For athletes, both professional and amateur, the COVID-19 pandemic caused sudden, seismic disruption. In addition to facing obstacles during training and competition, many athletes lost their sense of purpose and identity in 2020. In some cases, they also had to put their livelihood on hold – with no definite relief in sight.

Confronting the psychological impact of these changes is crucial to ensuring the world of sport rebounds following mass vaccination. With nearly 20% of the adult population actively engaged in sports and exercise, it’s also an important part of protecting public health.

Athletes Struggling with High Rates of Depression, Distress

Studies suggest that the mental health impacts of epidemics typically affect more people than the virus itself and create more long-term complications. As individuals who thrive on having clear goals and a strict routine, athletes may be even more vulnerable to the enduring psychological effects of COVID-19 than the general population.

Though research in this area is ongoing, a survey of nearly 6000 student athletes conducted at the University of North Texas revealed several worrying trends: Following the initial spring outbreak of COVID-19, approximately 22% of respondents met the criteria for clinical depression.

Another 26% experienced subclinical levels of depression, while 15% reported significant psychological distress. Almost all respondents reported at least moderate levels of distress. Access to supportive services, such as counselling, was also substantially reduced for most athletes.

Strategies to Help Athletes Improve Their Mental Health During the Pandemic

Though many athletes will remain physically fit after the pandemic ends, the risk of facing mental barriers to performance is very real. Clinical psychologist Dr. Joe Accardi, who himself is an avid hockey player, suggests the following ways to support athlete’s mental health while we await the return of normal training and team interaction.

Nurture Positive Emotional Connections

The social and emotional benefits of participating in sports are well-documented, and for many athletes, they form a core part of the athletic experience. With the limits currently placed on social interaction (i.e., physical distancing and mask use), using positive communication techniques is vital to retaining a sense of teamwork and community support.

Athletes are encouraged to make regular eye contact, smile, and laugh to maintain a strong connection with teammates. These verbal and non-verbal cues are crucial to establishing a sense of safety on the field; they also enhance mood, energy levels, and motivation.

In lieu of spontaneous socialization off the field, focus on intentionally growing and nurturing relationships with teammates, coaches, colleagues, and friends. Use digital tools (such as video conferencing and social media) to stay in touch with other athletes, as necessary.

Create a Routine – And Stick to It

Establishing an enriching, predictable routine is one of the best ways to manage pandemic-related anxiety. Routines confer a sense of certainty, stability, and normalcy by giving us more control over our day-to-day lives.

If public health restrictions have reduced your opportunities for training, competition, or team interaction, make up the shortfall by optimizing your schedule for self-care. Pay special attention to how you transition between environments: How will you replace familiar social rituals with equally fulfilling habits?

Practices like visualization and goal-setting can aid in cultivating an optimistic, future-oriented mindset during challenging times. Eating a nutritious diet, staying hydrated, listening to uplifting music, and sticking to a sleep schedule can also reduce pandemic-related stress.

As you implement your new routine, take time to reflect on how you’re improving your wellness habits during the pandemic. (For example, are you spending more time exercising in natural areas, cooking more meals at home, engaging in hobbies, or resting more?) Congratulate yourself on the positive changes you’ve made and consider ways to sustain your new habits after the pandemic ends.

Focusing on the rewarding aspects of isolation will make you less susceptible to pandemic fatigue and help you keep your life (and fitness) on track.

Develop a Solutions-Oriented Mindset

Viewing the pandemic as an obstacle to overcome (instead of an unavoidable setback) is an excellent way to build your resilience as an athlete. As you navigate the “new normal,” actively look for solutions instead of dwelling on problems caused by COVID-19.

Challenge yourself to develop new and better strategies to enhance training, achieve goals, and improve the overall well-being of those around you. Research shows that adopting this proactive approach to challenges improves mood and self-confidence, whereas dwelling on problems only increases their perceived magnitude.

Work on Your Cognitive Fitness

Athletic excellence relies heavily on cognitive performance. An athlete’s ability to focus and stay motivated in the face of pain and fatigue is often as integral to his (or her) success as physical strength and stamina. Unfortunately, periods of prolonged psychological stress have the potential to erode cognitive fitness, particularly when they’re accompanied by isolation and monotony.

To ensure you’re mentally ready for regular competition and training when they resume, incorporate novel, enjoyable mental activities into your daily life. You can improve your cognitive fitness by taking an online course, reading, completing puzzles and games (e.g., crossword puzzles, sudoku, or board games), and finding safe ways to socialize. Seeking out mental activity increases the brain’s plasticity and reduces neuron loss, thereby protecting against cognitive decline.

Practice Mindfulness

Though remaining positive and active is crucial to managing stress, acknowledging your feelings – and the feelings of those around you – is equally important. Set aside some time at the beginning and end of each day to assess how you feel, what you need most, and how you can meet your emotional needs in a healthy, constructive way.

Likewise, check in regularly with colleagues, coaches, and teammates to make sure they’re coping adequately with the challenges at hand. Listen and empathize with any concerns they have and offer your support, as needed. Becoming more mindful of what’s happening in your social and emotional sphere will help you respond to problems in a measured, deliberate way.

It will also prevent you from becoming isolated or detached in reaction to prolonged stress. Creative and spiritual practices, such as journaling, prayer, and meditation, can also reduce stress while facilitating greater self-awareness.

Extraordinary circumstances force us to explore our strengths, acknowledge our limitations, and ultimately get to know ourselves – As athletes and human beings. By leveraging the pandemic experience to deepen your social connections and understanding of mental health, you can emerge from this time of fear and uncertainty with renewed vigour, resolve, and optimism. These qualities, above all else, are the hallmarks of a champion.