Athletes mental health is something that often flies under the radar.

Following the cancelation of almost all major sporting events, athletes are facing a new opponent: themselves. Pandemics can, at the same time, feel both isolating and yet unifying. We are all looking for ways to connect while being apart physically. But for high-performance athletes, the impact of the air of uncertainty is different.

Since the nearly back to back announcements that almost all major league sports and sporting events would be postponed until further notice in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,  athletes on a global scale have seen their careers, livelihood and passion hanging in the balance.

For Olympians, a goal that was only four months away now sits much further — 12, possibly 16 months away. In facing the pressures of finding their new normal, maintaining preparation for competition, keeping mental and physical health and providing encouragement for fans, many have admitted to coping being unlike anything they have ever experienced.

“This is potentially going to end some careers, and possibly prolong others,” said four-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist turned medical student, Hayley Wickenheiser.”  Wickenheiser has been regarded as the greatest female hockey player of all time and knows first hand the anxieties and pressure Olympic athletes are under this close to the games.

There is no easy answer to how best a professional (or not) athlete should handle a situation so unprecedented. What does become paramount however is the conversation surrounding their mental health.

In 2014, a study conducted by the NCAA reported that 30 per cent of student athletes reported feeling depression over the last 12 months. Infamous Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has been increasingly vocal about his struggles with depression despite his record breaking career and in 2011, Serena Williams shared her own battles — and has been vocal since – following her historical win at Wimbledon. Regardless, athlete mental health seems to remain a taboo topic in the world of sports. If athletes, in their prime with a set schedule, occupied with sport and filled with endorphins already face internal struggles, what of athletes who are now stripped of all of those things?

As the world of sports has come to a screeching halt, it raises the question of whether athletes have been properly prepared to mentally cope with the unknown.  

Sports psychologist and founder of HeadSet, a mental training and toughness program for athletes, Peter Papagogiannis says for coping athletes, coming to terms with their emotions is the first step. 

“It’s being aware and knowing it’s okay to feel this way,” said Papagogiannis, “A lot of times in sport, if you say emotions when asking some athletes, they may back away. You call it pressure, they listen to you more. But regardless of how you have to put it, you have to be okay with it. You’re frustrated, you’re angry, you’re uncertain. You’re doubting what the next step is. That is the natural way to feel. And then, once you acknowledge this, the challenge is being able to be okay with that.”

Rosie MacLennan, two-time Canadian Olympic trampoline gold medalist is trying to find the positives in this time. “It’s an extra year where you get to train. I think it gives everyone a space to just really focus on what they should be, and without that added pressure of trying to reach peak performance from your living room,” said MacLennan.

MacLennan has championed athlete mental health in the past, opening up in Bell Let’s talk campaigns about her own battle with anxiety. “I know for a lot of athletes,  it’s not simple, it’s physically demanding and mentally demanding,” she explained.

High intensity is part of the job for athletes like MacLennan, and is typically a winning attribute to have. In contrast, high intensity with lack of direction can create the perfect storm for an athlete already struggling to cope with performance pressure. Papagogiannis explains how stress plays on the mind of an athlete and impacts behaviour is based on three factors; physical responses, emotional responses, and ability to be mentally resilient. 

A physical response can manifest in over or under-training due to increased stress, emotional anxiety and anger can materialize as a coping mechanism, mentally an athlete can be facing incredible amounts of doubt and uncertainty that can reduce usual resilience and cause withdrawals in usual temperament.

The best way out of mental loops that are common when an athlete experiences irregular breaks in the season like this are similar to techniques used when recovering from injury or play suspension. Treat the off season like the regular season never ended.

“When you’re in the season, controlling the controllables is absolutely essential. There are so many distractions internally and even externally now you wouldn’t think of being at home….And if you can focus on the controllable pieces, just pick one then that’s a great start,” said Papagogiannis.

For MacLennan, finding perspective is important. “The conversations I’ve had with my sports psychologist is really about trying to take a step back and put it all in perspective,” she explained. “I do know that the postponement does mean, for some people, the end of their career and for others it means their dream of going to the Olympics is delayed by a year. Some people will lose their opportunity, but others will gain opportunities. For me, I didn’t find much value in dwelling on the potential negatives.”

MacLennan also serves as the vice chair of the Athletes’ Commission, which represents the voice of Canadian Olympic athletes to governing bodies such as the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) Board of Directors and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Last week, a mental health task force was created to help athletes. The COC, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Own the Podium, various national sports organizations, the Canadian sports institutes spread across the country, and Game Plan, an athlete wellness program designed for national team athletes are all involved. The goal is to assess the needs and help aid in the concerns and uncertainties athletes are facing.

Sport and performance aside, athletes are thrust into the position of role model often when issues arise in society. For many, (fans included) the loss of a season will involve a substantial amount of grieving. With mounting pressures to be a source of positivity for fans, it is easy to forget that human emotion. Sports psychologist Kate Hays believes the key to athletes managing uncertainty, is deciding when and how to deal with it. “It may be useful to really figure out, okay, when do I need to make some decisions? Do I need to make those decisions right now in perhaps the absence of very much information or can giving yourself permission to feel the uncertainty and to let that be present rather than decide that one has to trudge on can be really very relieving to recognize that one is a human being before one is an athlete,” said Hays. 

Redirecting nervous energy to re-create a form of structure is key for any athlete dealing with the mental repercussions of COVID-19 related cancelations.

Hays said monitoring and limiting time on social media, can be useful in maintaining self discipline and being a realistic role model to fans. After all, no one is 100 per cent all of the time and that is equally as important to show as your efforts to push forward. 

“It might be [time] to really think about, Mmm, who am I doing this for and why am I doing it? And what is it that’s most important? And what’s best for my mental health in terms of social media and how can I get through this time most effectively? My fans and my audience are really important. But, I need to put the oxygen mask on myself first.” 

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