The COVID-19 crisis has sidelined millions of athletes, from professionals to high school students to weekend warriors. Athletes have lost their primary source of mental wellness, their sport. As a therapist who works with athletes, I know how important sports and exercise are for mental health. So far 2020 has been a brutal year for sports, but with some creative strategies, athletes can get back in the game.
In March, college basketball was halted in its tracks. Next, the Boston Marathon was called off for the first time in its 124 year history. Then the Olympics was postponed until 2021. Like falling dominoes, the event after the event was canceled. At first, athletes were disappointed, but hopeful. Maybe their seasons would resume later in the year, they thought. But the precedent had already been set: 2020 was to be the year of canceled sports. Reality hit, and with it came a profound sense of loss.
Sports connects people in deep and personal ways, and for many athletes, sports is their identity. When something this powerful is taken away, it’s traumatic, almost like a death. Grief can be caused by any kind of loss. In her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross breaks down grief into stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Athletes right now may be experiencing any one of these stages of grief. Left unaddressed, these feelings can lead to more serious mental health problems.
Mental health professionals are noticing increased anxiety and depression among athletes. Referrals for counseling have increased, and athletes are reporting overall declines in measures related to the quality of life.
Coaches are concerned about their athletes too, especially children and teens. Lack of routine and isolation from peers can be devastating for a young person who hasn’t yet developed the coping abilities of an adult.
Even superstar athletes are not immune to the psychological effects of COVID. Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who has struggled with depression, said in a recent interview that the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for him emotionally.
Another concerning trend is substance use. Since March of this year, alcohol use and drug overdoses have increased at alarming rates in the overall U.S. population. Athletes, absent their normal routines, could turn to substances to ease their stress. depression
While prospects look dim for sports returning anytime soon, athletes can adapt and make the best of a bad situation.
The great Michael Jordan can serve as an example. In his second season in the NBA, Jordan missed 64 games due to a foot injury. He desperately wanted to play, but his coaches said no. Instead of sulking, Jordan hit the weight room. He adapted and came back stronger than ever.
Athletes can adapt, and so can sports franchises and teams. Major League Baseball adapted. Instead of scrapping the entire season, they instituted a modified schedule with no fans. Not ideal, but better than nothing.
The New York City Marathon also adapted. This year it’s a virtual race. In the fall runners will complete the 26.2 miles alone in their local area and submit their official times. For athletes and teams, 2020 is the year to pivot and get creative. A positive, can-do approach is what’s needed.
STRATEGIES FOR ATHLETES
Even with a positive attitude, athletes can get discouraged. Here are some strategies for athletes (and non-athletes) to boost their mental game during this unprecedented time.
Have a routine.
Athletes accustomed to showing up for regular practice now have to create their own structure. Working out at the same time every day is key. This creates a sense of control, which can ease anxiety.
Mix it up.
Now is a great opportunity to explore different sports. Football players might try yoga, or swimmers might try cycling. Variety keeps things fresh and reduces burnout.
Human contact feels good. Schedule regular activities with family, friends, or teammates. Of course, use common sense and refer to your local social distancing rules. Even virtual meetings help maintain a sense of connection.
Adjust your standards.
Athletes set high standards for themselves, and are often disappointed when they fall short of their goals. There isn’t much that athletes can do right now except train. Accepting this fact will temper unrealistic expectations.
Get help if you need it.
A good coach helps injured players by referring them to a sports doctor. Likewise, athletes need to ask for help if they’re feeling off emotionally. This could mean calling a friend or reaching out to a mental health professional.
The world of sports, and the world at large, is going through unprecedented times. It’s normal to feel anxious, depressed, even defeated. It’s also okay to mourn the loss of your sport. But it’s important not to give up. Keep training. Sports will be back. For now, be creative, adapt, and reach out for help if you need it.