Helping athletes cope with the emotional rollercoaster of COVID-19

A basketball player sits alone in bleachers that are empty due to COVID-19.
The disruptions of COVID-19 have left many athletes feeling like they’ve lost a piece of themselves. (Image: Adobe Stock/Illustration: Sebastian Stankiewicz, Boston Children’s)

“The athletes I work with are over this,” says Kimberly O’Brien, a clinical social worker in the Sports Medicine Division.

Last spring, when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of organized sports, coaches and athletes assumed they’d be playing again by autumn. Now it’s clear many athletes’ plans will remain on hold through the fall season, possibly longer. “As the pandemic drags on, the impact has become more profound,” says O’Brien, who sees worrying signs of anxiety and depression in many of the athletes she works with. Some no longer consider themselves athletes. Some have developed eating disorders.

Yet the downtime has allowed some athletes to recover from long-standing sports injuries. “That’s a silver lining,” says Sara Collins, injury prevention specialist at The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention. “But these athletes also miss the social interactions and competitiveness of playing sports.”

Below, three Boston Children’s Hospital specialists share skills to help athletes cope with the emotional rollercoaster of COVID-19, and possibly come out stronger.

Mental health during COVID-19: Believe in yourself as an athlete

The disruptions of COVID-19 have left many athletes feeling like they’ve lost a piece of themselves. Without team practices or busy competition schedules, a kid’s athletic identity can feel like a distant memory.

“It’s mentally taxing to train and not see results,” says Kelsey Griffith, performance enhancement and rehab specialist at The Micheli Center. For the past six months, Griffith has offered online mental skills training classes. “Athletes are used to powering through obstacles,” she says. “To get through this pandemic, however, they have to stop and give themselves space to not feel OK. That doesn’t mean they’re not athletes.”

Working out at home: Turn workouts into habits

Sticking with a training program is a lot harder when your gym is also your bedroom (or garage or living room). “A lot of athletes are angry with themselves for not meeting their training goals,” says O’Brien. But self-blame tends to make athletes weaker, not stronger.

Athletes excel by focusing on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.”

Kelsey Griffith

To combat negative mental spirals and lack of motivation, O’Brien recommends athletes view training as a habit. For instance, training on the same days, at the same times every week. “It’s unrealistic to rely on motivation alone in this situation. The pandemic requires a different approach.” By turning training into a habit, you may find you’re able to work out more regularly without the extra work of talking yourself into it every single time.

Virtual training: Connect with teammates

What to look for in an online training program

Sara Collins recommends looking for programs led by experienced instructors that require little or no equipment. “Kids and teens will want a program that’s simple, fun, and encourages them to explore different styles of exercise. The best programs incorporate dynamic warm ups, body-weight exercises, and flexibility.”

Working out with friends or teammates can also help you stick to your training plans. You might train together from a safe physical distance outdoors. In bad weather, you might do online workouts together from home. Knowing other people are relying you, even virtually, takes the question mark out of whether or not you’re going to show up for practice. It can also help you stay connected with the people who made sports fun for you in the first place.

Check out the virtual training and group classes offered by The Micheli Center.

Adapting to COVID-19 precautions

Adaptability is an important skill for any athlete. What if your goggles fall off during a swim meet? Or a play goes wrong in a tournament? Athletes adapt and keep playing.

COVID-19 puts athletic adaptability to the test. Whether it’s wearing a mask during practices, drastically shorter competition schedules, or not playing at all, athletes have had to adapt to a strange new world. Ask yourself what you can do, even if you didn’t choose the circumstances, advises Griffith. “Athletes excel by focusing on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.”

Focusing on fitness: Be clear about what you can and can’t control

As an individual athlete living through a pandemic, there are a zillion things you can’t control. “If you spend a lot of time worrying about whether a game is going to get cancelled, you’re spending a lot of energy for no reason,” says O’Brien. “Instead, focus on things within reach, like your athletic schedule, your healthy diet, and your sleep habits.”

It is possible to be kind with yourself while also pushing yourself to be the best athlete you can be.”  

Kimberly O’Brien

Staying competitive during a pandemic: Be creative

Many athletes live for the thrill of competition. Collins has been delighted by the creative ways she’s seen athletes satisfy this urge. Some have set challenges to increase the number of repetitions they can do each week. Some have set up competitions with their siblings. When a young soccer player realized she wouldn’t be able to play competitively this year, she started bake-off competitions with her mom.

“I commend these athletes for making the best of the situation and being competitive in new ways,” says Collins.

Training the mind and body: Practice self-compassion

While it may run counter to the image of a fierce and driven athlete, O’Brien, Griffith, and Collins all advise a strategy of self-compassion. This means recognizing the many ways COVID-19 has made training harder and congratulating yourself for the things you achieve.

“It is possible to be kind with yourself while also pushing yourself to be the best athlete you can be,” says O’Brien. “Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”

Get more answers about COVID-19 and learn about the Sports Medicine Division and The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention.

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