I remember interviewing Dame Sarah Storey and asking her if she’d ever used Imagery. She said she uses it all the time; but whilst on the bike, visualising the events going on around her. Never lying on a dusty floor being talked at. She couldn’t see the value in that. And she is not alone. There are lots of mental skills we teach in sport psychology which work wonderfully. But they often require athletes to sit still, or sometimes even lie down, eyes closed, to learn them. Those techniques are not popular. When we introduce them eyes will roll and stomachs will sink. They want to be outside, in the gym, on equipment – using physical energy.
So, take these athletes, who want to be outside, to be active. Cancel all their races. Wipe out their goals. And, if they are not key workers, ask them to spend three, four or five weeks at home with only a short amount of time to exercise each day. Of course, they understand why and will do what they can to help. But it doesn’t make it easy.
So I asked Tim Rogers, one of the UK’s leading sports psychiatrists for ideas to help them cope.
What do you see as the biggest mental health challenges for athletes who have to isolate?
Athletes don’t escape the same issues as non-athletes. In that sense, although social distancing prevents infections, social isolation can significantly increase the risk of other health problems, both physical and mental. Blanket corona virus coverage on social media and through 24-hour news cycles mean we miss nothing, including hearing about everyone else’s worries. Worry and anxiety become unhealthy when “what if” thoughts multiply and fill our thinking space with scary things all day. This is tiring and hard to sustain.
Specifically, in sport, athletes and coaches across the board are struggling with the sudden unexpected loss of their goals, their events (major and minor) and sometimes even their livelihoods. This was unthinkable only a few months ago.
Elite sports people can find these losses harder to cope with – emotionally – for a few reasons. Sometimes they have had to invest such a large amount of themselves in their sport: who they are; what they value about life; how they spend their time; who they connect with in their social groups; that sudden changes like this can feel catastrophic. Sometimes, they have set themselves extremely high expectations for what they want to achieve for their season. Although there is nothing they could have done to control the onset of a pandemic, they nevertheless find themselves feeling guilty about not training, having a negative conversation with themselves or feeling that they have in some way let themselves down.
The combination of these things can place emotional wellbeing at risk, at a time when it’s important to look after yourself in all respects (both mental and physical).
How do you advise athletes to cope with a complete change of expectations for their season?
Take a moment to pause, step back and notice how you’re feeling during such an unprecedented time. It’s OK not to be OK, whether or not it has anything to do with corona directly. If at all you do need support: reach out in the normal way; don’t tell yourself you need to push on through, single handed or alone.
Putting yourself out there to compete in sport has to come with an awareness that things might not go as expected. Sometimes this is the small stuff. Right now, it’s something unprecedented. Striving to achieve amazing things also means being flexible to adapt your goals when you have to. Once you’ve done the best you can, remind yourself that this is enough. It’s ok to readjust expectations.
Self-isolation need not mean social isolation. Being connected to others in a supportive community does more than just help us feel better, it buffers the biological effects of stress hormones/pressure. It’s so easy to forget to reach out and connect but it’s still possible to experience the same sense of community and the same mental health benefit digitally. One of the benefits of our era of tech is how readily we can now do this from our phones, tablets and computers. A great example is the digital community in which I work: Big White Wall
Don’t just reach out to those closest to you, reach out to your wider group and be together with them online. Giving support can be just as beneficial as receiving it. When you do that, take a moment to notice how many non-sports areas of life you actually value really highly: family; relationships; friends; community; hobbies; spirituality; leisure; physical health; politics; caring for the environment; something else altogether. Falling back onto the things that are important for each of us helps us through difficult moments and helps us manage unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
How do you advise athletes to cope with the increased levels of frustration and boredom?
A little worry or frustration can be useful if it nudges us to plan our way through difficult moments. Don’t revert to reading the news too much or ‘lurking’ on social media. Set aside 10 minutes each day to get up to date with the latest developments, then that is enough until tomorrow. If you are online for other reasons, think about what you post. Share stories of coping, share care and support and share the things that have helped you.
Give yourself permission to focus on something else: a to-do list for today. Any more worry about what might or might not happen in the future (or what cannot now be achieved) is not helpful for you or for others.
Routines are helpful. I read a great thread about life on a submarine recently. Submariners cope by routine: from making sure they rise early, wash and dress; all the way through the other aspects of the day.
There are lots of ways to help you get back into the moment right now, whether free mindfulness resources online, or anything else that pulls your focus into the present. This enables us to cope and to problem solve. Is there something you can take the opportunity to get done?
Your full training plan might not be possible for now but movement is still medicine. Set yourself a goal to find the best ways of staying active and fit for your own situation. For most people (except in situations of exercise dependence or disordered eating) any activity – however little – helps your mental health. Try to find some physical activity that is fun and enjoyable for each day.
Tim is a medical doctor and consultant sports psychiatrist. For many years, Tim has worked across the spectrum of wellbeing and performance with both individuals and teams in elite football, in the Olympic and Paralympic Systems, elite rugby, cricket, tennis, horse racing and many other areas. He is one of a very small number of experts to have undertaken dual postgraduate training in applied sport and exercise psychology. He understands the culture of professional sport and the unique pressures that come with this. Tim is also clinical director at the Big White Wall, an anonymous online mental health service with projects across sport, both in the UK and internationally.