Olympics 2020 on hold: dealing with the ‘loss’ of sport competition

Photo of the Olympic Rings at the Queens Elizabeth Park, London. Credit: Adam Davy/PA Wire/PA Images

Blog by Professor Jamie Barker, Senior Lecturer in Sport and ExercisePsychology, Loughborough University (list of other research credits further below).

Tokyo's 2020 Olympic Games are being moved to next year Credit: ITV News Central

For many fans, the postponement of sport has meant only minor disturbances to everyday life. We now find our TV schedules filled with reruns of classic sporting events where we scream at the injustice of the ‘hand of god’, while basking in the reflective glory of watching the England Women’s cricket team win the World Cup.

Social media posts about sport are reflective on the past, rather than commenting on the present misuse of VAR ! Many bank accounts lay somewhat dormant due to a lack of opportunity to have a ‘flutter’ on red cards, thrown ins, and the next managerial sacking.

For many athletes the postponement and or cancelling of major sporting events including the Olympics and Paralympics is likely to cause a significant amount of psychological stress.

Indeed, the Covid-19 lockdown can be called a non-normative transition in sport, this means that it was unexpected and could not be prepared for.

This can make it more difficult to manage, and can have negative consequences for mental health and psychological well-being.

This Covid-19 transition will be overwhelming for some - posing many questions around the uncertainty of how long the lockdown period will last, the effect of lockdown on long-term goals for training and competition, and further doubts about what the transition process of emerging from lockdown will look like.

Professor Jamie Barker Credit: Loughborough University

*A guidance report recently produced by the Covid-19 Sport and ExercisePsychology Working Group on behalf of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology has highlighted three priority areas with which to support athletes.

1. Mental health and dealing with uncertainty

With many events and competitions postponed indefinitely, with no certainconfirmation of when some will resume, this is likely to cause a significant amount of stress for athletes.

If athletes struggle to cope with stress, over time it is likely to have a negative impact on their mental health, especially if they do not seek support or begin to take proactive measures to manage their well-being.

There are several successful psychological strategies which athletes can use to cope with stress or manage their mental health. These strategies may also be effective to help with the uncertainty caused by coronavirus:

Control the controllable(s):

  • Focus on what is within our control (e.g: exercising and training safely, seeing opportunities for personal development and growth, maintaining physical distancing but maintaining social interactions).

  • Accept that some sources of uncertainty are outside of our control (e.g: when sporting events will be resumed, when physical distancing restrictions will be lifted).

  • Accept that feelings associated with stress and anxiety are normal responses to uncertainty.

  • Maintain a sense of perspective (e.g: given the lockdown restrictions it may not be possible to maintain ‘typical’ levels of fitness).

Athletes tend to prefer ‘problem-focused’ coping strategies. However, this approach may not be effective if the source of stress is outside of our control. Therefore, we recommend that athletes prioritise strategies that cope with what is within their control and learn to accept what is outside of their control.

Focus on our responses to the uncertainty:

  • Practice deep breathing

  • Use relaxing imagery

  • Engage in mindfulness or meditation

  • Listen to music

  • Develop routines to connect with family, friends, team-mates or coaches about how our feelings

  • Write thoughts, feelings, and worries down regularly

When faced with sources of stress outside of our control, it is better to focus on regulating your emotions rather than the uncertainty itself.

Use helpful distractions:

  • Train or exercise (within social distancing guidelines)

  • Take a walk in a green space-where possible (this has been shown to reduce stress levels)

  • Take up a new hobby at home

  • Do an activity with members of your household

  • Watch television (but be wary of repeatedly watching too much Covid-19-related news stories)

  • Take part in a virtual quiz

  • Listen to a podcast

  • Avoid reminders of cancelled sporting events

Research has suggested that, when unable to compete and train with fellow athletes, distraction and avoidance can be an effective way of coping with stress for some sportspeople.

2. Maintaining social connections

Covid-19 has resulted in great changes to the rhythm of daily life and to how we maintain social connections and have a sense of belonging. Athletes have a strong professional-identity; created, in part, from the time spent within the organisational structure of sport and socialising with other members.

Feeling connected with others and being part of groups that we perceive to be positive and meaningful is beneficial for our psychological health and well-being.

Therefore, it is important for athletes to consider how narrow or wide their social network is in terms of personal and professional relationships, and who they want and need to maintain communication with, within and outside sport:

  • Family members

  • Friends

  • Peers in sport

  • Coaching staff and management

By keeping communication channels open and by scheduling regular connections with key individuals or groups it will be easier to raise difficulties before they become more problematic.

Presently in our work with elite sports teams and individuals we have found the scheduling of online coffee chatrooms is an easy way to maintaincommunication along with sharing daily hassles and concerns, while alsomaintaining a sense of fun, and dressing room ‘banter’.

3. Motivation and goal setting

Many sports people will have begun this year immersed and focused on high-performance goals that may have represented the culmination of years of dedication and commitment.

The impact of coronavirus and the cancellation and suspension ofcompetitions and training means that these goals are no longer a daily presence and driving force; and for many, are now unobtainable this year.

The sudden loss of this opportunity to achieve our goals combined with isolation, restrictions on social movement, exercise and training can lead to significant mental health issues.

Adopting strategies and adjusting or re-engaging in alternative goals can improve well-being through increasing feelings of self-control.

Create a daily structure and alternative goals for well-being:

  • Creating new social networks and maintaining contact

  • Physical well-being, for example sleep patterns, nutrition and Pilates to name a few

  • Personal development such as learning a new skill, or taking up a hobby

Many athletes also find the use of a reflective diary as a useful and effective way to log their progress, but in the current situation such diaries can be used to disclose worries and anxieties.

The act of writing problems down can be an effective technique to help deal with worries and concerns.

British Triathlete and current student Hannah Moore training at Loughborough University. Credit: Loughborough University

Re-adjust and reframe goals

As athletes look to the future they may also want to think about taking some time to define or redefine mastery goals. Mastery goals are those that focus on self-improvement (getting better at a skill, having insight into why improvement occurred), they help maintain motivation and can provide a sense of purpose as we move into the new normal.

Importantly, when we are setting goals, whether these are to structure our day or mastery goals to aid us moving forward, we must remember to be realistic, use our support network to help achieve the goals and don’t be afraid to reach out to our social network for advice and feedback.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 lockdown is an uncertain and stressful time for many people including elite and professional sport performers. The ability to cope with stress, largely depends on our ability to have a flexible mindset along with engaging and adhering to some of the evidence-based principles above.

The present adversity may also offer some an opportunity for reflection and contemplation on work-life balance, life expectations, priorities, and goals.

This blog was compiled by Dr Jamie Barker, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology, Loughborough University and the Covid-19 Sport and Exercise Psychology Working Group on behalf of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

* The guidance report was produced by the Covid-19 Sport and Exercise Psychology Working Group on behalf of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology.Gavin Breslin, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology, School ofPsychology, Ulster University, Northern Ireland.Ruth Lowry, Reader in Exercise Psychology. School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences. University of Essex.Moira Lafferty, Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology, School of Psychology, University of Chester.Darren Britton, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology, School of Sport, Health and Social Science, Solent University.Robert Morris, Lecturer in Sport Psychology, Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, University of Stirling.Jamie Barker, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology, Loughborough University.Matt Slater, Associate Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology, School of Life Sciences and Education, Staffordshire UniversityMartin Eubank, Principal Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology, School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University.

Watch the first part of our series "The Delayed Games" here.