Cricket Ireland’s Performance Psychologist’s advice to athletes and sportspeople during COVID-19
DUBLIN – The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all parts of our society, including high performance athletes and sportspeople. Anne Marie Kennedy, Cricket Ireland’s consultant sports psychologist, believes that with proper mental health management, athletes and sportspeople will learn much about themselves and their resilience over the coming months.
Anne Marie Kennedy (BA, MSc, RYT, M.Ps.S.I., MBPsS) is a qualified Sport and Performance Psychologist accredited by the Sport Ireland Institute. She has provided her psychological expertise and support to numerous sporting governing bodies such as Cricket Ireland, Cycling Ireland, Swim Ireland and the GAA (including working very closely with the historic 5-in-a-row winning Dublin GAA Senior Football Team).
Kennedy has continued her work with Cricket Ireland despite the current restrictions, moving her player contact time online – using video-conferencing tools to keep in touch with squads, or during one-on-one sessions. She recently ran a session online for the younger players in the Shapoorji Pallonji Cricket Ireland Academy (see story).
Speaking from her home, Kennedy said:
“These are very challenging and unprecedented times that we are living through at the moment. The impact COVD-19 is having on the health system, our public and social services, academically and economically is palpable - the outbreak has completely disrupted our lives.”
“Sport is taking a huge hit. Major sporting tournaments nationally and across the globe are being called off and/or postponed. Everyone was initially in a state of shock, disbelief and distress. There are probably still more questions than answers at this stage.”
Image: Anne Marie Kennedy with title-winning Dublin GAA footballer Dean Rock
What does she see as the psychological impact of this for athletes and sportspeople?
“To ensure our survival, we are hard-wired to feel safe, secure and comfortable - but the very nature of a crisis of this magnitude brings disruption and threatens our survival. During these unpredictable and unfamiliar times we feel uncomfortable and we feel a loss of control.”
“For athletes and coaches that have robust confidence and stable coping mechanisms this period will be fine. These individuals will most likely understand the challenge facing them but will not feel unduly threatened. They may see opportunity and quickly adapt and implement a modified training plan in the interim.”
“If you are one of these athletes or coaches, you have a responsibility to continue to stay grounded, optimistic and empathetic in the hope that you can reassure and model effective coping skills to the people around you that are struggling. There is an opportunity here to show authentic leadership. Share the mental coping skills and strategies that you are engaging in to help and support others within your team or organisation.”
Kennedy senses the emotions being felt throughout the sporting world are very powerful at present, and reflect the sense of confusion and loss being experienced.
“Emotions such as sadness, frustration, disappointment, despair, stress, anxiety, relief, helplessness, lack of hope, anger, are all valid feelings considering the circumstances.”
“Perspective can be lost if we are thinking too insular about the current situation. Constant scrolling on social media reading about national and international testing policies, government strategies, death tolls can all lead to us to catastrophise which will trigger a stress response and is unhelpful. It’s important that we ‘control the controllables’.”
“How do athletes and sportspeople do this? Just as we learn in the high performance sports world, we must stick to the process – so, in this case, each person is responsible for washing their hands and social distancing. The outcome (flattening the curve) will take care of itself. We learn that a wider ‘helicopter view’ must be taken to maintain a healthy perspective. This too shall pass and life will return to normal in time.”
“This global crisis offers each athlete the opportunity to transfer the resilience skills that they have developed throughout their sporting careers. Resilience is our capacity to cope effectively with setbacks, obstacles, failures and disappointments. Resilience is forged every day in training and competition. We cannot test our resilience without adversity, so we can mentally reframe this pandemic into an opportunity.”
Kennedy sees a great insight for athletes and sportspeople in Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s assertion that: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“As sportspeople, we can choose to view this as a crisis or as an opportunity - depending on whether we decide to focus on all that may potentially be lost or what potentially can be gained. We have the power of choice - we can choose our response to this situation.”
“Tánaiste Simon Coveney gave us the ironic statement: “in order to pull together we’re asking people to stay apart.” During this time of self-isolation and social distancing it is vital that we support each other. Our natural tendency is to retreat and go into self-protection mode to isolate ourselves from the threat. However, as we are social beings this instinct will not serve our mental health well.”
“Be under no illusion though, everyone is suffering in some shape or form right now. We need to show compassion and solidarity, we need to s,hare ideas about how to respond to the challenges being faced and possible solutions and we need to continue to do activities together – but right now via online platforms.”
Kennedy’s 12 strategies for athletes and sportspeople during COVID-19
1. Talk: Seek out others, share your thoughts and feelings with teammates, coaches, parents, friends, mentors. It’s important that you are honest and open about how you are feeling so you can be supported. Nobody should suffer in silence. Talking helps.
2. Journaling: Whether you’re a ‘talker’ or not, consider writing down how you are thinking and feeling about certain situations and interactions in your life at the moment. Reflect on how you would like to be presently, what you may like to achieve, what you may like to learn from this experience.
3. Label emotions: As mentioned above anxiety is a normal response to danger. Name the feeling. Reflect on the thoughts that are driving the feelings. How it feels in your body and observe the behaviours as a consequence.
4. Be Present: Check in to the present moment. Connect in with your breathing to stay grounded and centred.
5. Mindfulness: Prioritise physical movement, run, walk, cycle (adhering to social distancing). Engage in mindful movement such as yoga, tai chi, pilates. There is a wealth of fitness and lifestyle coaches providing online content. Get active, try something new! Start a daily mindfulness meditation practice that will positively impact your mental wellbeing and your performances when you return to competition.
6. Play: Play is not just for children. We need to find ways to have fun and laugh.
7. Sleep: Your brain resets during sleep. Sleep also boosts your immune system. Prioritise sleep and include naps during the day, if required.
8. Connect: Keep connected to others via online platforms. Check in on people. Go down through your Whatsapp list and message people you haven’t been in touch with for a while. Be open and available for others.
9. Gratitude: It’s easy to say there isn’t much to be grateful for right now considering the huge toll this pandemic is having on our health, our freedom and our pockets. Write down the people and the things that you are grateful for and why every day.
10. Opportunity: As outlined above, reflect on opportunities presenting at this time. You may get to read more, listen to podcasts, get fit(ter), educate yourself or develop a new business.
11. Optimism: Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Optimism is an attitude that can positively affect your mental and physical health. Optimism is a skill that can be developed to help reduce stress and anxiety. Train yourself to see the good in every situation. Write a list of all the things you are looking forward to doing when all this ends.
12. Monitor your mental health: Not being able to train or compete can potentially impact identity for some athletes and cause distress. Do not be afraid to reach out if you are experiencing difficulties.