Managing emotion through tough times

Emotion wheelJust a short post as I am trying to fit as much writing in before the schools and nurseries close and I have to work whilst entertaining an energetic and adventurous 3 year old. If any magazine articles get published in the next few months with random Peppa Pig phrases in them you’ll know why!

But as everything is up in the air I have really been thinking about how athletes cope. They are often used to uncertainty and ‘controlling the controllables’ but in this COVID-19 situation what is controllable? If you are someone who likes certainty, and things to grab hold of and dates to work towards and plans and goals then the next few months might be really tough.

Discipline is needed in sport but, when you get really used to following a disciplined approach, sharing your emotions can be hard. We may believe that to be taken seriously we just need to ‘suck it up’. but we can only do that for so long before it harms our wellbeing and then it can then be very difficult to tell people how we feel, what worries us, when we are scared or when we are angry.

Something I have recently started using with the younger athletes I work with is an emotion wheel and I think it could benefit all of us, whatever our age. There are thousands of emotions but I would guess that from the top of our head most of us could only name 10-20. An emotion wheel names 130 of them. If we are soon to be confined to our flats and houses for weeks on end then having good quality, open communication will become vital. Without a way to escape and get some space we may get resentful or hostile. Being able to chat up front about this, looking through the wheel each day and having a chat about which is the word you are currently feeling can help deal with some of those issues and open the door to better communication. Better communication and seeing things from each others’ perspectives will make a much less stressful living environment.

The emotion wheel I usually direct people towards has been created by Geoffrey Roberts and is downloadable here:

Would love to hear if anyone tries it and how you get on.

Mental Health and Mental Performance – Seminar

AASP picThis week I am at AASP Conference. AASP is the Association of Applied Sport Psychologists. There are about 2500 members in 55 countries and about 50% of those members have turned up at conference. That is how good it usually is.

One of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending was on how practitioners support good mental health when they are trying to promote high levels of mental performance. The panellists had experience from youth elites (Valerie Valle at IMG Academy), Olympians (Sean McCann, US Olympic Committee), NCAA students (Vanessa Shannon, Uni of Louisville) and Pro Baseball (Angus Mugford, Toronto Blue Jays). It was pulled together and hosted by Duncan Simpson who is also at IMG Academy and is one of my ‘go to’ guys when I write features as he explains complex research findings in a way that is instantly usable by athletes.

The elements I thought would be helpful for me if I work in a team environment in future and maybe helpful for other Sports Psychs to reflect on:

How the panel deal with tricky or clinical issues when athletes are off at competitions or camps:

  • Realise there is an urgency
  • Have your phones switched on all the time when working with a team
  • Train the sports medicine staff in Mental Health First Aid so they can triage the situation if you are not there
  • Expect tricky things to happen but remember every situation is different so slow down to make decisions
  • Have communication processes in place
  • Be proactive in relationship building with other staff so support can be collaborative.

Stressors and risk factors for poor mental health in athlete populations:

  • Age – around 14 is the time when many mental health issues start to appear – especially if young people are away from home so have more freedom but also more pressure – so we really need to understand what happens to the brain during adolescence.
  • Time travelling – thinking ahead about what might happen if… In competition athletes should be in the moment.
  • The biggest occasions – i.e. Olympics can become a magnifying glass of emotion as it is often a once in a lifetime opportunity.
  • After big events – athletes may struggle even if they did well and if they are not prepared can suffer with depression or substance abuse.

Working in Multi-Disciplinary teams

  • It can be really hard to collaborate across a large number of teams so you will need to identify communication systems which keep you all updated but don’t risk the athletes privacy.
  • Can split mental health and mental performance so there are fewer issues for athletes on what is shared.
  • Collaboration is rarely efficient but it can be very effective.
  • Think about informal connections and discussions which can be had
  • Develop an athlete management system so each athlete feels like they have 1 unified programme.
  • On a team know who your ‘high awareness’ players are who will need more support and attention.

Transition of athletes into a programme

  • Provide coach education so they know and understand what athletes are going through
  • Provide lots of support in an athlete’s first few weeks on a programme
  • Get seen a lot so it is easy for anyone struggling to come and see you.
  • Run an induction session with new athletes – and maybe with their parents too.
  • Do some screening to see who is likely to need support; Anxiety, Patient Health Questionnaire and Eating Disorders.

Transition of athletes out of a programme

  • Be clear everything is on the table for discussion.
  • Most athletes (and often their coaches) will not want to consider what comes next but those who do enjoy performance benefits and an easier time after retirement.
  • We need to prepare them for the ‘after’.

Stigma for athletes of seeing a Psych

  • Coaches and other athletes who have had support can be the best people to spread the word the sports psych can be trusted
  • There will always be discomfort when we don’t have experience of something but most athletes will not have learnt mental skills before so will not know their value- you may need to sell them what you can offer – sell this as ways to maximise potential.

Ways for Sport Psychologists’ to maintain mental health

  • Share our vulnerability
  • Admit we are not perfect but that we are trying
  • Get good colleagues we can consult with
  • Practice what you preach when it comes to self-care: Lots of sleep, good nutrition, other self-identities, lots of support
  • Have boundaries
  • Accept you probably won’t get balance if you are embedded in a travelling team but find your blend and know your non-negotiables and set up routines.
  • Find autonomy and meaning and value and create proactive systems.

Lessons to remember

  • We need to manage our own expectations of what we can achieve (be realistic!)
  • Remember that we are performers too
  • Keep focused on it not being the outcome which matters. Think about what being a good sports psych looks like – it is usually about the process and never about the outcome.
  • Value ourselves – but don’t over value ourselves!

Latest research: The importance of social support

Social support is known to be really important in sport, when dealing with injury and in helping you succeed in day-to-day life. It has become increasingly recognised as a key resource for athletes, and has been linked with enhanced coping with organisational stressors, youth sport participation, self-confidence, and lower levels of burnout. Some really interesting pieces of research presented at a recent sports psychology conference tell us more about how social support can impact us.

Highlighting how important it is to have supportive people around you, Adam Coussens from the University of Exeter looked at how athletes perceive the support they get from those around them. He found that when athletes perceive certain individuals to be conscientious, open, and sharing a common identity, they also perceive them to be particularly supportive. Further, if athletes perceive certain individuals to be supportive, athletes will also feel confident. Not only can you get confidence when surrounded by supportive people but your motivation can be improved too. Bryn McCann looked at the impact on athlete motivation and found Peers, Coaches and Parents are three social agents who can impact on an athlete’s motivation.

Finally, some fascinating research from Andrew Cruickshank from the University of Central Lancashire who has been looking at the factors that separate Super Champs (Multiple World or Olympic Medalists) from Champs (GB team) from others (those who are good but may quit before senior selection) and found it comes down to commitment, preparation and reaction to challenge, reflection and reward and the role of coaches and significant others. Specifically on the theory that Talent needs Trauma (i.e. the idea that in order to succeed you must have built strength and resilience by overcoming significant hurdles along the way) they found that the hurdles encountered need to consist of structured challenge that helps athletes develop social and psychological skills. A lovely phrase Andrew used was “It needs to be a plaster, not an amputation” so athletes are not necessarily learning new stuff from trauma, just proving and reminding themselves that they have good psychological strength and skills.

Latest research on supporting junior athletes…

Supporting young athletes so they flourish in their sport but also have doors left open academically if they become injured, or don’t make it in sport is essential but tough. A number of researchers round the UK and abroad are studying youth athletes and their social environment to understand how they can be best supported. Some of the latest findings were presented at a sports psychology conference in Leeds last week.

Researchers at Victoria University in Australia found that there are difficulties experienced in dual careers (e.g., school and sport) of junior elite athletes that could have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing. They found the use of productive coping strategies had a direct, positive effect on life satisfaction so suggest it is important to teach and optimise coping skills to help them manage the constant tension between school and sport.

Taking this a step further, researchers Camilla Knight (Swansea University) and Chris Harwood, (Loughborough University) looked at specific ways that those around youth athletes (parents, coaches and peers) can support them in these dual roles. They found all the supporters seemed to understand the demands of upon the youth athletes and placed great value on education, supporting their sporting and academic engagement, providing integrated support, educating athletes regarding the demands they would encounter and trusting athletes to guide their development but that where additional support would be valued was around financial assistance and further integration and communication.

Finally, three researchers from the University of Stirling looked at what may stop youth athletes dropping out of their sports and found that social support from those around them raised their intention to carry on with their sport.

Take away points if you are supporting a youth athlete:

  1. Teach your athlete coping skills to help them manage the tension between school and sport.
  2. Remember it may well be the social support you and others are providing which keeps the athlete doing their sport
  3. Help your youth athlete communicate how they are feeling around their dual role and any stresses this is causing them.