How athletes cope with the corona crisis

The coronavirus has been dominating global headlines and all of our lives for several weeks. Competitive athletes are especially hard-hit by the strict lockdown measures in place. All competitions have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled completely, with training now being conducted at home or on an individual basis outdoors. Contact with coaches and team-mates has been reduced to tablet or smartphone communication. This week has been the first time that the TSG Hoffenheim players have trained at the Zuzenhausen training centre, where they worked in small groups at staggered time intervals throughout the day. Prof. Dr. Jan Mayer, who has been TSG's sports psychologist for 12 years, explained in an interview how competitive athletes cope with such exceptional circumstances.

Mr. Mayer, to what degree is the corona crisis a challenge for sports psychology?

"Some of my colleagues have already addressed the current situation that competitive athletes are facing. Hans-Dieter Hermann, whom I have been working with for several years and is currently the sports psychologist for the German national team, stated that the restrictions placed on training and social contact represent a particular strain for athletes. Most of them feel a much greater urge to exercise than the rest of the population; it is both their biggest hobby and their profession. And the athletes are missing the social contact, which can be very intense within a team. But this deprivation is being felt by almost everyone, whether it's children and youngsters missing their school class or their sports club, or adults whose professional contact has been limited to little or nothing at all."

What have been your experiences? Does the corona crisis result in a degree of psychological pressure for professional athletes?

"Everyone deals with it differently, as is the case among other people too. Many top athletes outside football have currently had the rug pulled from beneath their feet too; they are without the income that comes from entry fees and performance bonuses. Howevever, professional footballers are privileged in that they have contracts with fixed terms and they can afford to waive a portion of their salaries. But you get the impression from discussions that both the financially well positioned footballers and other top athletes are generally in a positive mood despite the corona crisis, and that their existential fears do not run particularly deep. Perhaps they have a greater belief that they will overcome this crisis, as they are often presented with difficult challenges that they need to overcome with their own determination. High self-belief is the best antidote at a time that is shaped by many uncertainties."

What specific aspects of the corona crisis lead to concerns or even fears among athletes, and to what degree do they also apply to other groups in the population?

"Not all athletes remain confident about the future, even if they are used to a certain level of uncertainty. They also find themselves in an exceptional situation that is presenting them with an entirely new set of problems. The everyday life of an athlete follows a rigid schedule throughout the entire year: training camp, competitive phase, matchdays, etc. That all changed from one day to the next in mid-March; daily routines could no longer be continued and points of reference that offered structure disappeared. That can lead to a sense of uneasiness within or even cause them to question their personal objectives. Milions of people are currently experiencing a radically different everyday life both on a professional level and in terms of their close family surroundings, one which deviates significantly from their usual circumstances. Athletes are not any different to non-athletes in that respect."

You've spoken about the fact that in the vast majority of cases, professional footballers have financial security. But don't some of them have greater concerns? And what are the reasons that more athletes in other sports feel less optimistic about the future?

"When the future is associated with financial uncertainty, this raises existential questions for everyone. Only some people who are psychologically very stable emerge from this unfazed. In German professional fooball, there are definitely a lot of players especially in the second and third tiers  who are no longer calm about the situation. As the sports press have reported, 13 of the top 36 professional clubs face the prospect of insolvency. When a club signs up for short-time work, this can be interpreted as an worrying sign. Individual sportspersons such as track and field athletes, racing cyclists, swimmers, triathletes and tennis players, who earn nothing without competition, will also question whether their advertising contracts will be extended as agreed. These are all problems that athletes have to face and are weighing them down at the moment. As well as the concerns about financial losses, there is a degree of uncertainty regarding their own physical fitness. Almost all training centres have been closed; those without home gyms may experience difficulties maintaining their fitness. At least it still represents a solution for competitive athletes. But all that can naturally be reasons for sportspersons, who are consistently under pressure to perform, to be plagued by uneasiness and worries about the future. In addition, they no longer know where they stand vis-a-vis the competition in the long term. Will the competition maybe cope better and steal a march on them during the crisis? Such thoughts can also cause concerns."

Are there coping strategies to help deal with the worries that arise as a result of the corona crisis? 

"To ensure these new problems don't cause despair, there are various strategies for dealing with the situation. As all previously existing routines have been discontinued or changed significantly, it is important to set new targets perhaps even completely independently of sport. You can come up with plans to ensure that your days at home have structure. This is a good way to distract yourself from all the things that are not possible at the moment and that you would otherwise be doing. You have time for things you'd never normally have time for. This should be regarded as a luxury. Especially in the case of team sports, the lack of contact to team-mates can weigh heavily on athletes. For this reason, it is important that communication is maintained and that the team spirit doesn't fall by the wayside. Possibilities include training together via video conference. Not only does this allow the coach to keep tabs on performance levels, but the team can communicate too. At present, mental training is gaining in importance; on the one hand, it should help to cope with the psychologically demanding situation, and on the other, it can minimise the loss of training caused by the crisis. In competitive sport, it has been used as a training tool during injury rehabilitation for some time in order to make up for the lack of physical training. The current situation is nothing other than an enforced break, which is why the mental training that features in a period of rehabilitation can be applied well to the present predicament. Mental training is better than no training at all."

Does the corona crisis perhaps also represent an opportunity?

"It can be used as a time to reflect upon everything. Where do I stand now and I where do I want to get to? What's my attitude to certain things? Are there still other targets that I want to achieve, and how do I achieve them? What do more successful athletes do differently and how can I improve myself further? Which small things that there's never usually time for deserve notice and consideration? This positive attitude is not meant to play down the severity of the crisis, but to offer confidence and hope that there will also be a time after the corona crisis and that there is a possibility to emerge from it stronger. I mentioned my friend Hans-Dieter Hermann at the top of this interview and I would like to cite him again now: "Confidence is the best antidote at a time with a lot of uncertainty."

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