By Nanaki J. Chadha | Apr 15, 2020, 2:05 PM IST

Psychological Strategies for Athletes in the Time of COVID-19

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a maelstrom all across the globe, bringing the world to a standstill. The sporting industry has seen the postponement and cancellation of sporting events, and the subsequent closure of training facilities has caused uncertainty and immense stress and anxiety among the athletes.

In such an unprecedented time, some athletes might utilise the time to recuperate from their hectic competitive schedules, whereas, others might struggle to cope with the unexpected disruption in their preparations. Also, this sudden halt in sports has thrown some athletes off their stride and sent them into a wave of emotions (like experiencing excessive anxiety and stress, fear, anger, frustration, and disappointment). 

Mental health is a serious concern within the high-performance sporting environment, and some athletes have voiced their concerns with regards to the mental well-being of athletes. In a recent India Today article, Michael Phelps said that: ‘As athletes, we’re so regimented. At this point, all the work is done. We’re just fine tuning the small things to get to this point. Now it’s like, “Oh … we’re not competing,” All these emotions start flaring up. I really think mental health is so important right now.’ 

Similarly, the Australian cricket coach Justin Langer advocated the need to ‘keep an eye on players and staff living alone‘.

The emphasis of mental well-being from both men is an issue that must be addressed, and, as such, cannot be accomplished without providing athletes with adequate psychological support. 

As a sport and performance psychologist, I also had an opportunity to chat with the former Indian cricketer and now a coach and commentator, S. Badrinath and understand his perspective on how athletes can best utilise their time and focus on their mental well-being during the lockdown period.

From the conversation and my work in sport and performance psychology, I sketch out a few strategies below that athletes can adopt to cope with the current scenario. 

Control the controllables

During quarantine, many athletes, parents, and coaches might find themselves experiencing immense stress and anxiety by focusing on things that are not directly in their control. From my discussion with athletes and coaches the thoughts that came forefront were: ‘When will this end? When is our next event? What will happen? When will a cure be found?’ Thus, individuals are investing a great deal of their energy on aspects they have no control over.

While these kinds of thoughts are valid and understandable, they can result in excessive stress and anxiety, fear, anger, frustration and disappointment, athletes have no control over the current situation. Therefore, it is essential for athletes, parents, and coaches to divert their attention to things they can control.

In sport psychology, we as practitioners often find ourselves reminding athletes to focus on things that they can control within their performance environment. Indeed, Michael Phelps echoed that: ‘Just control what you can control. We’re in such uncharted waters. We’re getting all these big questions thrown at us: What if? What if? What if? It’s so hard to understand. We’re having a hard time just wrapping our head around it.’

Further, in my conversation with S. Badrinath he reiterated: ‘What has happened is beyond the control of athletes, they cannot do anything about this. It is non-controllable. So they have to just let it go and see where they stand, and keep themselves motivated.’

Therefore, encouraging athletes to shift their focus on things that are under their control such as solidifying a new daily routine by incorporating activities that are essential for an athlete’s sport (such as proper sleep and diet, self-care, some form of exercise, etc.) can help them come up with a structured plan which will allow athletes to focus on the right things and help them overcome their internal negative dialogues.

Also, re-calibrating their short-term and long-term goals with the help of their coaches can provide athletes with a sense of direction and clear focus, which can have a positive impact on important psychological states such as confidence and motivation.

Badrinath further supported these strategies and emphasised on the importance of resetting goals for the athletes and stated that: ‘Goal-setting is really really important. The board is clear again, have to erase everything and start a fresh.’

He also added that athletes could cope with their stress and anxiety by incorporating some form of exercise in their daily routine. Additionally, athletes watching their previous performances and replaying the successful matches and innings in their mind can help athletes maintain their self-confidence and remain positive under such circumstances.

For athletes, it is natural to experience an array of emotions in the current situation. However, it is essential for them to realise that their feelings are stemming from the way they are thinking or perceiving the current adversity. For instance, athletes might be engaging in unhelpful and misguided thoughts (‘This is absolutely awful,’ ‘I cannot stand this,’ and ‘This is terrible for my future,’ etc.) might be experiencing immense stress and anxiety.

Therefore, it is crucial for athletes to recognise their unhelpful thoughts and defuse them by thinking in a more logical and helpful manner about the situation. They need to understand the condition is currently difficult and unpleasant for everyone and accept their thoughts for what they are – just thoughts and not reality. 

Further, with cities and countries being locked down, alongside authorities urging social distancing, a feeling of isolation can spread amongst the athlete population. However, coaches, parents, and indeed anybody working in sport, may experience stress and anxiety during such times of difficulty. In such times, it is in the control of the athletes, and everyone else, to stay connected, and not isolated. 

While, we are limited to our physical interaction with individuals, the current technological era makes it possible for athletes to be virtually connected with their support networks. Therefore, being connected with their peers, teammates, and coaches can help athletes feel supported and eliminate the sense of isolation. 

During such an extraordinary situation, athletes should acknowledge and accept that there are things that are not in their control. Hence, they should invest their mental energy and resources on aspects that are in their control.

First published in Psychreg on 15th April, 2020.