With the worldwide lockdown and mandates to maintain physical distancing, athletes are quarantined or isolated in their houses in an attempt to curtail the virus. While some athletes are recouping by engaging in activities like cooking, painting and watching films, others might be struggling to cope with the disruption in their normal training routines and experiencing excessive anxiety and stress.
During such an unprecedented time, there is a constant influx of information concerning the impact of the current pandemic on athletes’ mental health and some athletes have shared their concerns as they go from being extremely active to a sedentary lifestyle.
In a recent article, Serena Williams expressed that: ‘Now, I’ve been social distancing for actually a really long time, for probably two weeks now, and every little thing makes me go crazy. And by anxiety I mean I’m just on edge. Any time anyone sneezes around me or coughs I get crazy. I don’t hang out with anyone, and when I say anyone I mean, my daughter.’
Also, Clarisse Agbegnenou, French judoka and Rio 2016 silver medallist shared a similar reaction: ‘[The uncertainty about when we will be able to train and compete] is very difficult to handle; I like to schedule things in advance. Being in the fog really turned me down. I’m learning how to be another person, to live day by day, which is not easy. I’m learning how to be patient in uncertainty. This is not easy.’
The sentiments shared by the athletes regarding the impact of the pandemic on their mental well-being is something that athletes all across the globe are grappling with and is a concern that needs to be addressed.
In the current scenario, video technology has come to the rescue and is being used by sporting personnel to minimise the impact of lockdown on athletes who can now be socially connected. For instance, Special Olympics Texas launched an initiative where athletes, coaches and families are staying connected online through conversations, posting entertaining videos and engaging in daily puzzles to eliminate the sense of isolation.
Similarly, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) introduced an online education programme for athletes and coaches, with prominent speakers delivering online lectures on various topics related to strength and conditioning, physiotherapy and injury prevention, sports medicine, nutrition, and sports psychology.
Overall, a novel initiative to keep athletes and coaches engaged in the wake of the nationwide lockdown.
Delivering sport psychology through virtual means
During such an extraordinary time, I as a sport and performance psychologist find myself extending psychological support to athletes through virtual means, such as video calling, phone calls, e-mail or text messages, and web-based programs.
Telepsychology or teletherapy has been around for more than a decade now, but the outpouring of mobile phone users and easy access to fast broadband connections has created greater opportunities to provide psychological support to athletes while adhering to the physical distancing norms. Although, engaging in a traditional face-to-face interaction with athletes is always preferred.
Nevertheless, in the midst of the current pandemic, providing support to athletes by video-call, or simply over the phone helps to mirror the traditional one-to-one consultation to some degree.
Advantages of delivering sport psychology through virtual means
In the midst of the lockdown, the delivery of sport psychology using technology will allow practitioners to provide psychological support to athletes not only close to their region but to athletes located all across the globe, while they attend sessions from the comfort of their own homes. Practitioners can also conduct team sessions by having teammates communicate and participate on common platforms (e.g., Zoom, Cisco-Webex, and Google Meet), while being thousands of miles apart from one another.
Also, the sudden outbreak of the pandemic has brought a set of challenges for para-athletes and imposed an immense strain on them. In a recent article, Sundar Singh Gurjar, the World Para Athletics champion, emphasised maintaining good psychological health during a lockdown: ‘Practising at home is different from handling the pressure on the field. It can affect your mind if you are not competing for a long time. Disabled athletes must regularly practice yoga and meditation.’
Therefore, in such challenging times, providing psychological support to para-athletes is also necessary, and can be done through an innovative online platform called Microsoft Teams, which with its various unique features makes it accessible not just for persons with restricted movement but also to individuals with vision or hearing disabilities.
Indeed, Nipun Malhotra, the CEO of Nipman Foundation, and a disability rights activist endorsed that: ‘Having tried at least half a dozen such video communication technologies, I find it safe to say that Microsoft Teams is miles ahead when it comes to accessibility and persons with disabilities.’
Disadvantages of delivering sport psychology through virtual means
Though online delivery has its advantages, nevertheless, it comes with its own limitations. For instance, there might be instances where poor connectivity and technology glitches interrupt the session, hence, compromising the quality of these sessions and resulting in an exasperating experience for the athlete.
While technology is empowering, it can also be restrictive, especially in a country like India, where the digital disparity is so stark that access to technology for athletes living in rural areas is a challenge. In a conversation with Viren Rasquinha, the CEO of Olympic Gold Quest and former Indian hockey captain mentioned that: ‘Most athletes that I have seen, especially in sports such as boxing and wrestling, do not come from privileged backgrounds, and internet connectivity is a problem in rural areas.’
Moreover, online sessions might not be for everyone, as some athletes might find it challenging due to a lack of space and privacy in their homes. Whereas, others might find it uncomfortable to interact with the sport psychologist for the first time through a mobile or computer screen.
This view was concurred by Viren as he stated that: ‘Some athletes find the first session difficult online without knowing the sport psychologist from before, which impacts their working relationship. Also for some, privacy is a concern, especially for those who are based in an academy or hostel.’ Further, it becomes difficult for the practitioners to observe non-verbal cues during an online session that otherwise can aid in building rapport and gaining a more accurate understanding of their needs.
Although the amalgamation of technology with sport psychology practice presents unique challenges, nevertheless, sport psychology sessions’ being digitally accessible to the sporting population is currently the need of the hour and the ‘new normal’ of the lockdown period.
Nanaki Chadha is a BPS Chartered Sport and Exercise psychologist. Alongside this, she is a doctoral student and researcher at Staffordshire University.