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Health, Sports & Psychology
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Coronavirus: How can athletes get through this period of isolation?

Updated Tuesday, 31st March 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic is affecting all of our lives in different ways - but have you considered its impact on sportspeople and athletes?

A sign outside a theatre which reads 'The world is temporarily closed'

It is fair to say that while sport may be at the centre of a lot of people’s lives, its significance is vastly diminished during this public health crisis. People have been shocked at the postponement of major sports events, such as the 2020 Olympic Games, but this is a minor issue when we consider there are thousands of people around the world dying daily. However, the loss of live sport has left a chasm in the changing lives of millions of people and in particular those for whom performance sport is their livelihood.

What is the problem?

Sports teams and athletes are dependent on having people around them to train with, compete against and be supported by. Isolation makes this nearly impossible as team mates, coaches and support staff are kept at a distance and often restricted to online access. Gyms and athletic facilities have been closed and access to medical services has been minimised. Now most sporting events have been postponed, or cancelled, adding uncertainty to athletes' lives. There are huge numbers of athletes, footballers, cricketers, rugby players and so on not knowing when they will play again but also having to be fit and ready to go when they are asked to return to their sport. In all likelihood, when sport does return they will be expected to play a lot of sport in a compressed period of time. Potentially, Premier League footballers could be asked to complete this season, then start the next season almost immediately and then possibly be involved in the European Championships next June and the World Cup the year after. Track and Field athletes now face a schedule where the World Championships, European Championships and the Commonwealth Games are all scheduled to be held within a four week period in 2022.

This shows women from different teams playing against each other.

Clearly the stress load on athletes will be amplified at this time. This period of change and uncertainty over what the future will bring can increase feelings of stress and worry. Athletes will have been planning to peak at certain times and these plans are now irrelevant. There may be financial issues as the income coming into sport is falling and lottery funding may be affected. Life events such as weddings and birthday celebrations are being postponed and personal relationships are being tested. In addition to this they may potentially have more time to consider these things and find it difficult to burn off their excess energy. Motivation may be affected as their goals and targets become longer term and less pressing. There could be a tendency to become lazy and develop a ‘who cares’ attitude. Burnout in the future is a real problem with a compressed schedule being a feature of sport over the next couple of years. Burnout is also linked to the increased stress and anxiety that athletes may be currently experiencing.

What can athletes be doing?

  1. Be resilient. Resilience is the key, as how athletes adapt now will impact on how they perform in the future. In particular, resilience relative to how their competitors are reacting and coping. If they can adapt in a better way than their opponents then they will come back to sport better prepared.
  2. Adjust their goals. Athletes need to view this period as an opportunity to keep improving and while their goals won't change, the timeline for these goals will need to be adjusted.
  3. Use the time wisely. The additional time should be used as an opportunity to work on things that they have neglected or not been able to work on previously. For example, understanding nutrition and trying out new nutritional strategies, working on their mental skills and mental preparation, or analysing their technical performance.
  4. Protect against burnout. This period of staying at home offers athletes the chance to rest more, get over those injuries that have been niggling away, practice relaxation techniques and build up energy supplies for the future. The mental and physical rest will help athletes guard against, but not prevent, burnout when sport returns.
  5. Focus on other things. Athletes can be notorious for being shackled to their sport at the expense of everything else. Sport can breed obsession and perfectionism and now can be a time to focus on other pursuits. This may include studying something they are interested in, finding new hobbies, or just chilling out. 
There is a single weight on a gym floor

Those resilient athletes who can adapt have the potential to come through this difficult period stronger and better prepared for the challenges to come. There is also the problem of boredom and lack of stimulation. However, as many families forced to stay at home are finding out, boredom can be a powerful stimulus for creativity and innovation. Ultimately the most important is keeping safe and healthy and maintaining a positive mindset.

 

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