There is no precedent whatsoever for the situation lived in professional sports all over the world as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. The majority of athletes have had to face uncertainty. An interruption of training, competitions, the competitive life, and all without knowing when everything will return to the normal situation.
Sports medical associations and organizations have warned that an undesired and indefinite interruption of the professional activity of athletes and their isolation could produce, among other consequences, fear of falling behind in fitness, loss of family and social supports due to the lockdown, worries about possible COVID-19 infections of family and friends, fear of the disease, tendency to think excessively about the future and the next steps they should take, as well as financial concerns.
This adverse situation can lead to mood problems and anxiety cases. Above all, if there were already previous pathologies such as insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorders or even depression, which in this situation could get exacerbated. Athletes face various transition phases in their careers, but these changes are always predictable and somehow under control. When an interruption of the activity is against their will, the consequences of the stop can be compared to those of an injury or those of retreat or sports retirement.
There is a popular belief that athletes are psychologically stronger than the average citizen. They have to face challenges that go beyond their abilities, they do it continuously, showing a high capacity for endurance, and they suffer constant scrutiny of their performance and absolute exposure to criticism and public opinion in the media and social networks. However, mental pathologies in athletes are similar in proportion to those of the general population. There are studies that have found that one in every five university athletes has gone through stages of depression. Sports practice is associated with higher self-esteem in different aspects of life, but when it is developed in professional competitive environments, potentially serious stressful factors appear.
Historically, scientific studies on professional sports have detected since the 70s that athletes’ retirement could produce unbalances in their identity with consequences for their mental health. For anyone of us, any aspect of life that affects our identity can be a source of stress. With the conclusions of these researches, some analogies can be drawn with the current situation of lockdown and the indefinite suspension of competitions and tournaments.
The undesired interruption of professional sports practice can result in a loss of self-esteem due to the disappearance of the relevance of the athlete’s acts. In the case of retirement, there have been situations in which the athlete showed signs of “social death”. In confinement, to a milder degree, similar situations may have happened.
During the pandemic, some situations that are considered decisive in the retirement of an athlete have also been reproduced. There has been a loss of economic status, social support, and fans. Those are situations that affect stress by the sense of powerlessness and isolation. There are studies in which the athletes surveyed spoke of the impact of not seeing anymore their name in the media every week. In the case of the athlete’s forced retirement, there are situations in which a sensation of reliance on the sport may arise, which is associated with a phase of denial.
In the current situation, a similar case can be found in which, if the restart of competitions is postponed even more this denial could lead to a reaction of anguish. A study of Canadian gymnasts found that 70% of them had problems with the transition at the end of their careers. Generally, they were immersed in an existential questioning. All that was important to them had lost its meaning. They were asking themselves questions like Who am I? Where am I going? What’s next now? They had lived until now pushing their bodies to the limit, competing with themselves to see how far they could go. A life without those challenges or incentives made them feel completely out of place.
The scientific literature on this phenomenon has also repeatedly warned about the problem of the “loss of camaraderie”, daily contact with colleagues with whom they make long trips and share long stays in concentrations. It is a problem suffered by team athletes, essentially, who have passed from teenagers to maturity living in “dressing room environments”. The sudden loss of this support could lead to situations of compensatory search, a problem which, in extreme cases, the risk of substance abuse appears. Numerous studies have detected some cases where athletes are aware that they have to develop an identity and a life besides their discipline but feel unable to do so. In some cases, they even declared that they did not even know how to do it.
The percentage of athletes with problems in an a priori predictable transition such as retirement vary according to the discipline and the range of the studies. However, risk situations have indeed been identified that can establish a profile of the vulnerable athlete. Athletes who live in very restricted environments, with highly individualized training, could have been the most exposed because of their lack of social supports. Furthermore, depending on the socio-economic and cultural environment of the athlete, there will be a greater vulnerability to psychological damage if they have not performed other activities in their life or don’t have other goals beyond sports.
These transition phases, family support is crucial when reducing stress. If the encouragement from those close to them is essential during an athlete’s career, both in successes and failures, it is even more important when it ends or is interrupted. In the case of lockdown, family closeness or remoteness and the space available at home will have been decisive. Athletes who work far from their place of birth and find themselves in temporary flats will have been the most fragile. An excess of stress or loss of thrill for sports can cause burnout syndrome that can lead to depression, although its direct relationship is still not clear yet in sports medicine research.
In the case of stress generated by an injury, scientific literature differentiates athletes who have lived in an environment that allowed them to share their feelings and the ones who have not. Those who found a way out for their emotions had more probabilities to be able to transform a debilitating situation into an opportunity for growth and development. They were able to face adversity as a challenge. Besides, positive emotions create for them to have an interest in the situation. This helped them on the psychological side, to learn a new experience while they were out of the spotlight. In the opposite situation, those who found themselves alone or in environments little prone to show their negative emotions, it was found that by suppressing feelings it was easier to fall into obsessive thoughts and more difficult to rethink the situation they are in.
Another approach compatible with this situation occurs when both related phenomena take place simultaneously: Athletes who are forced to retire due to an injury. When a tragedy of these characteristics takes place, uncertainty after career planning from a very young age can affect mental health. In a situation like the present one, for athletes who were in an optimal moment in their career to those who had been able to finally reach the elite or were fighting for it, their trajectory has been cut short. If they were not fit until the pandemic, their status can be compared to that of those who fail to overcome problems from the past when they leave the sport. There have been circumstances where athletes who have accumulated unexpressed wrath because of difficulties or adversities in their career, once their activity ceases, they feel bitterness and anger. The anxiety of unresolved conflicts.
To prevent all these possible situations in team sports, remote training of the teams has prioritised human contact to maintain the bond between teammates, such as the gamification sessions of FC Barcelona’s women’s team. Among the advice that experts have shared, one stands out which is to modify and rethink long-term goals and objectives and focus on health care and activities that serve to avoid or reduce concerns about the health crisis.
The Barça Innovation Hub team
Athlete Mental Health and Mental Illness in the era of COVID-19 – Australasian College of Sport and exercise physicians
El cese de la motivación: El síndrome del burnout en deportistas – Revista de psicología del deporte
Antecedents and consequences of burnout in athletes: Perceived stress and depression – International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology
Examining Hardiness, Coping and Stress-Related Growth Following Sport Injury – Journal of Applied Sport Psychology
Leaving Competitive Sport: Retirement or Rebirth? – Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs
University sport retirement and athlete mental health: a narrative analysis – Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health
Coping with retirement from sport: The influence of athletic identity – Journal of Applied Sport Psychology
Forced Retirement from Elite Football In Australia. Journal of Personal and Interpersonal Loss – Journal of Personal and Interpersonal Loss
The Retirement Experiences of Elite, Female Gymnasts – Journal of Applied Sport Psychology
Adjusting to retirement from sport: narratives of former competitive rhythmic gymnasts – Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health