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The pandemic has taken its toll on people’s mental health, causing stress levels to skyrocket, and elite athletes are not immune – many of them face loss of motivation and to a feeling of discouragement.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Of all the things lost in the coronavirus pandemic, dreams are perhaps the least evoked. The business is ready to go. The plane ticket for the first flyer. The trophy to be won. Covid-19 has held these hopes hostage for the past 12 months and, without a firm prediction on when it will release its grip, the effects are manifesting themselves in mental health issues, especially among athletes.
“There is definitely an increase in frustration levels, a loss of motivation and even a feeling of discouragement,” Martin Scheepers, a sports psychologist based in Randburg, Jo’burg, told DM168.
As stress increases for almost everyone, an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in August of last year found that elite athletes can suffer “at rates equal to or greater than those of the general public. general ”.
This is because they are dictated by seasonal calendars and tournaments, which create deadlines and goals. When that is removed, “there is anxiety and fear of the unknown, and a dilemma of how to plan for the future. Athletes may wonder… if all of this is unnecessary, ”says Scheepers.
Fellow runners, for example, have their training “structured and geared towards the precise peak at the right time,” says Fellow President Cheryl Winn. “In the absence of a specific goal, they were left in a waiting pattern of maintaining a certain level of fitness not targeting any specific target. It must be very difficult for them to stay motivated.
Scheepers made a distinction between athletes who are preparing for a particular event and those who are part of teams that have returned to action, albeit in very different circumstances than they are used to.
“For Olympic athletes who are perhaps in the best shape of their lives, it has been difficult to readjust their schedules and training programs,” he said. “But for team athletes such as cricketers and rugby players, the biggest challenge is getting into a bubble.”
Bio-secure environments have been created for touring, particularly in cricket, where the touring group may be subject to a quarantine period before starting to train and play, and restrictions throughout their life. trip.
This often means being confined to their hotel room or specific areas of their accommodation, with no possibility of going out, even for a meal. “Luxury prisons,” Kagiso Rabada called the base of the South African cricket team during last year’s white ball streak against England, though he was quick to contain his complaints. “We have to remember that we are lucky.”
Even the privilege of living lavishly in establishments such as Cape Town’s Vineyard Hotel, where Rabada and his company were housed, comes with its challenges. “Boredom can be as stressful as having too much to do,” says Scheepers. “There’s an art to being busy and productive, and then there’s also the risk that even if you isolate yourself for a while, the event doesn’t happen.”
The South African rowing team is one example of a group of athletes who were on track for last year’s Olympics but had to deal with the postponement of the Games. They were in an altitude training camp in Lesotho when the lockdown was called, on the eve of the most important part of their preparation. A year later, they’re back there, having almost done it again.
“It was a massive emotional roller coaster for the athletes,” said coach Roger Barrow. “First there was a lot of doubt as to whether the Games were going to be held, and then we got to a point where we were almost hoping they would be canceled because our training was affected. It was a test of character.
Barrow and his team’s contingency plans looked a lot like the rest of the world – going digital. “We distributed our equipment to the athletes and then we got into Zoom training. At first it was new, but if I never have to coach again on another Zoom call, it will be too soon, ”he says. “We are working on seeing each other’s faces and I love getting answers from the eyes. You can get a lot more from someone’s face than you can on a phone. It was really difficult.
Barrow saw a silver lining when he realized his team weren’t alone. “The advantage is that everyone in the world is faced with this. With a sport like rowing, we know that in Europe they have more money or more access to water, so it has been a leveler, in a cruel way, ”he explains. .
But that doesn’t mean rowing has been spared the effects of the pandemic. Over the past year, Barrow has seen some of its rowers retire and others infected with the coronavirus and unable to recover in time to prepare for this year. “Even if you’re eight months away from the Games and lose three weeks, you won’t be able to keep up with your training because of the way the virus is affecting breathing,” Barrow reveals.
Several athletes have had similar experiences. Heinrich Klaasen, who served as the captain of the T20 during the South African tour of Pakistan in January, recalled how Covid-19 had prevented him from running more than 30m without his heart rate rising to levels dangerously high. He was also mentally affected. In an Instagram post, he said that during the 46 days he spent regaining his physical form, “the spirit takes you to deep and dark places.”
Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov contracted the virus last June and although he was playing competitively again in August, he told the BBC that some things were “still not the same”, and he doesn’t know not if they will ever be.
Performance and competition
Scheepers argues that our mental health suffers when we spend too much time pondering the “what if?” instead of immersing ourselves in instant experiences.
“We are living too much in the future. We need to live more in the present moment, but there is also an element of control that we like to have. What we don’t realize is that even without Covid-19, control is an illusion, ”he says.
And that’s the last thing elite athletes want to hear.
“These athletes are like gladiators. They thrive on performance and competition, so when you take that off it doesn’t feel right, ”says Barrow, noting that to his knowledge the Olympics will be held as planned in July and August of this year. “As soon as there is any doubt as to whether this is going to happen, we are in trouble.”
If the Games are canceled, Scheepers warns athletes will need professional support. “Usually what comes into play then are feelings of loss, which can be difficult to navigate because what is happening is through no fault of their own. It can be quite traumatic, and then it’s about dismantling the trauma, ”Scheepers says.
Asked whether the pandemic is creating a mental health emergency, Scheepers says it only amplifies what already exists, for athletes and the rest of us.
“We’ve been in a global mental health crisis for decades, if you look at the suicide rates and the number of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. We all need help wherever we can get it. ” DM168
This story first appeared in our Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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