The COVID-19 Pandemic: Tips for Athletes, Coaches, Parents, and the Sport Community
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We are in this together
Everyone in the sport community is feeling the impact of COVID-19. Events and competitive seasons at all sport levels are being canceled and training facilities are closing. Athletes, coaches, parents, and sport stakeholders are scrambling to develop contingency plans. With no live events to cover, media sources are focusing on the Coronavirus pandemic, which could be further exacerbating everyone’s concerns. Fortunately, mental performance and mental health practitioners and organizations are helping to mitigate the effects of this extremely fluid situation through online support.
The emotional rollercoaster is real
In the midst of the current global crisis, it is normal to feel like you are on an emotional rollercoaster; the constant influx of information, changes to daily routines, uncertainty with personal health and the health of others coupled with rapidly changing reports, is characteristic of the ups and downs of a rollercoaster. All of which is physically and emotionally draining. The first step in managing your experience is to recognize how you feel. COVID-19 is impacting everyone differently, and the impact it is having on you is completely normal and valid.
Some common feelings are fear, anxiety, loss, relief, confusion, disappointment, exhaustion, frustration, and anger. In cities and towns across the globe, mandates to stay home and socially distance may cause you to feel physically alone, however, you are not emotionally on an island. Plenty of other people are feeling just like you and it is important to stay virtually connected. Acknowledge what you’re feeling, identify those emotions, and work on trying to understand and accept them. Acknowledge what you’re feeling, identify those emotions, and work on trying to understand and accept them. Anticipate that your emotions will also likely change over time as the Coronavirus pandemic evolves.
Put your basic needs first
As you attempt to manage in light of imposed societal restrictions, start by addressing your basic physiological and safety needs (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Take care of needs such as food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep, employment, and health as much as possible. We are all finding ourselves in uncharted territory and likely without adequate preparation. For some, basic needs like food, water, and shelter are daily luxuries and scarce during a widespread crisis.
If you find yourself in need of food or housing assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a variety of programs and resources available. A few of note in the United States are Volunteers of America, Meals on Wheels, Feeding America, National Low Income Housing Coalition, Salvation Army, and Find Your Local VA Medical Center (for Veterans specifically).
Maintain virtual communication
It is also important to recognize that humans are hard-wired for connection. This is why it is natural to want to see and be with your family, friends, teammates, neighbors, and others. While we are currently limited in our ability to have face-to-face interactions, use virtual means such as text, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, social media, or other types of technology to stay connected. Additionally, for any health care needs where you would traditionally see a professional in-person, consider reaching out to your providers regarding availability of telehealth services; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has lifted traditional telehealth restrictions at this time.
This unprecedented situation is evolving rapidly and new information is emerging by the hour. It is important to stay current on reputable COVID-19 updates, such as from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to be aware of what this means for you and your loved ones in your geographical area. Regardless of what happens, recognize that the only thing you have control over is you, more specifically, your attitude, your effort, and your actions. We are all facing a lot of uncertainty right now, so it’s even more important to have awareness of what is going on around you and focus on what you can control. Rely on your previous experience, your strengths, and your support system to respond with resilience and composure.
While you should remain vigilant to react in a timely manner, know that it is okay to take a break and disconnect from the overwhelming amount of information that is available. In other words, take some time during your day to turn off your TV and put down your smartphone in order to mentally and emotionally recover from the stress of this pandemic.
Exercise is medicine
Exercise helps to manage stress, fight off illnesses, and maintain positive mental health. While you may not be able to go to the gym to train or work out, there are other creative alternatives to help you stay physically active while social distancing. If you opt to exercise within your home, use what you have at your disposal. For example, if you do not have exercise equipment, you can use stairs, chairs, and water bottles or cans to replace weights. Seek out new, safe ideas from reputable sources such as those curated by the American College of Sports Medicine. If you have an existing health condition, make sure to respect any guidelines that your medical team has provided.
Monitor your mental and emotional health
Stressful events causing uncertainty, fear, and anxiety can contribute to a variety of emotions and lead to a slippery slope of “why me” and “what ifs.” Individuals with a history of mental health concerns, those more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, and those who may be significantly economically impacted by this pandemic (e.g., hourly or low-wage workers, those experiencing homelessness, or those who are unemployed), may experience heightened mental health symptoms during this time. Also, increased stigma and xenophobia can impact the emotional well-being of racial and ethnic minority groups, particularly those within Asian communities.
Now, more than ever, it is important to pay attention to your mental health, extend compassion to others (at a safe distance), and work to create some semblance of normalcy in your day-to-day life. The following are resources to help manage the COVID-19 situation and your mental health:
- American Counseling Association
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- CDC: Mental Health and Coping
- Coronavirus Crisis: Staying Safe, Smart, and Kind
Specific tips for various members of the sport community
- Talk it out: Identify people you trust who you feel can be sources of support and guidance during this time. Stay in touch with your coach and teammates via text, video, and social media. Connect with a mental health and/or mental performance professional for additional support in working through your current experience and concerns; use the Certified Mental Performance ConsultantⓇ (CMPC) search tool to find someone to meet with virtually.
- Consider how you want to continue engaging in your sport: While keeping the latest social distancing and general recommendations in mind, you may be able to continue training to a certain degree. You can use your new-found time to rest and recover, engage in other interests, manage school or work commitments, and/or continue training or maintaining your level of fitness. It’s important to consider what is best for you right now and over time as our situation progresses. You may also want to discuss this with your coaching staff, perhaps revising goals or expectations together.
- Remember your “why": Even with no competition on the horizon, reflecting, remembering, and recommitting to your “why” or reason for training and competing in your sport, can help you to remain positive and motivated.
- Focus on physical and mental fitness: If you decide to continue investing in your training, it may be easier to continue improving flexibility, strength, your mentality, and other areas during this time. Ask your coach, athletic trainer, or strength and conditioning coach what you can physically be doing or explore virtual training options through various apps and programs (some of which even allow you to compete virtually against other people or avatars) such as Zwift, Garmin, MapMyRun, Strava, and ErgBuddy. You can improve mental skills such as confidence, focus, goal setting, relaxation, or visualization by finding a CMPC®️ to work with one-on-one or by using an app such as Headspace, Calm, WellU, woop, or Fit Brains. If you are an athlete within a collegiate, Olympic, or Paralympic program, we recommend reaching out to administrative personnel in your department or program to ask about what sport psychology professionals are available to work with you.
- Establish a daily routine: We have decent control over decisions we make about how we start and end our days as well as items we prioritize daily or weekly. Solidifying morning and evening routines, getting enough sleep, and deliberately incorporating other acts of self-care (e.g., journaling, engaging in personal hobbies, and eating nutritious foods) into our lives helps to partially reestablish feelings of control and comfort while supporting our health and well-being.
- Stay connected: Keep in touch with your team collectively and individually as much as possible. Recognize that you are likely an important, valuable part of their lives, and as such, you may be one of the few people who athletes trust and are willing to talk to about their feelings, insecurities, worries, and well-being right now. As much as you can, create space for them to share what’s going on with them, listen, and ask how you can help.
- Recognize the degrees of impact: It’s important to consider that some athletes and their families may not feel much of an impact while others may not have a safe place to stay, access to food or other essentials, or a stable financial situation during this time of crisis, and everything in between. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic can take a toll on other aspects of athletes’ lives, such as motivation. Some athletes will find it challenging to train alone due to their motivation being strongly tied to feelings of community with their teammates. Some athletes are feeling a significant loss due to being unable to finish their senior season or finalize a multi-year cycle of focus and dedication. Some athletes will experience a sense of relief due to injury, burnout, or performance anxiety. All of these can impact motivation; by seeking to understand athletes individually and uncovering needs, you can provide appropriate guidance.
- Continue to be a resource: Based on the needs of your athletes, provide insights into continued training options, home-based workout suggestions via credible online programs or apps, healthy recipes to try, or opportunities to get outside and move such as hiking, walking, running, and biking. You may also consider creative ways for them to stay involved in their sport, such as sending sport-specific trivia questions for them to research, podcast episodes to listen to, or books to read.
- Remain neutral and factual: Try to remain neutral regarding any governing body’s decision to cancel or postpone events. Keep the Coronavirus pandemic in perspective to help athletes understand and rationalize any perceived unfairness or doomness. Athletes will look to you for how to respond to this crisis. Composure and resilience are key.
- Practice and model self-care: Determine methods of self-care that you want to add to your daily or weekly routines moving forward. Examples are getting enough sleep, engaging in personal hobbies, eating nutritious foods, being physically active, practicing gratitude, or journaling. Done consistently, these actions will help you to feel more control and comfort, while modeling healthy, positive behaviors that you can share with your athletes.
- Connect with your professional community: Professional organizations that provide resources for coaches, teachers, and instructors recognize the stress and responsibilities that have been added to your lives this year. In addition to print resources, many organizations have created free or low-cost interactive trainings and virtual opportunities to engage with peers. These connections can help provide valuable professional support and enhance your work with your athletes.
- Take care of your mental health, too: Give yourself space to acknowledge your own feelings related to managing this pandemic. Rely on your support network, including other coaches, to talk about how you’re doing, mitigate stress and challenges, share best practices, resources, and referrals, and troubleshoot. Certified Mental Performance Consultants®️ and/or mental health professionals are available to provide support, not only to athletes but to coaches and other support staff as well.
- Recognize the additional stressors: The current crisis has changed all the rules by which we engage in and play sports. Athletes, coaches, athletic support staff, and families are all struggling with not only the loss of playing time, but also the uncertainty of what full return to play will look like and when it will occur. Coaches and athletic trainers are working to maintain athletes’ health and fitness while trying to navigate implementing essential COVID-19 protocols.
- Maintain open communication: As individuals continue to work from home, visit offices on staggered schedules, and avoid gatherings, the sense of isolation and detachment can grow, even in small departments. Despite the circumstances, there are a number of ways you can support your staff and stay connected.
- Encourage self-care: Sport is often a busy, outcome-driven enterprise. While centered around performance and physical activity, ironically coaches and sports administrators are not always known for making time for their own self-care. Further, talking about and acknowledging emotions are often seen as weaknesses in the sport culture. You can set an example by openly acknowledging the current challenges and creating space within your department for your staff to be vulnerable.
- Seek out additional resources: While managing and developing the coaches and athletic department staff is a part of your responsibilities, this does not mean that you need to provide all of the services and support on your own. Consult with your department’s sport psychology professional or reach out to a Certified Mental Performance Consultant®️ (CMPC) to solidify and strengthen mental health and/or mental performance resources, referral pathways, and support for your staff and athletes.
- Model best practices: As an administrative leader, crisis management is always part of your job, so it’s time to leverage that experience. Staff, coaches, and athletes will continue to look to you for information around safety protocols, appropriate decision-making, and how to effectively respond to this crisis. While there are certainly large demands on your time and energy, periodically pause to evaluate your own mental and physical health and make adjustments as needed. Through these deliberate actions and considering your impact on the sport community you serve, you can positively impact the safety, well-being, and productivity of your program and your people.
- Maintain awareness and initiate action: Utilize COVID-19 updates to determine how the pandemic will continue to impact you and your family. Respect and support the decisions made by various governing bodies about sport and performance events that align with current Coronavirus recommendations. As new information or changes arise, use that as an opportunity to initiate or continue conversations with your family about facts, expectations, and feelings.
- Be a positive role model: No matter how young or old your children are, they will likely look up to you to determine how to respond under these circumstances. This is an opportunity to show them how to productively express emotions while managing stress and uncertainty. Show them resilience, rather than panic and despair. Help your children keep the pandemic in perspective instead of fueling any negative emotions over sport-specific decisions and updates. Be open and available to talk to, listen, and support your children. Be “all in” during these moments to help them feel valued and heard.
- Encourage self-care, creativity, and meaning-making: Check with your children about where they need dedicated support from you (i.e., with schoolwork). Outside of distance learning and perhaps training guidance from their coach, they likely have a lot of extra time on their hands; it’s important to help them find productive, positive, meaningful ways to spend that time, rather than logging hours and hours of screen time. You could help brainstorm alternative ways to engage in hobbies or activities, provide suggestions for self-care, or offer to help them stay active by playing games, throwing a baseball in the yard, or working on dribbling skills in the driveway, for example. Staying busy helps them to avoid focusing all of their attention on negative ramifications of the pandemic such as event cancellations, school closures, and social isolation. Not being able to compete could be a potential identity crisis for some athletes. While it is important to let your children process such feelings if this is what they are experiencing, helping them find ways to be productive and take care of themselves physically and mentally can help ease the pain and confusion they might be feeling.
- Take care of yourself, too: Establish your own self-care routine so that you are able to effectively manage stress and regulate your emotions while supporting your family. Virtually stay in touch with other parents, particularly ones who have children with similar ages and/or parents from your kids’ teams, to support each other, normalize your feelings, and problem solve.
- Reach out for help if needed: If your child is struggling and would benefit from additional support, look to your local community for resource recommendations. You may also consider searching for a Certified Mental Performance ConsultantⓇ (CMPC) and/or mental health professional who can provide online services during this stressful period.
In this time of uncertainty, focus on what you can control, even when it feels as if there is little you can control. Utilize your networks and these tips to take it one day at a time. As we keep moving forward, remember that kindness is always free and we will get through this by supporting each other. “Always be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” - Plato
- Free Guide to Living With Work and Anxiety Amidst Global Uncertainty (multi-lingual versions)
- How to Stay Positive: Paul Wylleman, 2017 AASP Distinguished International Scholar (bio)
- Dr. Kensa Gunter Shares Tips on Handling Life at Home During COVID-19 With DeMar Derozan via #NBATogetherLive
- Coronavirus and Youth Sports
- Dealing with Disappointment During Coronavirus Cancellations, Postponements
- Using the Sports Shutdown to Recover the Joy of Sports
- How Student-Athletes Can Cope with the Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Sport Meets COVID-19: What to Say, What to Do
- An Open Letter to Student-Athletes: Lessons I Learned from You Amidst a Crisis
- Unfinished Business: 5 Insights When Your Athletic Season Is Sidelined by a Pandemic
- International Resources During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- How Parents Can Help Support Their Athletes During the Coronavirus Sport Shutdown and Isolation Period
- Finding Ways to Cope Feat. AASP Scientific Program-Elect Stephen Gonzalez
- Mindset Matters During COVID-19 Feat. AASP Web Presence Committee Chair Abby Keenan
- AASP's Blog Post: Motivating Your Kids During COVID-19 Homeschooling
- A Guide to Providing Mental Health Services to Immigrants Impacted by Changes to DACA and the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Modeling HEROs for Resilience in the Time of COVID-19 Feat. AASP Certification Council Fellow Member Betsy Shoenfelt
- COVID‐19 and Implications for Eating Disorders (Multilingual from European Eating Disorders Review)
- Sport Psychology Services to Professional Athletes: Working Through COVID-19 (International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology)
- AASP Ethics Committee Resources to Manage the COVID-19 Crisis
- Behind the Scenes: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected the NFL Draft and Off-Season
Thank you to the following Association for Applied Sport Psychology members for their contributions (in alphabetical order):
Megan Byrd, PhD, CMPC - Web Presence Committee Member
Leeja Carter, PhD - Diversity & Inclusion Division Head
Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD - Fellow
Natalie Durand-Bush, PhD - President and Fellow
Kensa Gunter, PsyD, CMPC - President-Elect
Brandonn Harris, PhD, CMPC - Certification Council Chair
Caitlyn Hauff, PhD - Web Presence Committee Member, Eating Disorders Special Interest Group Co-Coordinator
Abby Keenan, MS, CMPC - Web Presence Committee Chair, Business Ownership Special Interest Group Member
Michele Kerulis, EdD, LCPC, CMPC - Web Presence Committee Member, Media in Sport Special Interest Group Coordinator, Ethics Committee Member