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How Olympic and Paralympic Athletes are Adjusting with the Help of Sport Psychology during the Coronavirus Outbreak

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As sport psychology professionals, we feel privileged to do our part in helping athletes and teams cope with the global COVID-19 pandemic and the postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In a recent Financial Times article, imminent historian Yuval Noah Harari shared that in order to defeat the Coronavirus, we need to choose global solidarity over nationalist isolation and share information worldwide. This was a reminder of how good it has felt to connect, produce, and share information over the last several weeks with sport psychology colleagues from inside our own offices to those across the world representing various National Governing Bodies. The sense of “team,” of “we are all in this together,” and of “we can help each other” is palpable. Even though we seemingly compete against each other with our respective teams and athletes every four years at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, we know we are all collectively working to make a positive impact on athletes and teams worldwide. Additionally, we are making each other better professionals, irrespective of whose team wins in the end. Nelson Mandela said it best, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. [...] Sport is the game of lovers.” Above all, we believe that the Tokyo 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be a demonstration of love, inspiration, resilience, and hope.

Experiences, Needs, and Adjustments of Olympic and Paralympic Athletes

Like everyone else around the world, summer Olympic and Paralympic athletes initially experienced rising uncertainty following the news of the Coronavirus outbreak, officially being declared as a pandemic on March 11, 2020. There were stories and rumors that the Summer Games could be postponed or canceled, while athletes and teams were still in the midst of the qualification process. Then, borders closed, stay-at-home approaches became mostly the norm, international sports came to a halt, and opportunities to formally train evaporated completely. 

Once the decision to postpone the 2020 Games became official on March 24, 2020, athletes generally supported the decision and experienced a range of emotions.

To this day, they experience emotions such as anger, frustration, denial, relief, sadness, helplessness, fear, and/or a huge sense of loss: the loss of a tangible goal, peak form, post-Olympic and post-Paralympic plans (e.g., retirement from sport), focus, structure, and connection. This sense of loss has been compounded by anxiety about the uncertainty of the global pandemic and sports in general. In particular, FIFPRO released a report indicating a sharp rise in professional footballers reporting symptoms of generalized anxiety (18% of women players and 16% of male players) and depression (22% of women players and 13% of male players) as a consequence of the Coronavirus shutdown, compared to a similar study conducted in December 2019 and January 2020.

For some athletes (and coaches), the new goal of Tokyo 2021, with qualifications put on hold until December 2020, is almost too far in the distance to provide helpful motivation. This is especially true while having to train on their own at home, often with limited and monotonous training options. Individual and team sport athletes may respond differently in terms of their level of motivation based on whether they can easily train on their own or if they are largely dependent on training with their coaches and teammates. For others, particularly younger athletes and those who were navigating injury rehabilitation, the postponement may seem like an opportunity, giving them more time to prepare, ideally putting themselves in a better position for greater results at the Games next year. Some athletes still have not decided if they will continue pursuing their Olympic or Paralympic goals. Practical challenges have also emerged regarding sponsorships, end-of-year coaching contracts, academic program deferrals, and everything in one’s life being on pause. Fortunately, in some countries (i.e., Mexico), endorsements from the government will remain intact as a show of support for athletes.

While some athletes are finding ways to safely continue their training, there are other aspects of life to navigate. These changes range from minor to severe life-altering adjustments and may include moving academic work online, homeschooling and caring for children 24/7, moving back home after years of living on one’s own, and losing a loved one to the COVID-19 virus. For example, the Mexican Sports Commission asked Mexican athletes to leave their dormitories at the National High Performance Center in Mexico City in order to prioritize health-related impacts. Some of these athletes have not been home in years, so now they are trying to readjust to rules and cultural expectations of living at home with their parents and other family members. In Zimbabwe, there are limited medical facilities and support, food supply chain disruptions, hyperinflation, and a population reliant on subsistence living with more than 80% of citizens unemployed prior to lockdown. These conditions, compounded by a recent extensive drought, leave many businesses and national utility groups struggling to provide for basic needs of the country’s population. Some Zimbabwean athletes are managing the confines of isolation and lockdown with their families, while others are experiencing exacerbated fear as they are unable to be home during this time.

Many athletes worldwide have more unstructured time on their hands than ever before. Now they must determine how to intentionally and effectively use their extra time to take care of basic needs, manage their mental and physical health, and maintain or develop sport performance.

How Sport Psychology Professionals within Olympic and Paralympic Organizations are Providing Support

Around the world, sport psychology staff continue to support Olympic and Paralympic athletes much like they would the rest of the quadrennium, except now they are meeting with teams, coaches, and athletes from a computer screen, phone call, or even using apps. In addition, various task forces and working groups have been established to collaborate on ways to continue providing support.

A COVID-19 Task Force for mental health and mental performance was formed in Canada to provide leadership, alignment, and support to all national level athletes, coaches, and support staff. Task Force members meet online every week, contribute to weekly medical advisory reports, and disseminate information and resources to all mental health and mental performance professionals through biweekly online calls. The Task Force has also established three sub-working groups: mental health, resilience and mental performance, and pandemic crisis intervention response planning. In the United States, internal and external task forces to determine best practices in addressing mental health around the Olympic and Paralympic Games have been repurposed to address best practices around mental health in light of the pandemic and the postponement of the Games. Similarly in the United Kingdom, various working groups within the high performance sport system have been established to promote an aligned approach focusing on athlete transition support and positive mental health as well as ensuring close collaboration between performance psychology, performance lifestyle, and mental health provision. 

For some countries, like Zimbabwe, sport psychology services have traditionally been at an organizational level in support of National Sport Federations (NSF) and their coaching staff by way of workshops and group interventions. During COVID-19, adjustments have been made to extend support to the Chair of the Zimbabwean Olympic Committee, NSFs, and individual Olympic athletes. 

As the landscape of the COVID-19 outbreak has been changing so rapidly, it has been important for sport psychology professionals to remain aware of the latest global, national, and regional policies to provide coaches and athletes with precise support that fits within the context of their current reality. It has also been equally important to align and streamline communications to ensure that athletes and coaches are not receiving conflicting, unnecessary, or excessive information. As such, the coordination of communication and resources across different stakeholders in high performance sport has never been more important. This is congruent with recommendations put forth in the recent publication “Athlete mental health in the Olympic/Paralympic quadrennium: A multi-societal consensus statement” (Henrikson et al., 2020). 

Indeed, sport psychology staff in various countries (i.e., the United States, Canada, Mexico, Norway, and Zimbabwe) have been playing an active role in compiling and disseminating relevant information to various stakeholders. This has included producing digital content and materials for athletes such as mindfulness scripts, video clips, and documents with coping strategies for athletes as well as coaches, staff, and parents who are supporting athletes. In Japan, the Japan Sport Council and Japanese Olympic Committee have created a mobile app where athletes can read articles beneficial for improving their quality of life. In Canada, the COVID-19 Mental Health and Mental Performance Task Force has been providing tips and recommendations via Sport Medicine Advisory Committee updates and through Basecamp, a communication platform used by all mental health and mental performance professionals working with Olympic and Paralympic athletes and coaches. To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month in May 2020 and beyond, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee launched its “We Are Team USA” campaign. The campaign promotes an “in this together” mindset, raises awareness around mental health resources and needs within the Team USA community, and promotes a culture that encourages proactively seeking and delivering mental health support for everyone.

Perhaps now more than ever, sport psychology professionals have experienced the importance of active listening and showing empathy in order to create a safe space for athletes, coaches, and teams as they process the premature ending of their seasons and begin to cope with an uncertain future.

For instance, in response to shifts in athletes’ training, the psychology team in the United Kingdom promoted the phrase “park performance and focus on the person,” signifying the important shift to well-being rather than maintaining current training or seeking a performance advantage. In Mexico, sessions with Mexican athletes have focused on life skills and mindfulness rather than traditional mental skills. Many sport psychology professionals are utilizing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in their current work. The practice of ACT emphasizes processes related to acceptance and values; acceptance can be used to manage intolerance of uncertainty and values can be applied to help individuals reconnect with what is important to them in sport and life.

Sport psychology professionals continue to be mindful of cultural considerations. For example, collective identity is a way of life for Zimbabweans, so communal needs, such as survival and staying healthy, have been emphasized within the general narrative of support and information provided to athletes. In Canada, the slogan “We are all #TeamCanada” has been at the core of several national and local initiatives that the sport community has extended to contribute to those in need of support and to continue “flattening the curve.” 

In addition to flatting the physical health curve, the work of sport psychology professionals will help to mitigate the long-term effects of the pandemic. The Canadian Mental Health Association is calling for an increase in resources to cope with the threat of what they are calling an “echo pandemic,” the significant rise in mental health issues in those affected by COVID-19. To help flatten the potential mental illness spike, a proactive and preventative approach must be taken. In episode 9 of Beyond the Checkbox, Dr. Bill Howatt, a leading authority on workplace mental health in Canada, reports that maintaining physical health practices (i.e., movement, nutrition, and sleep), building resilience and mental fitness skills, and sustaining social connection are the pillars that should be incorporated to protect mental health. Sport psychology staff around the world will continue to play a key role both during and after the pandemic by promoting daily psychological hygiene and strengthening the sport community’s mental skills to manage stress and effectively communicate with support systems during these times of uncertainty.

One message is universal: anyone who is struggling with mental health concerns is encouraged to seek help.

Professionals who specialize in mental health and mental performance, including Certified Mental Performance Consultants (CMPC), are ready and willing to help athletes, coaches, and support staff through these challenging times. Asking for help and receiving support should be regarded as a sign of strength, not weakness.  

Looking Forward

There continues to be a high degree of uncertainty for Olympic and Paralympic athletes, coaches, and organizations. Coordinated efforts to promote resilience, positive mental health, healthy adaptations, and bereavement or grief support should be maintained. Furthermore, as discussions regarding return to group training protocols are arising, it is important to monitor the anxiety and frustration of athletes, as some may struggle with the variability of opportunities across countries and perceive unfairness if others begin training before them.

As depicted in the psychosocial phases of disaster (Zunin & Meyers, 2000, as cited in DeWolfe, 2000), we can anticipate more disruption in the coming months. We are moving across the “Heroic,” “Honeymoon,” “Disillusionment,” and “Recovery and Reconstruction” phases of this pandemic and we must consider that everyone is progressing at their own pace. While we, along with athletes, coaches, and organizations, will be rebuilding and grieving what was lost during the culminating “Recovery and Reconstruction” phase, there will be incredible opportunities for growth. We will be able to re-examine life priorities and values, and build tremendous confidence through the relationships we will have strengthened and the challenges we will have overcome as a result of this pandemic. While the increase in workload for many sport psychology professionals comes with a psychological burden and risk, the enhanced working alliances and resources we have developed within and across stakeholder groups are clear benefits that will likely transform the way we support athletes and coaches moving forward.

The next Olympic and Paralympic Games, whenever they occur, will stand as a testament to the resilience and determination of the many athletes, coaches, support staff members, friends, families, and supporters of the Games who pulled together during these unprecedented times and will be cause for equivalently unprecedented celebration!

References

DeWolfe, D. (2000). Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters (2nd ed.). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. DHHS Publication No. ADM 90-538. Portland Ridley. Retrieved from https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=4017

Henriksen, K., Schinke, R., McCann, S., Durand-Bush, N., Moesch, K., Parham, W. D., Hvid Larsen, C., Cogan, K., Donaldson, A., Poczwardowski, A., Noce, F., & Hunziker, J. (2020). Athlete mental health in the Olympic/Paralympic quadrennium: A multi-societal consensus statement. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18(3), 391-408. DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2020.1746379

Authors
Thank you to the following Association for Applied Sport Psychology members for their contributions (in alphabetical order):

Karen Cogan, PhD, CMPC - AASP Fellow; AASP Certification Reconsideration Committee Member; Senior Sport Psychologist with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee
Natalie Durand-Bush, PhD - AASP President; AASP Fellow; Full Professor, School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa; Co-Founder, Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport
Takuya Endo, MS - Japan Sport Council, Japan High Performance Sport Center
Jimena González Menendez, MA - Head of the Sport Psychology Department at the National Sports Commission-Mexico
Peter Haberl, EdD - AASP International Olympic Sport Psychology Special Interest Group Coordinator; Senior Sport Psychologist with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee
Göran Kenttä, PhD - The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences; School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa; Head of Discipline Sport Psychology at the Swedish Sport Confederation
Karen MacNeill, PhD - Lead Mental Health Counsellor, Canadian Olympic Committee; Chief Product Officer, Headversity 
Sean McCann, PhD, CMPC - AASP Past President; AASP Fellow; Senior Sport Psychologist with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee
Anne Marte Pensgaard, PhD - Professor of Sport Psychology at the Norwegian Olympic Training Center & Norwegian School of Sport Sciences
Traci Statler, PhD, CMPC, CSCS - AASP Past President; AASP Fellow; Associate Professor of Applied Sport Psychology - California State University, Fullerton
Chris Wagstaff, PhD - AASP Dorothy V. Harris Memorial Award Review Committee Chair; Interim Head of Performance Psychology for the English Institute of Sport; Reader in Applied Psychology for the University of Portsmouth
Shameema Yousuf, MSc, MEd, CMPC, MBACP - AASP Diversity Committee Member and Distinguished Professional Practice Award Review Committee Member; Founder of Empower2Perform; Consultant Sport Psychologist of the Zimbabwean Olympic Committee

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