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Posted 07/02/2021 in Category 1 by George Mitchell

Covid – 19 - Sport Psychology Blog

Covid – 19 - Sport Psychology Blog


Slowly, but inevitably the spread of this virus reached us here in the UK and eventually, perhaps later than it should have, sporting events were postponed and athlete’s and the population faced a pandemic unlike no other known to them. 

When there was talk of the lockdown, there was a worldwide panic, stress and uncertainty. Panic buying pasta, toilet rolls and tinned goods, people meeting up with family members before being quarantined and many google searches learning about furlough schemes and universal credit. 

With these uncertain times came uncertainty for athletes and sport psychology practitioners alike. This article looks at how sport psychology practitioners, coaches and support staff can help athletes identify and offer support for athletes. 

One possible challenge for practitioners and athletes receiving support is using online platforms e.g. zoom / facetime / hangouts. However, considering the covid climate, this is more than suitable way for conducting support with athletes and a business context as well. 

In fact, there may even be less stimuli for distractions when using these platforms when compared to some areas where psychological support conversations have taken place. As a consultant, awareness around the use of your psychological skills and ability to use them across different contexts and not just in a sporting context are highly important. 

So, how has this psychologically impacted athletes and the general population? 

Firstly, there is no real date confirmed with regards to having a solution for this virus and no vaccine or information around this and the governments guidelines and advice (drinking bleach) have been worryingly poor. 

This means that people will find it difficult to cope as there isn’t a clear end to the precautions and then there is the worry about having enough money to cope, will they be in employment and so on. This unpredictability will cause stress.  

If we were to look at athlete’s taking part in the Olympics, who have trained for the last four years (and their lives) in preparation for this event and now it has been postponed, they will be facing a wide assortment of ‘negative’ emotions and not knowing how to regulate them will cause them further distress. 

Other populations will face emotions like athletes such as emotional disturbance, stress, depression, difficulty sleeping, low mood, anger and irritability. We may be anxious, but in this circumstance, being anxious could mean that you are aware and conscious of your hygiene and that of people around you, which is beneficial.

Through emotional transfer this low mood could affect the people around you. If someone is in a depressed mood then other people may start feeling this emotion as well. 

A lot of the predictable consequences of quarantine and physical distancing measures are themselves significant risk factors for mental health issues such as suicide and self-harm, alcohol and substance misuse, gambling, domestic and child abuse. 

Psychologically there is social disconnection, lack of meaning, financial stress, bereavement, unemployment, homelessness and relationship breakdown to name a few. 

In isolation people will be anxious of being infected or passing it on to others. Their appraisals are often catastrophized when experiencing any physical symptoms during this period. T

his is a common fear for people exposed to the contagious virus and can be intensified when there is inadequate information about it (Rubin et al, 2016). Therefore, ensuring that the understanding for those affected by the confinement should be prioritised.  

Here is a clip of Marathon Runner Hayler Carruthers who talks about her reflection around what has happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ9uQseBinc&t=10s

Advice / Strategies: 

Emotions regularly appear to be enforced on us by external actions outside of our control (Gross and John, 2007). When addressing these numerous emotions and how people can cope with them we need to think about how we interpret and appraise these thoughts around this adversity which causes the behaviour. 

The transactional theory of stress (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984) suggests that it isn’t the actual demands and stressors that cause problems, it is how we each appraise them and the decision we then make as to whether we have the resources (assets and social support) to meet them. 

For further information of emotion regulation then take a look at John and Gross (2007). Some of the strategies explained below will help with appraising the way you interpret this pandemic. 

Automatically, your existing emotion strategies could be disabled by the lockdown. 

So, you may need to have a think as a practitioner / coach how you would help guide an athlete through this or if you are an athlete here is how you could start thinking about how to put some emotion regulation strategies into practice: 

Outcome goal – Process goal – Identify key words to keep focus – Imagine yourself performing the task.

Here are 3 simple steps to help with reflection during this period and to see what is working for you and what isn’t! 

Step 1 – What strategies do I use to make others and myself feel better? Do I affect other people’s emotions or do I pick up on other’s moods and emotions? 

Step 2 – What is working for me well and should I do more of? 

Step 3 – What strategies aren’t working well for me and should I stop?

Another mode for reflection can be to keep a diary as data – personal and sporting diary. Below are some examples of what you could include in your diary. This will help you record your data and see where there are areas that are working well for you and what isn’t. 

You may find that this method will help you reflect and potentially identify with your emotions and then in turn influence your behaviour. This isn’t just for athletes but for anyone who needs some guidance with gaining greater control over their emotions: 

·      Record your work

·      Record your psychological states

·      Inner dialogue and what you did 

·      Develop your self-talk scripts and rephrase your language

·      Develop your imagery scripts to replay performances

·      Monitor mood and recovery 

You can also include the following in the diary or do some free writing to help vent or express your emotions if you feel like you need to get things off your chest:

·      Name feelings 

·      Look after the basics 

·      Identify any specific worries and a plan for each worry 

·      Stay in the present 

·      Call on the past 

·      Be realistic

For athletes, coaches or even people in performance based jobs you could have a think about your season or financial year and review it – Goals / long-term goals and what kind of athlete (person) you want to be. 

E.g. Olympic athlete - Could do this online with a coach or someone you trust. You can then help with the coach’s emotions and allow him/her to engage in further sporting conversations and make life more ‘realistic’.

Regarding talking online, keeping social connections is fundamental and not keeping yourself to yourself in these times will massively beneficial on your mental health. Keep physically distant not socially distant!

One way athlete could make the most of their time is by improving their psychological skills (Goal-Setting, Imagery, Self-Talk, Relaxation) though training. 

There is plenty of guidance online about how to go about this, or feel free to get in contact to know more about how this could help. When learning something new like a psychological skill, pace yourself and take your time learning your craft, you won’t be able to master it in a one night binge session. 

Embracing nature has a positive influence on mental health, unsurprisingly. An analysis for levels of depression and high blood pressure suggest that visiting to outdoor green areas of 30 minutes or more throughout a week can reduce the prevalence of these illnesses by up to 7 - 9% correspondingly in the population (Shanahan, 2016). 

Therefore, you could exercise outdoors: remind yourself of the positive feelings of outdoor training in a way to improve your mental health during this time. But please do bear in mind the potential risks about maintaining distance especially with running, even 2 meters is too short a gap.

Listening to the news, the lies and the maladaptive behaviours of some individuals can be mentally draining and frustrating therefore actively making plans to rest, recover and have some individual escape time can be vitally important for your recovery and your ability to sleep. So, make sure you do plan to remove yourself from these negative stimuli and escape. 

Have a think about the phrase “controlling the controllables.” This is an approach which is used by individuals with regards to ignoring the stimuli which isn’t in your control and is often not useful for you. You can direct their energy and attention on the things they can do (control) to shape your life in this pandemic. 

Think about the things that you have control of or could control in the upcoming weeks and what could arise that you could have control of. This will help put your mind at rest and gain greater power and appraisal of the stressors in this threat state. 

One area is self-confidence and that what you do and your behaviour keeps you safe and you can think about what you are asked to do and what are the reasons and goals behind it (Michie et al., 2020). There can be positive changes for example, working from home to reduce travel and carbon emissions and this can be a time saver. 

You can take these positive steps with you when things turn back to ‘normal’ even though a return to normal may not be a positive step in certain areas. Looking at the positives can be helpful and seeing that you are spending more quality time with loved ones, making the most out of nature and doing some jobs that you have been meaning to get to around the house is beneficial. 

So, making sure you make some social time and time in nature in the future could be a positive habit to keep. Additionally, writing down what you are grateful for could be one way to boost your levels of appreciation during this pandemic. 

Athletes and others in their career will appreciate that developing takes time and patience, therefore being able to be tolerant and empathise with scientists for this vaccine to develop (maybe not with the government as much) and its process is needed and a focus on the here and now is key. 

To conclude, this crisis is a massive challenge for physical and mental health and so the use of strategies in an active manner is beneficial for your mood. You can learn to use, evaluate and modify these strategies and establish them into your routines. Finally, you can become further aware of the emotions of others and help improve their mood which ultimately can positively influence your mood. 

Guidance for psychological professionals during the Covid-19 pandemic:  https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/News/News - Files/Guidance for Psychological Professionals during Covid-19.pdf

The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence:https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736(20)30460-8



John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Individual differences in emotion regulation. Handbook of emotion regulation, 351-372.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Coping and adaptation. The handbook of behavioral medicine (pp.282-325). New York, NY: Guilford.

Michie, S., R. West, and R. Amlôt. "Behavioural strategies for reducing covid-19 transmission in the general population." BMJ Opinion 3 (2020).

Rubin, G. J., Harper, S., Williams, P. D., Öström, S., Bredbere, S., Amlôt, R., & Greenberg, N. (2016). How to support staff deploying on overseas humanitarian work: a qualitative analysis of responder views about the 2014/15 West African Ebola outbreak. European journal of psychotraumatology, 7(1), 30933.

Shanahan, D. F., Bush, R., Gaston, K. J., Lin, B. B., Dean, J., Barber, E., & Fuller, R. A. (2016). Health benefits from nature experiences depend on dose. Scientific reports, 6, 28551.

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