Adjusting to lockdown, in light of coronavirus news, has its challenges for all of us. But it has been especially disruptive for elite athletes for a number of reasons.
As well as limitations in going out, there have been restrictions in training with others, as well as participating in competitive sport. For some, it feels like everything they work towards and for, has been taken away without any indication of when it might return.
In an industry that leans heavily on routine, team dynamics, and a positive mindset, this may have been particularly hard to maintain at this time. Its impact shouldn’t be underestimated on how this may manifest in athletes confidence, both mentally and physically.
To help athletes maintain a sense of perspective and accept that some feelings of stress and anxiety are perfectly normal, new guidelines have been issued by The British Psychological Society.
In this feature, we examine the key take-outs, and how these can help male and female athletes stay on track during this difficult time.
A three-part approach
If sports psychology techniques teach us anything, it’s that we manage better when goals are broken down. In line with this, the guidelines are divided into three core areas, as follows:
- Mental health and dealing with uncertainty
- Maintaining social connections
- Maintaining motivation
The following advice is designed to help athletes adjust and cope with the daily adversities they face, address the rapid change of their responsibilities, and deal with self-expectations.
Part 1 – Mental health and dealing with uncertainty
The majority of sports events and competitions have been cancelled or rescheduled until further notice. If that wasn’t enough to contend with, some athletes carry the additional worry of becoming unwell and the knock-on effect this may have on performance and physical health.
Add into the mix financial worries and caring for others in their household, and it can be an overwhelming time, fuelled by anxiety and stress. Needless to say, this can impact on mental health and wellbeing if not addressed.
There are, however, some sports psychology techniques that can be used to help cope with stress and mental health issues. These can specifically help with some of the uncertainties, and importantly, they can be self-managed.
- Controlling what can be controlled
Keeping stress under control starts with identifying and focusing on what’s in your control. This might be exercising, maintaining fitness, or using the time in lockdown for personal development and growth. At the same time, there’s a necessity to accept that we can’t control everything.
Like when sports events will resume and when certain restrictions will be lifted. We should also exercise some self-care by understanding that some feelings of stress and anxiety are perfectly normal. In doing so, we are allowing ourselves to accept some of the stressful feelings we all experience from time to time. It’s important not to dismiss these either.
If possible, it will help to try and maintain a sense of perspective. Knowing that you aren’t the only athlete going through this episode, or speaking to others may help with this.
- Focusing on your response issues out of your control
Athletes have an advantage in being familiar with some sports psychology techniques already. These can be used to help you at this time, such as:
- Deep breathing
- Relaxing imagery
- Mindfulness and meditation
- Listening to music
- Routine contact with friends, family and sports coaches – within social measures
- Journaling thoughts and feelings
- Positive distractions
Research shows that using distractions and avoidance can help some athletes cope with some stressful situations.
These can be adopted in the following ways:
- Train or exercise within social guidelines
- Go for a walk. Getting back to nature is especially good for mental wellbeing
- Take up a new hobby
- Listen to a podcast
- Avoid reminders about missed sports events
Part 2 – Maintaining social connections
Athletes and sports coaches operate in a highly-sociable environment, one that is built on personal relationships, and team work. Feeling connected to others is integral to this industry, and is also an important part of our psychological health and wellbeing.
But with limitations on social contact, it’s a challenge for many to maintain effective levels of communication with others, both in and outside sport.
Considering the four key groups integral to an athlete (family, friends peers, coaching staff), there’s two methods to help manage this.
It’s not possible to maintain relations with everyone. If it’s not already clear who you should prioritise then try ‘identity mapping’. This involves drawing a ‘map’ of those who are meaningful to you. It could be family ties, sports teams, etc. Next to each of these groups identify how you connect with them (if you do), reflecting on the support you take and receive within these groups.
- Bring a compass
The ‘COMPASS model’ is another valuable tool, designed to enhance athlete-sports coach relations. It outlines seven useful strategies for maintaining contact:
- Conflict management, identifying and resolving issues
- Openness, keeping the lines of communication open
- Motivation, the rewards of an active partnership
- Positivity, keeping each other upbeat
- Advice, providing feedback
- Support, helpful actions during difficult times
- Social networks, communication with wider groups
As we know, relationships are reciprocal and must work two-way. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open for emotional support, practical help and for keeping in touch.
Part 3 – Maintaining motivation
The regularity of routine is something that binds all athletes together. Years of early morning training sessions, pushing yourself to improve, and competing against others takes a certain drive and tenacity – often with a goal at the end. Suddenly due to coronavirus news, this well-honed regime and all the goals that accompany it have been taken away. Anything that was once familiar is no longer present. It’s no surprise that this can impact on mental wellbeing.
What can help, is learning to adopt self-regulation strategies and reviewing goals. These may increase feelings of self-control in the process. Drawing upon sports coaching, here’s how you can readdress this:
- Daily structure
Creating a daily structure in your life is advisable for anyone struggling with self-regulation. If you’re wondering where to start, consider using the same goal-setting principles you would with your sports coach, applying these to every aspect of your life that needs a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps it’s also the right time to set new goals – ones you said you’d ‘get around to doing’ but haven’t as yet found the time.
As part of this, you may also want to consider:
- Creating new social networks to maintain contact
- Adopting new sports or practices to uphold your physical wellbeing like indoor golf or Pilates
- Enhancing your personal development by taking up a new hobby (art, knitting, a different sport)
- Journaling – it has been found to help many struggling with worries and concerns
Equally as important to the process is logging and reviewing these goals on a daily or weekly basis, as you would in training. The familiarity of this structure and the sense of self-worth it brings will prove useful.
- Readjusting goals
Planning ahead is something that athletes do with great ease. It’s often part of a training programme or goal setting. Take this concept and apply it your new life goals. You may call these ‘Mastery goals’ – simply put, self-improvement. Be it honing your golf swing, or mastering a new language, whatever you choose will help rekindle and maintain a sense of motivation and sense of purpose leading us into the ‘new normal’.
Many sports professionals use the ‘5R Cycle’ which can be applied to this process as follows. As with fitness goals, share this with family, friends and your sports coach as you develop it.
The 5R Cycle
- Reflection: take a moment to assess where you are
- Re-evaluate: what could you be doing better than you currently are?
- Review: consider the mastery goals that can aid you
- Revise: your new plan
- Record: commit your objectives to paper
The importance of sports psychology goal setting is to establish goals that are realistic. You will only be disheartened or deterred if you find early on, that you’re making no progress because you set the bar too high. When in doubt, reach out to your social network for feedback.
One of the advantages of being an athlete at this time, is the foundations already in place to build upon. You should have some knowledge of goal setting from your work with a sports coach, and be familiar with self-management once a framework is in place. Most important of all, you’ll need to have an open and honest dialogue with yourself, and those in your close social circle to see you through the challenges ahead.
And all these guidelines reinforce, is what you know already and adapting it to a new situation. At a time when health and wellbeing has never been more important to maintain, please refer back to these guidelines whenever you feel necessary. In time, you will see the positive impact they bring.