By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There have been so many issues and emotions to sort out for the University of Michigan’s 900-plus student-athletes dating back to March 12 — when the NCAA canceled postseason play for winter sports amid the coronavirus pandemic — and continued with the Big Ten’s postponement of the fall sports schedule earlier this month.
Athletic, academic and personal concerns have been very real and quite constant.
Abigail Eiler, the Wolverines’ director of athletic counseling, and her staff of six realized a quick and ongoing spike in the need for their services.
“We’ve had 2,500 face-to-face, video or phone counseling sessions from the beginning of COVID(-19) to the beginning of August,” Eiler said of the five-month period. “That’s significantly higher than over that same time period last year — the end of winter term through the spring-summer term. It’s about 30-percent higher.”
Eiler, a former Wolverine water polo player, replaced long-time director Greg Harden during this hectic and trying time. Harden, a guru to many of the program’s greatest student-athletes such as Tom Brady and Desmond Howard, retired in June. Eiler thrived on Harden’s staff, and now runs the program.
“The staff is always changing,” said Eiler, who also serves as a counselor. “But right now, I have one MSW (Master’s In Social Work) intern. I have one MSW fellow. I have three counselors and one coordinator who also acts as a counselor.
“The counselors are not sport-specific. They are assigned based off of student-athlete preference, as well as best fit for whatever their problem is.”
She said efforts such as the Champions Fund — which raises much-needed financial support for mental health counseling as well as nutrition, athletic medicine, strength and conditioning, international travel, leadership development and career preparation — are critical.
That fundraising campaign benefiting all 31 intercollegiate teams offered by the Wolverines kicked off its Champions Challenge on Sept. 22 with the goal to acquire 4,500 unique donors.
“We supply a range of services — from those looking to optimize performances to those that are struggling with pretty severe and significant mental health-related concerns and disorders and everything in between,” said Eiler. “We deal with things the individuals and the teams are going through. We’re responsive to the needs of the ones we’re working with.
“Things that we’ve done over the last several years — but specifically during COVID and during this uncertain time — are flexibility and service-related issues that we have to navigate through so that we can be available to our student-athletes 24 hours a day.”
Eiler was asked if athletic donor contributions have been central to all they offer.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We have an endowed fellowship family, the Ehrenberg family from New York, that has allowed us to reach more student-athletes and…