Impact of Covid-19 on elite sports people
It is safe to say that everyone’s life has been influenced in some way or another by the stringent Covid-19 lockdown regulations. This includes the professional people who on a daily basis entertain us in the sports stadia – our sports people.
Over the past 10 weeks, Prof Pieter Kruger, director of the North-West University’s Institute of Psychology and Wellbeing and a renowned psychologist, has been working with a range of elite sports people in rugby, premiership football and professional golf, as well as a few Olympic athletes, who found themselves in the void that Covid-19 had created in the world of sport.
They were all faced with similar challenges, namely empty stadiums, no training, social distancing, and a range of out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. Like for most of us – besides the obvious challenges and concerns about the virus itself – it was an interesting and new experience to spend extended time at home with their loved ones. For sports people this also meant an interesting new routine of not running between appointments, no travelling across the world to compete, not being paced by specific training schedules, and suddenly working on a time frame that may be more suited to individual chronotypes (your sleep-wake preference). Unfortunately, most people very soon realised that it was not as great as they thought it would be.
“Not only were we forced into a geographically confined space (at home), but inevitably this also started having a significant impact on people’s emotions and behavioural patterns. Suddenly we started sleeping at different times, eating at different times, training at different times, spending more time with technology. We started moving significantly less. Apart from the obvious one intense bout of exercise per day which most sports people adhered to, the lockdown also prompted significant changes in our social patterns,” Prof Kruger says.
Under normal circumstances, people will go out to the movies or the theatre, meet up with friends for drinks, have people over for a barbeque or go out to play golf, cycle or participate in other outdoors activities to deal with stress. In the blink of an eye this all changed as these changes were forced upon us – with no exceptions.
“This significantly interfered with sports people’s ability to manage their stress and concerns, which in turn had a negative impact on some of them from a general mood perspective. A significant number of people found it very difficult to deal with these changes which led to several anxiety-related symptoms such as muscle tension, poor sleep quality, frustration and the inability to control their mood, relationship challenges, gastro-intestinal problems, concentration issues and even headaches. Some of them asked for help, some managed to get through this period by themselves, and some seemed to suffer in silence during this time. The level of uncertainty and helplessness unfortunately exacerbated this already challenging situation for most people.”
Luckily, things are slowly returning to a form of normal, with lockdown regulations having been relaxed, training resuming and the prospect of games slowly returning. It is hoped that this will help players to deal with and alleviate current symptoms, although the return to training and concerns about resuming highly competitive, intense games, will bring their own level of worry.
“It is imperative that players have a mental plan to approach this new transition phase to ensure that they can prepare themselves optimally (physically and mentally) to return to training and to play games again. It is hoped that franchises and unions will put the necessary support systems in place to help players during this new transition period and to ensure a smooth return to business as usual,” Prof Kruger concludes.