After months of lockdown, society is slowing starting to return to some ‘normality’. Much like a staggered return to work, athletes will be thinking of the best ways they can return to a training regime. One that is safe, supports their wellbeing and wider sports training.
To help with this challenging transitional period, The English Institute of Sport has partnered with performance, lifestyle and mental health experts to issue helpful guidelines. Based on a robust NHS framework, these aim to ease athletes back into training with a considered approach.
In this feature, we look at how athletes, staff, sports coaches and anyone in the sports industry can enjoy a phased return, based on information provided in the guidelines.
Five Identified Phases
Coronavirus news has dominated our lives for the past few months, so any return to pre-lockdown measures should be considered.
The guidelines have identified five different psychological phases we typically go through during a crisis. Let’s take a look at these in more detail, applying it to the sports community:
- Anticipation Phase – In the early stages, the individual might be anticipating anxiety to come. This is a time of organising, expressing and acknowledging.
- Initial Impact Phase – Known as the adapting period, athletes can use their sports psychology techniques to help manage stress
- Core Phase – For many this can be a time of disillusionment, with a number of setbacks to deal with.
- End Phase – This restorative phase is about accessing the world around us again.
- Long term – The aftermath of the crisis requires us to reconnect to the adjusted world.
Although we might be reaching the ‘End Phase’ in Covid-19, it’s important to note that psychological responses can vary. What’s more, not everyone is at the same phase at the same time. As such, return to work mental health concerns are to be expected, or in the case of sports professionals – returning to training.
However, understanding the framework in place will aid a better return to training for everyone.
Before moving forward, we must acknowledge the core principles guiding us:
- Working towards a restorative reintegration back into training, that allows individuals to thrive
- Demonstrating compassion, empathy and kindness, as we acknowledge individual ways of coping.
- Creating a safe environment that allows athletes, staff and sports coaches to ‘opt out’ of training without pressure.
- Utilising the talent and skills within your organisation, to help provide emotional support
Let’s now address the three core needs in moving forward: accessing, affirming and reconnecting.
Addressing the need for ACCESSING
In order to create a welcoming atmosphere for athletes and staff to return to, we can offer:
- The flexibility to ‘opt in’ to training without prejudice, reviewing this regularly.
- Ensuring those that ‘opt in’ fully understand their psychological and social needs to make informed choices.
- Understanding expectations and clarifying how the ‘new normal’ will play out. For instance, protocols, systems and reporting.
Addressing the need for AFFIRMING
Calling upon compassion and empathy in understanding others choices, we should be:
- Prioritising self-care for all.
- Open to other’s experiences and perspectives, even when they don’t align with ours.
- Seek clarity on expected behaviours.
- Accept that readiness to return for sports training will differ by individual.
Addressing the need for RECONNECTING
Accepting the wider issues at play, and emotional needs of team members, we must also:
- Continually seek feedback and keep an open dialogue about ‘opting in’
- Encouraging peer debriefs, regularly and in small groups, to check how individuals are adjusting
- Recognise the need for personal relationships outside of sport (family, friends)
Key Considerations for a Phased Return
Based upon various sources, there are some key factors to keep in mind. These consider both the mental health in elite athletes, as well as some of the physiological pressures they may be facing.
- Awareness of the need to be competition-ready
Some athletes, and sports coaches, may feel pressured to get back to training in relation to games and international competitions. However, to provide some context, there’s 14 months to go until any of the major tournaments, which allows for healthy adjustment.
- Understanding our differences
As already emphasised, each one of us will have been through different experiences. The coronavirus news will have affected some more than others. As such regular check-ins with colleagues and showing compassion towards personal circumstances is important. You may wish to consider upskilling staff in Psychological First Aid too. Let’s remember that the latest mental health in athlete statistics indicate that 34 per cent of elite athletes live with anxiety or depression. This may well have been amplified in recent months.
- Integrating a psycho-social model can be challenging for some individuals.
A ‘role model’ approach should be considered, and where possible recruit staff who are trained in emotional awareness for support. There will be difficult conversations to have in the coming months for all of us. Providing a platform for these discussions will encourage a dialogue.
- There will be a staggered approach
Everyone is on their own journey. Some individuals will feel ready for sports training sooner than others, and it’s ok for everyone to be at different stages. To help with this, keep your messages clear, consistent and simple, especially those in leadership roles. Give consideration to ‘safe spaces’ where discussions can openly surface. Consider how you will manage tension too.
- Growth during lockdown
We’re constantly growing, changing, evolving as people and as athletes. This is particularly noticeable after an absence of time. It may have led to an increase in choice and autonomy too. We can address these by reflecting on our own personal lessons learnt during lockdown, taking on board others views and perspectives. We can also learn to ‘translate’ these into positive lessons. We must continue to look at ways to expand personal growth and development too.
- Psychological considerations in the new world order
Lest we forget, that some of the biggest challenges and changes to overcome are psychological ones. This is where years of sports psychology techniques, such as using positive self-talk and goal setting can help us get back on track.
There is the potential for great anxiety from athletes. In a profession where their physical condition plays such an important role, it’s understandable that they would be concerned about the risk of infection to them and their family. Also, being as competitive as athletes are, it’s possible that they may be anxious about their performance compared to team-mates, or their physicality as a result of limited training. Inherently trust plays an important role in this. Individuals will need to trust each other, to adhere to guidelines in order to minimise any risks.
As sports coaches are well aware, routine plays an important role for the structure of an athlete. However, this will have been disrupted in recent months. There are some possible repercussions of this. For instance, there’s the potential for being less motivated, or there may be struggles with getting back into an early morning training routine. It’s likely that unhelpful and unhealthy behaviours have developed during lockdown.
There may be bigger questions to have as well. For instance, the alignment of values and morality, as our awareness, acceptance and ethics are reviewed, in line with other industries that may or may not be experiencing a phased return.
Psycho-social factors to consider
As a final consideration, there’s a number of larger health factors to take on board. We must remember that we’re all living in communities, some of us with high risk individuals shielding. Some of us are carers, others carry the burden of financial responsibility within a household.
Return to work mental health is an issue individuals may or may not share, so it’s important to be mindful of this.
With every phased return of an athlete, the risk for their household increases. Since we don’t know everyone’s personal situation, it’s important to refrain from judgement. We must remember that we all have differing opinions about what is responsible, safe or risky.
Of course a number of individuals also have childcare thrown in to the mix too. Many parents are doubling up as teachers, with an ever-challenging work-life balance to meet.
Yet amongst all the chaos, people are slowly trying to reconnect and find ways to maintain contact with friends and family. Especially after a period of time apart, this may feel more important than ever, and we should be respectful of it as part of our return to work mental health approach.
Summary and take out
As we learn to adjust to the ‘new normal’, a gentle phased approach will enable us to address challenges that we face, now and in the coming months. Understanding the diversity in others perspectives, and experiences, underpins these guidelines.
In the sports industry, particularly those in sports psychology jobs, we already have a head start in understanding the complexities of different personalities. At a time when mental health in elite athletes may be more comprised than before, lets keep that in mind.
To quote the guidelines
“We may have all been in the same storm, but some of us have been in very different boats”.