Mental strain: Sports psychologists discuss coping with covid19

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THE covid19 pandemic has been affecting many people in different ways. But how has it been affecting athletes and other employees in the sporting world?

Newsday chatted with sports psychology consultants Amanda Johnson, Jelani Robertson, Nadine Sammy, and Alexandria Olton from the Sport Company of TT (SPORTT) to gain some insight.

All of the consultants agreed, like many others, athletes are experiencing higher amounts of fear, anxiety and sadness owing to covid19. And with most major and minor sporting events either cancelled or postponed, many may also be experiencing disappointment.

Robertson said since athletes are used to having strict training regimens, the restrictions set because of the pandemic have “completely destabilised” their regimented existence.

“A common day for an athlete may involve waking at sunrise for an early morning training session, then eating and recovering, going to a day job – if they have one – before returning to train in the afternoon/evening.

“Athletes – particularly those who strongly identify with their sporting ability – may possibly be experiencing strong feelings of loss, anxiety, and general overwhelmingness, as the levels of predictability and control they previously enjoyed have been adversely affected.” Johnson said many athletes now have to adapt to smaller, more confined training environments – often with a lack of equipment, and the absence of team members for those involved in team sports. She added that those who were either nearing the end of their career or transitioning to another level in their sporting discipline may be affected a bit more.

“Athletes such as these previously had more transitionary plans in place and due to cancellations are required to make major changes in the very near future.”

Olton shared similar sentiments, saying, “If you’re considering athletes who might have retired after these Olympic Games, they might certainly be coping with disappointment and having to reconsider major life decisions such as possibly pursuing another year of training to compete in 2021 or simply calling it a day. The covid19 pandemic is leaning in on our athletes’ resilience and mental toughness.”

Sammy said feelings will vary based on the athlete, noting that while some may feel lethargic and others may feel hyperactive. But she said one must not forget that everyone’s feelings are valid.

But there are workers such as coaches, physiotherapists and other professionals that assist athletes on their journeys. They too are experiencing the brunt of the pandemic.

Many coaches, however, have been trying to find creative and innovative ways to continue training their athletes. For instance, some have been using video conferencing platforms like Zoom, or guide athletes to use “anything they have at home” that can serve as substitutes for some gym equipment.

Johnson said, “This is where factors such as trust, accountability, responsibility and empowerment need to be part of the dynamic as coaches are not able to judge effort levels en vivo. Thus, feedback versus observations is now crucial. This may mean more administrative work for coaches however a process such as this, once implemented effectively can lead to improved coach/athlete relationships in the future.”

Other workers such as groundsmen, referees, etc may also be facing job uncertainty. While, for some, these are additional or “side jobs,” it’s the only source of many people’s incomes.

“They certainly will feel the effects, as we all have,” Olton told Newsday. “The mental strain that such a situation raises is very real for many of us; especially those whose jobs have been deemed ‘non-essential.’ There are financial ramifications for many. Now more than ever our coaches and technical staff need as much support as the athlete.”

Each consultant highlighted coping mechanisms that can be used by sportspersons as well as technical staff. They also recently hosted a series called Coping with Covid19 on SPORTT’s social media platforms.

They covered topics such as the importance of setting routines, using journaling to deal with emotions, and techniques for a better night’s rest. The sessions were done live and were interactive, so athletes, and non-athletes alike, were able to ask questions and get instant feedback.

Johnson said it is “essential” for athletes to become aware of the thoughts, emotions and feelings they experience.

“In the more difficult moments, (they should) be kind and patient with themselves and understand that this is a time of the unknown and it’s okay to take time to figure it out. This is not a time to feel guilty about what you ‘should’ be doing.”

She said since athletes are “overly active” by nature, the shift can cause a shock to their systems.

“Set small goals or tasks you want to accomplish along the way to keep the motivation and fulfilment factors.”

Robertson said routines help empower individuals by creating a sense of control.

“Their (routines’) potential impact in these times cannot be understated.

“Journaling or recording their daily experiences may also be an effective coping mechanism for athletes. Logging daily workouts and progress may help buffer athletes’ confidence despite the lack of access to training fields or facilities while noting one to three things which he/she is grateful for each day may help with general well-being and may also be another effective use of a journal.”

Sammy also suggested lighter forms of coping such as mediation singing, drawing or playing an instrument, and distraction activities such as watching movies, baking and gardening. But she added, “Problem-focused coping revolves around decreasing or eliminating the sources of stress and includes such strategies as problem-solving, seeking social support and time management.” Support systems such as friends and family can also help athletes’ cope during this period of fear and uncertainty. As simple as it may be, a listening ear can help out a lot.

“During this time, we all have to employ our compassionate listening skills and simply allow someone to ‘vent’ or have an ‘off’ moment. If you do live with an athlete, you can become involved in some of their workouts and assist them which in turn can allow you to fill your quote of physical wellness,” Johnson told Newsday.

Robertson said the role of support systems in promoting mental wellness cannot be overstated.

He suggested: “Check-up on or simply have a casual conversation, validating and acknowledging the athlete’s experience, especially if he/she is experiencing negative affective symptomology such as disappointment, frustration, sadness, etc.; encouraging the athlete to continue training at home.”

Olton agreed, saying, “Providing a safe and non-judgmental space is the easiest. Simply knowing someone is there can be enough.”

And Sammy said these support systems must also remember to give the athletes’ space if they need it, as they may not always be in the mood for such interactions.

Johnson said based on her conversations with athletes thus far, what they miss most is the training environment, interactions with teammates, training partners, etc.

She said they should focus on their mental wellness during this time and celebrate as many small wins as they can. Asked what message she has for athletes, she said, “This period of difficulty will pass. In future training and competitions, it is these times that will remind them that they possess the skills and mindset to get through it.” Robertson urged them to be kind to themselves. He said, “It’s easy to get down on yourself in this time for not doing ‘enough’ – not working out (hard) enough, not being productive enough, not sleeping enough, and the list goes on. It’s okay if you don’t complete everything you wanted to in one day. Practise self-kindness if everything isn’t done.”

Olton said, “You don’t have to endure this situation alone. Even if you live alone reach out to us virtually. We’re all in this together.”

The post Mental strain: Sports psychologists discuss coping with covid19 appeared first on Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.

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