Eliza Stone looks on at the Sabre Grand Prix on Jan. 12, 2020 in Montreal, Quebec.
Before the pandemic, sport psychologists taught athletes mental strategies for dealing with training, competition and their futures.
Now they’re helping them cope with limited training, no competition and an uncertain future.
Many athletes are still under shelter-at-home orders with no idea when they will compete again.
“There are so many mental challenges of getting through this,” said fencer Eliza Stone, who was on the brink of qualifying for her first U.S. Olympic team when the sports world shut down in March.
Sean McCann, a senior sport psychologist with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, said the number of phone and video meetings between the USOPC staff and Team USA athletes has probably increased five-fold since the coronavirus brought sports to a screeching halt.
As Mental Health Awareness Month begins, Olympic qualifiers and hopefuls are spending more time in their heads than on the field of play. Their moods are down while their stress levels have gone way up.
McCann said the biggest problem is that athletes’ lives used to be dictated by a schedule. From training to naps, the hours of the day were jam-packed with purpose.
All of that has now gone out the window, leaving them downtime to wonder where they should be in their training while they languish at home.
“That seems to be the number one issue that athletes want to talk about,” McCann said, “and the emotions that come up to them as they struggle to fill the time and struggle not to think so much about things that make them anxious.”
Many athletes don’t have a place to train or the equipment to work out at home. “For most of them, it’s ‘What am I supposed to do? What I am supposed to be thinking about? What am I supposed to be training for?’” McCann said.
Stone speaks with Karen Cogan, a senior sport psychologist with the USOPC, once a week to stay “connected and accountable.” They’ve been working together since 2014.
“It doesn’t have to be super long,” said Stone, who is sheltering alone with her cat, Pumpkin, “but I like knowing that I can talk things through and maybe work on a strategy to stay productive and positive.”
With all the fencing clubs closed, Stone practices hand drills and hits a makeshift dummy in her New Jersey apartment with her saber.
“I beat up my cardboard-box opponent,” Stone said.
Working with Cogan is helping her keep mentally sharp for when she faces a real, live rival again.
“We’re essentially asked to stop halfway though the height of our season – indefinitely – and then come back perfect without missing a beat whenever the world opens up again,” Stone said. “And we have no idea when that is. It’s almost an impossible task, so a lot of us are a bit wary about that. It’s important to stay positive so it doesn’t wear you down.”
The USOPC has offered mental health services since the late 1980s, which includes work on mindfulness, visualization, performance optimization and mental training plans, as well as the old standbys: pressure and nerves. The organization has seven full-time licensed sport psychologists who specialize in specific sports and accompany Team USA athletes to major international competitions.
In addition, athletes have access to more than 150 contractors and can take advantage of this benefit without Elite Athlete Health Insurance.
Confidential counseling is also available through ComPsych, which the USOPC has expanded to include all athletes – with and without Elite Athlete Health Insurance – due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Some of the behavioral strategies that sport psychologists are offering athletes can also apply to the general public.
“All sorts of things that we talk about with athletes to help them keep their sanity is true for people who used to go to offices every day and now are not doing that,” said McCann. “It’s easy to fall out of healthy habits and not realize that’s why you’re irritable and grouchy and snapping at people you’re living with because you’re not taking care of the basics: sleep, exercise and structure.”
McCann, who has been with the USOPC for 29 years, explored seven major areas while talking to TeamUSA.org and on a Panam Sports Channel “Expert Connection” chat.
1. Get enough sleep.
“It’s useful to have sleep discipline,” McCann said. “Go to bed at a certain time and wake up at a certain time. One of best things you can do for your immune system is get enough sleep, so this is a bad time to be cutting back.”
He said that maintaining physical activity – getting your heart rate up and breaking a sweat – goes hand in hand with proper sleep to regulate mood. “I’ve talked to some swimmers, who say, ‘What’s the point? I can’t swim, why should I do anything?’” McCann said. “There’s lots of reasons to be exercising right now. If you’re a normal person walking around, there’s research to show a little bit of exercise really helps reduce stress and helps your mood.”
2. Develop a structure for each day.
“Even though it feels like you have ultimate freedom to do what you want, don’t just leave every day a blank slate,” McCann said. “If you don’t build a schedule, like your coaches used to do, you actually have ‘decision fatigue’ where you constantly go, ‘Should I take my bike ride now? Maybe I should go before breakfast. Maybe I should go after breakfast.’ If you start filling yourself up with lots of questions and doubt, it creates stress and anxiety. Even if it doesn’t seem like it’s that critical, it will start to affect your brain.”
McCann said athletes must be open to changing their schedule as training opportunities diminish or increase in coordination with their coaches. “It’s a temptation to get out of a scheduled life and say, ‘Maybe I’ll just turn on my computer and watch Netflix,’” McCann said. “Athletes need that sense of purpose and structure. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about what exactly I’m getting ready for and how soon I can be ready, but simply the act of getting back to something like a training structure seems to be helpful for people.”
They also must make the most of their workouts.
“One of the reasons people feel less motivation is some elite athletes are used to working seven to eight hours a day on their sport and now the maximum may be 90 minutes or less,” McCann said. “That can make them feel like, ‘I’m a slug,’ but that’s not true. You’ve got constraints that make it hard to work, but we’ve just got to be smart about what the work is. Make sure you’re fully present and don’t sacrifice qualify.”
3. Give yourself permission to feel how you are feeling.
“Seeing social media sites, it’s been really inspiring to see athletes say, ‘OK, we’re just resetting – same plan, new year. I’m just going to start over again,’” McCann said. “It’s great to have that sort of drive and desire.
“But when I talk to athletes, they sort of let down their guard a little bit and say, ‘I don’t feel that way all the time – I’m frustrated, I’m anxious, I’m angry that I was so ready and now I’ve got to wait. I don’t have an opportunity to go to competitions and earn prize money. I don’t have a way to qualify for teams.’ Some people feel like they have to be up all the time. None of us are optimistic and positive all the time.”
McCann said that by openly acknowledging those feelings, athletes can work through them.
However, some feel they’ve not only lost their opportunity to compete, they’ve also lost their identities.
“It’s easy to tell people who you are by saying, ‘I’m a rhythmic gymnast’ or ‘I’m a swimmer,’” McCann said. “The opportunity to show who you are is taken away by the situation, and it can lead to feeling depressed and feeling, ‘I don’t know who I am.’ But you’re lots of things. You’re a child of someone, a sibling. Maybe you’re in a relationship or you’re a partner. Maybe you work or do other things.”
4. Focus attention on your own situation.
McCann said it’s natural for athletes to wonder what their competitors are doing, especially if they worry they have a better training situation.
“It’s easy to get angry and frustrated that your situation isn’t as good as other people’s,” he said. “First off, you don’t really know what other people have. Second, we all have lots of time before competition is coming, so we have time. Focus on yourself. That really helps reduce stress.”
McCann said athletes can do this through mindfulness work. He suggests downloading an app and said it doesn’t require spending an hour with your eyes closed.
“A lot of us have this background anxiety sort of buzzing around in the back of our minds,” he said. “It’s not that we’re trying to be anxious or we’re trying to worry, but it’s there all the time. What I recommend is bring it to the forefront of your brain. ‘OK, what are you worried about? Is there anything you can do about it? If so, what is it?’ Make a short to-do list, say, ‘This is my worry time for the day and I’ll spend 15 minutes doing it.’”
5. Visualization techniques.
In lieu of physical workouts, athletes can use imagery to get ready for when they are back in action full-time. A swimmer can remember how the water feels or a discus thrower can imagine the proper throwing technique. “There are lots of different ways you can intensify that experience by trying to ground all your senses,” McCann said. “Use first-person perspective so you can really see yourself moving. It actually trains your brain to work even if you’re not able to do that work physically because of these restrictions.”
He encourages athletes to use a stopwatch to time the imagery in their mind’s eye and see if their mental exercises match video of their performance.
Watching old videos of competition also serves to remind athletes of “the work you’ve done and how good you are,” McCann said.
He also believes athletes should visualize what it will be like the first time they return to practice or competition “so it’s not a shock to the system.”
6. Social strategies.
Athletes should reach out to family, friends and teammates through technology like Zoom and FaceTime, plan a Netflix Party or arrange multi-player video games.
“If you stay connected and reach out to other people, you get out of your own head and that’s good for all of us right now,” McCann said.
In addition to expressing their concerns and fears with a sport psychologist, McCann said athletes should also find a mentor, coach or another athlete to use as a sounding board.
He said if they are sheltering with their families, they should take advantage of this time they normally would not have spent with their loved ones because of their sports commitments.
“Families make all of us a little bit crazy,” McCann said. “It’s a normal thing, but also we are never going to have this opportunity again to be with our family.”
With athletes connected around the clock to social media and through their phones, he said they have to be smart about how much they consume.
“If you know social media affects you negatively, be very careful,” McCann said. “I know some athletes are triggered in terms of eating issues, or ‘How come my teammate got 200 likes for her picture and I only got 45?’ Those things can spin people off in unexpected directions.
“I know lots of athletes who have eliminated social media from their diet of entertainment because it’s damaging to them and it erodes their confidence. It’s always an issue, but right now it’s downright dangerous because we have too much time to think about it and not enough distractions.”
McCann also has heard athletes say that so many people are checking up on them to see if they’re OK that they have grown tired of answering.
“It’s OK to take a break,’ McCann said. “It’s OK to unplug a little bit from the web, especially if you’re taking classes where you’re sitting in front of a screen all day long. Get outside, walk, run, hang out with your dog, take a break if you need to, because we all need to.”
7. Let go of the old story and write a new one.
“I know athletes whose trials were supposed to be in June,” McCann said. “They know it’s not happening, but they’re still competing in their head for those trials. They have not let go of the old story – and it’s killing them inside.
“The athletes who are letting it go, saying, ‘What do I do now? What are my new plans for next week, next month and next year?’ Those are the athletes who are starting to get happy and get their motivation back.”
He added, “This is a crazy thing. No one’s ever faced this before. We’re all writing our own unique stories now and we have an opportunity to make it a good story.”
Stone, 29, is writing that new story. She has been building up to these Olympic Games for eight years, studying for the Medical College Admission Test en route to her ranking of No. 2 in the United States and No. 4 in the world.
“The way I’m looking at it,” Stone said, “is I’ve been on a long-term path for a while now so one more year’s not going to make too much of a difference. It is a disappointment, for sure, but the fencing season was most of the way concluded for me. I know I’m 99 percent going to go (to Tokyo) and I just I need to focus on staying confident and staying long-term oriented.
“As long as it’s going to happen eventually, I’m OK.”