from the Covid-19 blues.
“I think you see different things in the different pods, but there are definitely some kids that from the minute they walk in the door you can tell they’re excited,” Moriarty head football coach Gabe Romero said.
Both Moriarty and Estancia are running twice-a-week weight room regimens. Pods typically go Mondays and Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Thursdays. Some pods work out in the mornings, others in the afternoons.
“They’ve been awesome,” Burnett said. “They’re showing up and working hard.”
“We have some kids that are very dedicated, and we have some that are hit and miss,” Romero said. “The kids that are showing up and working are definitely getting stronger.”
And many of the student-athletes say the emotional dividends of weightlifting are paying off as much as the physical benefits.
“A lot of us have been stuck at home and I think it has reduced a little of my stress,” Estancia sophomore Bianca Rivera-Noblitt said. “Now that we’re doing it, it’s so much fun. We get to see everyone and if we have stress or anxiety, we can lift weights and it goes away, at least for me it does.”
Rivera-Noblitt and some other Estancia girls recently started hitting the school’s weight room in the mornings.
“Honestly, it’s great,” Estancia senior Kimber Perkins said. “Having to wear a mask is not any fun but it’s totally worth it.”
“I think it’s safe, a lot safer than what people would think, and for me, it definitely helps me get up and get moving in the morning,” Estancia senior Sydney Chavez added.
A study published in the June 2018 issue of JAMA Psychiatry, and highlighted in a Sept. 2, 2020 article in the Washington Post, suggests that weightlifting and other types of resistance exercises not only helps build muscles and strength, but also improves a person’s mood. The study analyzed 33 clinical trials for the effects of resistance exercise on depression. Results showed that people with mild to moderate depression who performed resistance training two or more days a week saw significant reductions in their symptoms, compared with people who did not.
For student-athletes who haven’t put on a uniform and played in a game since March, and who regularly have to grapple with the fluctuating guidelines from the New Mexico Activities Association, hitting the weight rooms is providing a huge boost to their moods.
“That’s the other thing,” Burnett said. “Giving them some sort of structure, some sort of routine, some actual in-person interaction, I mean at this point, it’s hard to give them anything but that’s the big motivation for me—and you can see it with the kids, they’re desperate for it.”
“I feel like the atmosphere of being in the weight room all together is much better than just being at home alone, you know?” Estancia sophomore Ja’Brae Boyer said during a recent weightlifting workout.
Estancia senior Jake Zamora added, “It’s nice being able to come here. I’d say it’s a lot better to work out with everybody all together.”
Romero said he would love to see more kids utilize Moriarty’s new weight room, but for the ones who are coming regularly, it’s clear that they look forward to it.
“You can tell they wanna be here, you know, and I think it’s not always just to get stronger, but I think that it is being able to have that interaction that we’re lacking right now,” Romero said, adding, “The physical activity is definitely an outlet and I think it definitely is helping some kids with the mental aspect.”
“It really keeps me motivated to keep going,” Moriarty sophomore Royal Page said after a weightlifting workout this week. “It keeps me hopeful for the future and happy, it really just helps me get through school and everything.”
“I’m a pretty hyper dude, so I get a lot of energy out just lifting and that really helps,” Moriarty junior Asaiah Kamplain added. “I feel ready for the next thing—I’ll probably go home and do some schoolwork.”
To see more on the study on Covid-19’s effects on high school student-athletes published in July, 2020 by UW Health and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, go to: www.uwhealth.org/news/more-than-two-thirds-of-high-school-athletes-report-anxiety-and-depression-since-pandemic/53429.
Ger has been writing and shooting photos of high school sports for The Independent for 15 years. His dedication to youth athletics goes beyond sports reporting. He is past president of East Mountain Little League and works as a baseball umpire. He lives in Edgewood with his family.