By Dr. Nick Molinaro and Celeste Romano
We are navigating uncharted territory. A virus has upended our daily lives. Social distancing has forced many adults to work from home, kids to attend classes online, and extracurricular activities to come to a screeching halt.
Although, as a parent, I expected some angst from our kids, I admittingly underestimated the effect of this pandemic on our athletes. It was a recent conversation I had with a Division I athlete that provided some clarity on what many of our athletes might be experiencing right now.
“The biggest thing for us was the timeline. We found out we needed to be off campus with little time to react. Plus, this year we had a great chance of winning the NEC Conference, which would have given the team huge opportunities, such as playing and possibly winning the NAC Conference. But even more than that, one of our teammates and friends was an international student from Saudi Arabia. There was barely enough time to absorb what was happening, let alone say our good-byes. It’s hard on both ends. He will miss his senior year of playing, and we may not see each other for a long time, or ever. We feel robbed.”
Athletes, no matter their age or ability, are experiencing the same sudden ending of a spring sport. Many have trained hard for their spring season, looked forward to it, and for some it was the last time they would play that sport competitively.
Should they just shrug off those feelings or are there specific things we as parents, coaches, or the athletes themselves can do to get through this difficult time?
Any type of loss can induce grief. We grieve what we no longer have and what could have been–both are gone, never to be experienced again. Anything that moves us away from our equilibrium or norm can induce stress. This can include adjusting to learning from home, different daily routines, or a sports season ending soon or never happening at all.
The measures taken to address this pandemic have induced both grief and stress for young athletes. Whether your athlete is in grade school or college, they can experience both at some level. Now, when a sport naturally comes to an end for seniors, players will go through some grief and stress over the loss and life change. However, in this instance, there was a sudden and traumatic loss–something no player was prepared for. It can be likened to that of an auto accident, heart attack, or any unforeseen tragic event, making the impact on the athlete more palpable and acute.
As a sport psychologist, many of my athletes have come to me to express their feelings of loss and anxiety, not unlike the aforementioned player.
My most critical piece of advice is to make sure they maintain contact with friends and teammates. Social support lessens the impact of stress and facilitates healing from a loss. Humans are social beings and we do better when we have contact with others. The more the team can come together and find ways to communicate about the past, present, and share their hopes for the future, the more the healing process will start to take effect.
Besides social support, there are other concrete ways a parent, coach, or the athlete themself can help the healing process and reduce stress during this time.
Manage Environment – Identify the athlete’s stressors. What causes angst? Then keep away from the things that upset them to create peace. Conversely, there are times when confronting stressors provides empowerment. This must be decided on a case-by-case basis. But always make sure the athlete stays close to their support systems.
Physical Activity – Set aside time for exercise each day. Exercise is critical for maintaining a healthy immune system, promoting good sleep, and improving one’s focus and mood. Have the athlete use Facetime and do exercises with their friends and teammates or have them share what they are doing over social media or through texts. Create a shared experience similar to what they would have done if the season hadn’t been cancelled.
Mind and Body Interaction – Quiet mindful time is important. Have the athlete find a quiet place and use imagery techniques, such as having them imagine themselves being successful. What would it look like from their perspective, from a camera’s perspective, and what would that feel like? Or have the athlete imagine a calm place or a positive image in their brain to induce relaxation. Imagery can be a powerful tool to train the brain while the athlete is not playing a sport if done with consistency.
Practice Intention – Have the athlete practice addressing tasks with intention. What do I mean by this? If we do tasks with a specific intention in mind, it drives and sharpens our attention and focus. Each day the athlete should intend on caring for themself, someone else, or schoolwork. This will redirect the athlete’s focus and drive behaviors toward more positive activities. It’s not about avoiding things, but about focusing on something else.
Oftentimes, catastrophic events create stronger bonds. You may see players and teams grow closer and that growth will translate positively when the athletes return to the field, court, or course.
Remember, it is in times of adversity that opportunities for emotional growth are presented. See the hotbed of positive lessons learned through the grief and stress athletes are experiencing and it will improve their mental game for when they return to sports.
Dr. Nick Molinaro and Celeste Romano are the authors of Beyond the Scoreboard. Molinaro has worked in the arena of performance psychology for more than 30 years with middle school aged children through professional and Olympic athletes, in all sports. Romano is the founder and head of Creative License Publishing, LLC, a writing consulting firm.
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