Mind over matter, body and emotions: Coping mechanisms for mental wellness in sport
Sport Singapore's coping mechanisms for athletes affected by the control measures for the coronavirus pandemic
In these unprecedented times of uncertainty in sports - when competitions are postponed and training is affected due to Covid-19 control measures - it's normal for athletes to experience emotions ranging from frustration to anxiety and even anger.
American swim legend Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history with 23 gold medals, recently reiterated the need for athletes to pay attention to mental health, especially during this period.
Here are some coping mechanisms that Sport Singapore (SportSG) has suggested for the different scenarios that athletes could face.
It should also be noted that responses provided cannot be generalised and are not representative of every athlete's experience. Hence, it's not a replacement for seeking support from a trained psychologist.
Athletes who have been preparing for the Olympics for the last four years, now have to spend another year readying themselves to be at their peak.
SportSG spokesman: For most of the athletes, four years of preparation comes with a lot of hard work, pain, sacrifice and resources (financial, emotional and mental) invested.
Initial responses to such a situation could range from anxiety to disappointment to anger - which is completely normal.
It is a change they have to adjust to and it is important that the athletes let themselves (and others let them) express their emotions in order to process them.
Fortunately, for most athletes, this is not a unique scenario. In their respective sporting careers, they would have experienced postponement of their competitions, due to weather, natural disasters, faulty equipment, poor organisation, injuries, etc.
High-performance athletes naturally possess a high level of resilience, discipline and motivation. Upon hearing about the delay of the Games, many of them would draw on these inner traits as well as work closely with their coaches and sport science team to commence planning and setting goals on how they could peak at the rescheduled Games.
Hence, after the initial response, it is about taking the necessary actions to help them reach their goal.
The goals (for most of the athletes) do not change - it is still to do their best at the Olympics or to qualify for the Olympics.
Of course, they are also not alone in this experience as they have a team (coach, sport science and medicine personnel) behind them, their families as well as fellow athletes to support and help them cope with the adjustments during this period.
Athletes are not able to follow their training routine due to control measures
Many athletes have in fact expressed relief about the circuit breaker as their health and well-being are better managed and taken care of.
For them, poor health equates to poor performance.
One characteristic of a high-performance athlete is adaptability. Similar to them having to adapt to various scenarios that play out during their competition to gain a competitive advantage, they will need to adapt to the new way of life with the stringent measures implemented by the different governments around the world.
They set new routines to keep themselves mentally and physically fit in the constraints of their homes. While this is certainly not ideal, it exudes the creativity of the athletes to train at home.
The sooner they adjust their training plans and routines, the sooner they can get back on track to preparing themselves for the Olympics.
The most helpful way to respond is to direct attention to alternative arrangements for this period. Recently, this was seen in the increased number of "train at home" videos by various athletes, most notably (tennis star) Roger Federer.
Furthermore, psychologists would often remind athletes and coaches to "control the controllables" because spending time focusing on the things that you cannot change is not helpful.
Naturally, athletes would be concerned about factors such as age, injuries and financial concerns, more so now that the Games have been delayed
These concerns are valid and it is up to them to decide if these concerns outweigh their goal to compete at the Games.
If an athlete decides that the risk of injury, the financial burden, the stresses on the body, or the disruption to their life plans are not worth the delayed Games, then it is also perfectly fine.
This may hold true for those who may have been thinking about retirement after Olympics 2020.
Of course, these concerns can be addressed too. Sporting history has had many stories of athletes excelling despite their age.
Injuries can be managed and/or likelihood of injuries can be reduced through proper planning of training load, working closely with the sport medicine team, doing adequate strengthening exercises, and being attuned to their bodies.
Finances could be supplemented through other means such as crowdfunding and getting sponsorship.
The solutions are not easy though, and that is something that athletes need to consider. To make that decision, it could be beneficial for athletes to take the time to reconnect with their rationale of embarking on this journey.
If their reason has not changed, they can use it to sustain their motivation for another year.
If a Singaporean swimmer, who resides in an area which doesn't have a swimming pool, hears of an Olympic rival who has a backyard pool, can that be viewed as perceived disadvantage?
Even under normal circumstances (i.e. before the Covid-19 pandemic), there would always be perceived disadvantages in physical attributes, access to resources and funding, age, etc.
This phenomenon of doing upward social comparison is prevalent in society. How it affects an individual's mental health depends on many factors.
On one hand, doing upward social comparisons might motivate the individual to work harder, be solution-focused, and find ways to overcome or mitigate the disadvantages.
On the flip side, it could result in envy, loss of motivation, dip in confidence or wallowing in helplessness.
A good approach is to focus on the controllables instead of thinking about disadvantages. Instead, focus attention and energy on yourself and things you have control over (i.e. emotions, technical knowledge, concentration, belief or confidence).
What are the mental health implications on those whose livelihoods and self-esteem are intrinsically linked to competition?
For those whose identities have been built exclusively around sport, having to step away from being an athlete can result in a sense of loss, emptiness, helplessness, and feelings of anxiety and/or grief.
They can cope and even prepare for future retirement by setting aside time to explore and develop other aspects of their identity as well as reconnecting with their values in life.
This is a process of self-discovery and requires a high level of self-awareness and deep reflection. It is highly recommended that these athletes speak to a psychologist to assist them through the process.
At the Singapore Sport Institute, colleagues in the Athletes' Life team assist with post-athlete careers and support athletes in finding alternative means of livelihood.