By NanakiJ | Oct 02, 2020, 10:39 PM IST

From Lockdown to Playing Grounds: Psychological Strategies to Help Athletes Cope with the New Normal

The sudden and unforeseen outbreak of the novel coronavirus has deeply obstructed the daily lives of individuals all across the world. While the majority of the population is discussing, debating and deliberating about tanking economies, fluid government policies, overburdened healthcare systems and several thousands of casualties caused by COVID-19, there is also a large population of sportspersons suffering from a sense of uncertainty about their future.

Over the past few months, the cancellation and postponement of major sporting events and the closure of all training facilities have disrupted orderly regimes of athletes and restrained them within the walls of their homes. The sense of confinement that has come from the quarantine period has had a debilitating impact on the psychological well-being of athletes. Sporting legends like Serena Williams, Clarisse Agbegnenou, and Michael Phelps have shared their personal experiences of undergoing a turmoil of emotions, accompanied by instability and confusion.

Nonetheless, now as countries begin to ease restrictions and lift the lockdowns, professional sporting events are recommencing with athletes carefully returning to their playing arenas. With the football leagues, Formula One, golf and cricket restarting its season behind closed doors, players are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

While for some athletes returning to sports might seem like a breath of fresh air, others might be grappling with the mayhem and distress inculcated by the virus. Despite the lockdowns, the number of COVID-19 cases continue to surge rapidly across the sphere, leaving athletes on the horns of dilemma. Moreover, the increase of COVID-19 cases within the sporting fraternity with some prominent athletes like Novak Djokovic and a few others contracting the virus has further magnified the paranoia amongst sportspersons.

However, amid the pandemic, sporting authorities and organisations are making all the necessary efforts and leaving no stone unturned to create a physically safe and bio-secure environment for the athletes to compete in.

While all the necessary precautions are being taken and athletes are preparing themselves to return to sport, it is also necessary for them to work on the mental aspect of their game alongside fine tuning their technique and physically strengthening their bodies in order to manage the psychological demands of the current unprecedented situation.

As a Chartered Sport and Performance Psychologist with the British Psychological Society (BPS), I outline the following psychological strategies that can help athletes adapt to the new normal and assist them in getting back to the field successfully:

Establish a re-entry plan by setting realistic goals

The journey of athletes returning back to sports after a prolonged period of sedentariness might be challenging with the path being obstructed with potholes and barriers. For instance, athletes might struggle to get back into their earlier fitness levels and also feel rusty while stepping out onto the field after a long break.

However, to safely return to training and avoid any injuries, it is important for athletes to have a re-entry plan by recalibrating their short-term and long-term goals with the assistance of their coaches and other support staff members.

When resuming practice, some athletes might find themselves feeling disoriented, lacking motivation and experiencing frustration, as the goals that they had set earlier have now diminished. Therefore, re-setting goals will help them navigate their way back into play proficiently, as it will provide them with a sense of direction and clear focus. Further, setting goals will have a positive impact on their motivation levels and will allow athletes to remain energised and productive during training and competitions.

Overall, setting realistic goals and progressing forward step-by-step will prevent overexertion and burnout among players, permitting them to gradually reach their optimal level of preparedness for future upcoming events. 

Control the controllables

In times of such uncertainty, many athletes might find themselves experiencing immense stress and anxiety by focusing on things that are not directly in their control. For instance, When will this end? What if I contract the virus? What impact will it have?

While these kinds of thoughts are valid and understandable, they can result in excessive stress and anxiety, fear, anger and disappointment, as athletes are investing a great deal of their time and energy over aspects that they have no control over. Therefore, it is essential for sportspersons to divert their attention to things they can control in the current bizarre situation.

Instead of constantly worrying about the unpredictable scenario and fearing contracting the virus, the athletes should divert their focus and energy on aspects that are within their control. For instance, athletes should take care of their nutrition and sleeping patterns, focus on exercising and training safely, follow physical distancing protocols and wear a mask and sanitise their hands when required.

During these challenging times, athletes should ‘control the controllables‘ to keep their stress and anxiety levels at bay.

Learn to cope with the absence of crowd during competitions

The sporting events, besides being defined by which player shines or team triumphs, is also characterised by its exhilarating atmosphere with the cheering and elated shrieks of the crowd when athletes exhibit mastery in their performances.

Within sports, it is believed that the presence of a crowd can facilitate performance, as athletes tend to push themselves and aspire to perform to their best abilities when friends, family or others are watching them. The presence of an audience is often believed to increase the arousal levels and in turn, enhance performance among skilled sportspersons.

Though the games are commencing after the hiatus caused by COVID-19; this time in the absence of spectators. The establishments are trying to reconstruct an illusionary experience by incorporating fake crowd noise, cardboard banners of fan cut-outs and creating Zoom walls via video calls on big screens. Nevertheless, some players and teams might still experience psychological challenges due to lack of viewers that can have a drastic impact on their performance. For instance, the performance of all the home teams in the German domestic circuit was impacted with them performing poorly compared to pre-Covid-19 games, by having scored fewer goals than they did in jam-packed arenas.

The show must go on

Under such circumstances, it is important for athletes to intrinsically motivate themselves in order to be aroused and stimulated throughout the competition. The athletes should concentrate on improving their performance rather than focusing on the final outcome of the sporting event. For instance, the players should focus on their personal performance goals and challenge themselves to outdo their own previous records. This way, the athletes will feel more in control of their performance and the personal satisfaction of attaining their goals will keep them involved and determined throughout their participation in sports.

First published in Psychreg on 2nd October, 2020