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How Student-Athletes Can Cope With the Consequences of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

4 Things You CAN do to Respond to the new (Ab)Normal

· Sport Psychology,Mindset,COVID-19,Resilience,Student-Athletes

On Thursday afternoon, March 12th, 2020, I walked into the meeting room in the lower level of the University of Rochester's Fauver Stadium to find that the Women's Lacrosse team had already beaten me there. The mood was tense, quiet. Less than 24 hours earlier they were informed that their season had come to an end. This is a special team. After a 5-10 season a year ago, they had dedicated themselves to building a very different 2020 season. In addition to the on-field and film work they did with their coaching staff, they partnered with the UR Fitness Science program, working all off-season on their strength, speed, and conditioning with our performance team, improved how they fueled themselves with our sports nutritionist, and came ready and eager to increase their mental performance in our Mindset Training sessions. And now it was over. COVID-19 restrictions had moved their classes online and cancelled their lacrosse season. The only certain thing now was uncertainty. As a sport psychologist, I entered the room ready to help them process their experience, including all of their powerful emotions, and cope with the question of “What now?”

Lacrosse equipment laying on the grass

In the 1960's psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross worked with terminally ill patients and their families and began to establish her model of how we emotionally respond to grief. Later expanded to all forms of personal loss, it was originally presented as a stage model of grief: first denial (“No, this isn't happening”), then anger (including frustration and irritation), then bargaining (playing a game of “What if . . .”), depression (feeling overwhelmed, sad, helpless), and then acceptance (coming to terms with a new reality). However, in a 2005 book, even Dr. Kübler-Ross regretted this notion of grief being in a “stage” model. It is best to understand these emotional responses as very normal responses to such a sudden personal loss that can hit us all in different forms and in different ways. More recent models related to understanding grief and loss, such as that of psychologist William Worden, see our response in a more nuanced way: not as stages to pass through but rather tasks to manage through the loss. First, Worden (2008) states that we need to accept the reality of the loss. Second, we need to process the hurt and pain caused by the loss. Next, we need to find a way to adjust to the “new normal” now that our world has changed. And finally, we need to find an “enduring connection” while moving forward. When it comes to the death of a loved one, this last task is about finding a way to incorporate your memories of the person with finding room in your life for new activities that are meaningful and give us pleasure. In terms of loss in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, it means finding a way to create and develop meaning in our lives in the midst of the uncertainty we face. Finding meaning in a time and place where everything normal: routines, teammates, practices, competition, and so on, are all taken away.

So here are 4 things that student-athletes can do to cope with the fallout of all the change the COVID-19 pandemic has brought in their lives:

1. Be Connected. Stay Connected.

Lacrosse sticks laying on a bare turf

My colleague and mentor, sport and performance psychologist Dr. Kate Hays recently said to me that it is hard to think of sport psychologists as advocating for social distancing, since it seems so contrary to what we do on a daily basis. But, in a “new normal”, here we are, encouraging this public health strategy to help save lives and “flatten the curve”. For student-athletes, this means they will now find themselves away from teammates and friends and with more time isolated and away from their sport. The dramatic change from the connection and intimacy of being part of a team or sport can be jarring. For my student-athletes, it truly is only their teammates and fellow participants that understand how dramatic and emotional this change has been.

At most, social distancing measures may only allow for limited face to face interactions with friends and teammates in outdoor settings at this time. And that is only if your teammates are located near where you are. Overall, our technology-focused society can be both a help and hindrance to connection. So utilizing technology as a tool to promote and improve connection is key right now. It's important to find ways to connect, but how we do so is important. In studies by UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian that he documented in his book Silent Messages,he came up with guidelines that the emotional content and connection in communication was 55% nonverbal, 38% in tone of voice, and only 7% in the actual words we use. Therefore, based on his work, if face to face connection conveys 100% of emotional content, using voice-only forms of communication like phone calls would convey 45%. And word-only forms of communication (e.g., texts and in-app messaging) would only convey 7% of the emotional interaction. This starts to make sense when you think of how often emotional communication and intent in text messages can get confused and misunderstood. Therefore, in order to stay connected to peers and teammates in a form that helps support us emotionally, we need to prioritize video-based forms of technology such as FaceTime, Skype, and other video conferencing platforms. Staying and keeping connected overall is key, and keep in mind that being able to physically see our friends and teammates will be particularly important at this time.

2. Control the Controllables

Pitcher winds up to throw

In sport and in life, we are at our best when we are mindful and focused in the present. When we play “pitch to pitch” or “whistle to whistle”, we are fully in the moment in a way that brings out our true potential. With the uncertainty right now and with more uncertainty ahead, it becomes more important than ever to narrow our focus to what we immediately control. So what is controllable right now? The same things that are always controllable. They break down to E.A.R.--Effort, Attitude, and Response.

Effort – Where are you going to put your time and attention right now? Think of ways to apply your work ethic and drive in small, helpful steps that you can complete on a day to day basis.

Attitude – While it certainly would be helpful to have a positive mindset and attitude right now, that can be incredibly difficult in the face of such a painful loss. Instead think of attitude as being about where your focus lies and being “neutral”--focused on the present instead of the past (where the sadness and anger might lie) or the future (which may be filled with anxiety).

Response – With the myriad of things you cannot control at this moment, you really only can control how you respond to them—and how you respond in terms of your thoughts, your actions, and how you manage your emotions.

3. Find and Seize the Opportunities

barbell with a plate on it laying on the floor of a basement

In the midst of all the changes, the one thing that many student-athletes now have is time on their hands. How you choose to use that time is an opportunity. Here are some options:

Fitness – Engaging in strength and conditioning, including programming you can do at home or outdoors, can help you maintain and even improve over this time in terms of strength, speed, flexibility, and agility.

Nutrition – In the midst of limiting eating out as part of social distancing, this can be a great time to learn more about improving your diet and finding ways to cook your own food and make more positive choice in how you choose to fuel yourself.

Sport-Specific Skills – Utilizing the Spring weather in positive ways, you can work on small scale skill and drill work for your sport such as stick skills for hockey or lacrosse or ball skills for soccer. Technique and technical skills can and should remain a focus for your ongoing development.

Mindset – As a sport psychologist, I have to emphasize what an opportunity this is to work on mental performance and mindset skills for your sport. Whether it's self-care strategies like meditation or breathing exercises to help with regulating your emotions and energy levels, utilizing imagery and visualization to continue to get “mental reps”, or taking time to write down and document your goals for the future, this can be an excellent time to get better and stronger mentally. And there are resources out there to help, from mobile apps you can use on your own like Headspace and Stop, Breathe, & Think to the Certified Mental Performance Consultant search tool by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology that can help you find a trusted, certified sport psychology consultant in your area or one that is available using telehealth software.

4. Remember the "Why?"––and YOUR "Why?"

a man's hands journaling

One day we are all going to remember the moment that the COVID-19 pandemic became “real” to us. For some it will be when they learned about actor Tom Hanks being diagnosed. For others it may be Rudy Gobert of the NBA's Utah Jazz and the subsequent cancelling of the NBA season. Or it may be when we found out that the NCAA “March Madness” Tournament was cancelled. For student-athletes it will likely be when they heard about classes moving online and their sport seasons being cancelled. Through this experience, it has been interesting to me that in many cases it has actually been the sporting world that has led on this issue—making the difficult but rational and emotionally wrought decisions for public health and safety.

It can be important for student-athletes to remember that this sacrifice is not for them. For most healthy young people, contracting the coronavirus will mean a short period of fever, chills, body aches, cough and then a recovery and return to normal. But for our elderly and immunocompromised friends, loved ones, and neighbors, this is a matter of life and death. So to remember that this decision is not about you but others at risk is important. It is about that athletic trainer who needs to take care of their 80 year old parent with emphysema or the assistant coach with the spouse whose heart is functioning at 40% capacity due to a heart condition or the custodian at the athletic center whose child is asthmatic and medically fragile. You can find solace in the “Why?”

And for student-athletes, this can also be a time to crystalize and contemplate your own personal “Why?” Why do you participate in your sport? What meaning does it have for you? When things return to an even newer normal, what will all of this mean for your relationship with your sport? And how do your personal values fit in with this overall picture and meaning your sport gives you. Take the time to write down your “Why?” and even engage in journaling to help you process its role in helping you move through this time.

In the meeting room at Fauver Stadium with the University of Rochester Women's Lacrosse team, I opened the discussion by introducing the emotional responses highlighted in Kubler-Ross's work and how their roots are often in the pain and hurt that loss brings. There was sadness, tears, anger, hugs, confusion, anxiety, and fear as the athletes shared their experiences. The uncertainty of it all lingered in the air. We moved to a more open meeting space and assembled in a circle. I handed one of the seniors a roll of string. I asked her to share the most difficulty part of this for her personally, hold on to a piece of the string and then toss the roll to a teammate. One by one, the teammates shared their personal emotional experiences with each other, holding on to their own piece of string and tossing the roll to another teammate. When the roll of string got back to the senior, she was then asked to share what she needed from her teammates to get through the uncertainty ahead. Again the roll of string bounced from player to player as the athletes shared what they needed from each other. At the end of the second round of questions, the string had formed a web of interconnections between the athletes. In front of them was a visual reminder of their connection to each other, including the shared experience of this moment and all the time, effort, and energy that they shared through the school year. That web was real . . . tangible . . . and certain. And something they could carry with them through the uncertainty ahead.

Craig Cypher, Psy.D., CMPC, is a sport psychologist, Certified Mental Performance Consultant, and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He also is listed in the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry. Dr. Cypher serves as a Sport Psychologist and the Mindset Training Lead for UR Fitness Science, a comprehensive personal development program that combines strength and conditioning, nutrition, and mindset training services for athlete development. You can find him on Twitter @doctorcypher and on Instagram @cypherpsych. For more information on him and his services, you can visit his website at www.cypherpsych.com.

All details related to the University of Rochester Women's Lacrosse program are shared with permission.

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