A leading medical journal (The Lancet) has freshly issued a paper positioned and authored by 24 mental health Experts. They state It is already evident that the direct and indirect psychological and social effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic are pervasive and could affect mental health now and in the future’.
Around the world we are not just social distancing, we’re distancing from where we go and what we do. The idea that we need to merely survive this pandemic is not the only thing we need to do. We need not only to take care of our physical, mental, and emotional health, but we need to create and make concerted changes to our daily life. We must create new boundaries and let go of what is no longer useful or no longer serve us.
Our mental health practitioners at Athlete IQ have also outlined the 3 major problems and affects COVID 19 is having on athletes.
If we do hold on to what no longer serves us, the consequences could be….
- There is heightened anxiety and mental stress around financial insecurity which may be compounded by isolation from teammates and interruptions to training routines
Professional Footballers Australia substantiated this hypothesis by recently releasing published findings of a survey of over 150 of its members. As COVID19 took hold and the suspension of professional football in Australia was finalised. Subsequently, 58% of players reported symptoms of anxiety whilst 45% demonstrated symptoms of depression.
Typically, moderate-to-severe anxiety reporting in this sport’s body, peaks at about 8%.
Over at the AFL and the AFLPA – they too have reported a dramatic rise in the experience of increased anxiety and mental health-related issues for its players, staff, and stakeholders.
Simply the hardest thing for all players and staff working in high-performance staff is the change in routine, which our player welfare manager at Athlete IQ puts down as the consequence of one of our basic human need for certainty not being met.
“The hardest thing is the uncertainty,” Matt Simon, the Central Coast Mariners striker tells Guardian Australia. “We’ve gone from being around teammates every single day and training every day to all of a sudden just being stood down without pay and no word on what’s going to be happening and no word on when the next payment is coming for everyone’s livelihoods.”
Athlete IQ Player Welfare Manager Giusi Silvestri, explains; ‘humans have six emotional needs to feel happy, fulfilled and safe. When one of these 6 emotional needs is not being met, then a bad emotion arises which gives way to negative feelings such as sadness, moodiness, anger, and anxiety.
Silvestri goes on to propose that ‘athletes who have lost their source (work/income/relationships) to feel certain, have actually lost their first human need. Certainty is the need that all people need in various degrees, it is what allows you to feel in control and know what to expect so that you can feel secure. Security/Certainty is the need that comforts us; it is the need that we have that allows us to deal well with pain and stress and gives us the feeling of pleasure.
Some people are able only to tolerate very little uncertainty, another words the higher the need for certainty a human being has, the less risk one feels comfortable with or can emotionally bear. This is where ones’ real risk tolerance comes from.”
Within the PFA, Beau Busch, PFA’s head of player development explains;
“Players are used to being surrounded by people on a daily basis and there isn’t really any substitute for that,”
Or as Simon puts it: “I think all players would be saying they miss the banter in the change room, when you play football for a long period of time your teammates pretty much become your family and you do take it for granted when it gets taken away from you.”
The significance of camaraderie and togetherness enables athletes to connect which is vital for mental health. This is not unique to the professional game nor professional athletes. All across the world, recreational players to weekend warriors are now missing their fix of mate-ship and connection with others.
In Australia, “Local sporting clubs play such an important community cohesion role…and a tough side of the isolation requirements is the loss of the regular social and physical contact with fellow sporting club members,” explains Dr. Grant Blashki, Beyond Blue’s lead clinical advisor.
“There is good evidence that sporting activities are excellent for maintaining wellbeing because they usually combine physical exercise, social connectedness, and routine, which are all very beneficial.
- Mental Health issues relating to vulnerability
Athletes are not alone in experiencing transition.
Defined as a serious life event, a transition challenges our psyche and assumptions about ourselves and importantly necessitates us to make changes in our behaviours and relationships.
Athletes whilst resilient, face a new type of vulnerability. Some athletes only know their life to be related to the sporting field and have little outside interest or hobbies.
Silvestri explains; Professional athletes spend many many years forming an “athletic identity”.
This is defined as: “the degree to which an individual identifies with the athlete role”. Their own athletic identity is unique and serves athletes when they are fit, healthy and able to pursue their goals and ambitions. Moreover, many athletes and teams have short- and long-term goals, which promotes fulfillment and vibrancy in their lives.
However, Silvestri explains this over-identification with the role of an athlete can make them vulnerable as when they are unable to engage in such self-defining activities or they begin to transition out of the sport, their vulnerability to this exposure stimulates anxiety and worry and a loss of a sense of oneself. What others may think of them or not having learned coping mechanisms to accrue the right mindset and attitude within this period of vulnerability and uncertainty becomes a toxic and overwhelming state of feeling.
As former England rugby player Johnny Wilkinson
When you’re not doing what you are known for, not achieving the goals you set for yourself, what value do you have? My whole identity used to be through rugby, so as soon as you cut the rugby, you have no identity left. I didn’t know what I was, who I was. If affirmation comes from points you kick, what are you when you can’t kick? Who are you?
3. Battling the athletic self
The ‘athletic self’ is a major factor in mental health for the contemporary athlete.
Silvestri 2020 describes this commitment to an athletic self often beginning at a young age. “Typically, the athlete morphs and evolves into having an identity in their sport and subconsciously pushes other interests away to withhold the identity.
Commonly, athletes begin to sacrifice other types of identities available to them in their pursuit of wanting sporting success. Sacrificing parties, weekends away, holidaying, etc are common for the emerging and elite athlete.
Therefore, overdue course, athletes become what’s known as “role engulfed”, unknowingly pushing away other identities, that may have enabled themselves to create a more multidimensional, genuine self. Not only are these sacrificed in the athletic journey, but as the athlete transitions out of the sport, the athlete will find difficulty in expressing and becoming vulnerable to showcasing their true authentic self.
This habit was noted by former footballer turned film star Eric Cantona, who said:
Often there are players who have only football as a way of expressing themselves and never develop other interests. And when they no longer play football, they no longer do anything; they no longer exist, or rather they have the sensation of no longer existing.
This space is constantly evolving. At any given moment, there are thousands upon thousands of elite athletes globally who can no longer use sport to support their athletic identity. Whether it be during COVID 19 or after the crisis is over, many athletes are contemplating or questioning “who am I really?” without what I do ?
Because these athletes are unable to train or compete in a structured environment to the same intensity, the idle mind goes to work. Compounding this is the difficulty and frustration that the athlete processes when for an extended time cannot access the same equipment and facilities required for them to maintain elite levels of physical and technical performance.
Thus, behavioural science tells us according to Silvestri that ‘When athletes are unable to achieve their goals, they are feeling unmotivated, like a failure and a vicious cycle is born.’
Silvestri continues “Disappointment as an emotion for an athletes lies in the fact that they fail to understand that emotions only surface when an expectation hasn’t been met’ when you can compartmentalise your expectations and regulate your emotions, you can successfully begin to lessen the worry surrounding your situation’.
Most athletes rightly spend countless hours investing in their time developing physical and technical components of their performance. Unfortunately, this is to the exclusion of their mental skills. However, though the current enforced isolation and transition into abnormal societal conditions, athletes may feel ill-equipped to deal with the situation effectively. Nonetheless, this difficult period is also the ideal time for athletes to develop mental resilience and to improve connection with others through this time.
- Monitor yourself consistentlykeep an eye on your stress levels (anxiety, irritability, impulsivity, anger, depression, despair, fatigue, passivity). Speak to others about how you are feeling. When one articulates how they feel, they are less likely to behave how they feel.
- Accept that we all have different ways of coping and different means of processing our experiences. Under acute stress, men predominately become highly logical, women most likely more emotional.
- Agree that silence does not have to mean that something is wrong.
- Communicate clearly, state what you feel and what you need. Clear requests are better than criticism of the other.
- Don’t just talk—try intense listening and validate what they, your coaches and teammates say.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help –We are often smarter with other peoples’ problems than our own.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to sports stars and emerging athletes though, the same goes for everyone – we should all endeavour to develop and enhance our mental health and resilience right now.
We aim to enable, empower and educate the athlete. Our Consultations can be done virtually, anytime, anywhere.