Analysis: here are some expert skills and habits which may help when it comes to postponements, cancellations and restrictions during the pandemic

By Tadhg MacIntyre, Clodagh Butler and Jessie Barr, University of Limerick

The current scenario in which major competitive events have been cancelled or postponed has led to a range of responses from athletes. All of these are valid, but can be processed by focusing on well-being strategies. A team of researchers at UL created these ideas based on the available evidence, through a series of conference calls and shared documents with international collaborators. As Leonard Bernstein noted, there are two requirements to achieve something useful: a plan and not quite enough time.

Thankfully, we released the recommendations just 24 hours before the announcement of the postponement of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Our team of researchers and practitioners in Ireland and UK had extensive experience consulting with elite athletes and we worked with clinical psychologist Eddie Murphy and other experts from Mental Health Ireland to devise our guidelines. This guidance provides a menu of practices for athletes to choose from to empower them.

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Athletes typically develop many psychological skills and habits through their training and competition regimes which help them deal with a myriad of challenges. For example, sporting injury, which is not uncommon, requires athletes to be resilient and to mobilise their psychological resources to help them adapt to a given scenario. Regulating emotions, learning acceptance and self-compassion, and visualisation or mental imagery are all techniques that can be used by athletes to cope and gain personal growth from the postponements, cancellations, and restrictions during the pandemic. 

(1) Connect

Maintaining social contact with teammates, training partners, support staff and the wider athlete community benefits athletes well-being. We recommended that athletes create a social contract with their teammates or training partners to share their training progress and concerns several times per week at an appropriate time (e.g. time of previously scheduled training).

Connectivity with the broader athlete community through social media can help athletes understand the full range of emotional responses to the current restrictions. It can help them process their feelings and normalise their responses. It takes time to recalibrate and we are all unique in our approaches to coping.

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(2) Outdoors

Getting outdoors for exercise, specifically in natural settings, has additional benefits above gym-based activity and indoor training. Exercise in natural environments helps to reduce anxiety (important in the current challenge) and also helps to improve mood. If players can't get outdoors, they could refer to photos or videos of previous experiences in nature to evoke positive emotions like joy and happiness to boost mood.

(3) Visualise

Imagining a positive future beyond coronavirus and thinking about what kind of athlete they want to be in 2021 is a key strategy for gaining perspective. This can help sportspeople maintain a sense that the long-term goal is not lost but just postponed. Those for whom changed timelines mean career termination could seek support and imagine what future roles (e.g. coach) they could transition to in their sport in 2021 and beyond.

(4) Identify

A range of emotional responses linked to the uncertainty about health, the future, employment, sport etc. is predictable at this stage. Being aware of unpleasant emotions can make it easier to accept and regulate them. Athletes should ideally identify emotions as they experience them and keep a diary to track what promotes positive emotions (joy, happiness) over the coming days and weeks. These positive emotions build our capacity for resilience and maintain well-being. Also, emotional contagion, how moods can be shared across a group setting, is key here. Athletes by sharing their emotions with others will help them process their emotional responses and ultimately shift towards a more positive and adaptive response.

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(5) Discover

Athletes can benefit from the opportunity to develop skills, both technical sports skills and psychological skills (visualisation etc), or learn something entirely new from outside their sporting realm. Online courses, for example, offer expert training on topics like resilience, mindfulness and wellbeing and mental health apps such as Tackle Your Feelings offer a further means to increase knowledge of psychological strengths.

(6) Recover

Recovery through sleep, relaxation, healthy nutrition and engaging in personal hobbies can give performers the headspace to cope and thrive during and beyond this pandemic. Restrict the amount of time they follow the persistent news cycle and instead investing their effort in establishing a new routine under the current circumstances will help keep a more positive outlook.

If athletes can apply some of these recommendations they will gain control of their situation which in itself can increase their well-being. Those athletes for whom Tokyo 2020 was going to be their swansong may be at most risk from the current scenario. Access to sport psychologists for this specific group is an imperative and research suggests that individual athletes are typically at higher risk of psychological distress than team sport athletes. For others, the current situation can in time be perceived as an opportunity to re-calibrate their motivation, reset their goals and renew their connections with friends and family. 

Dr Tadgh MacIntyre is the Course Director of the Masters programs in sport psychology in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department at the University of Limerick. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Clodagh Butler is a post-doctoral Researcher on the Erasmus + project Be Like an Athlete in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department at the University of Limerick and an accredited sport & exercise psychologist with Sport Ireland Institute. Jessie Barr is a sport psychology PhD researcher in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department at the University of Limerick and an accredited sport & performance psychologist with Sport Ireland Institute. She represented Ireland at the 2012 Olympic Games and is an Irish Research Council awardee.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ