Human connection has been part and parcel of human existence as long as we’ve been around – we have survived this long through the connection of social gatherings and a feeling of ‘togetherness’. Sport has always been a powerful connector. It brings communities together, it encourages team work, or with those competing in individual sports, a competition against themselves, and provides a platform for endless social discussions. From your local sports club, to the club that you pay memberships for or scream at support of in front of the TV, to playing for your country, it inspires and motivates. It is an integral part of so many people’s lives – whether it be your regular sessions at your local gym, park or your get together to watch the latest AFL game or as our excitement grew for the Olympics. It has the ability to bring a whole nation together singing the one song, it has the ability to allow ourselves to mask what’s happening in the ‘real world’, and in the past, it’s allowed us to come together to support each other whether that is emotionally or financially, unfortunately that can’t be the case.
Disbelief has been quickly followed by the hard cold facts of the current situation. You can’t tell somebody not to be anxious – it is totally normal to feel anxious and worried during a pandemic. Nothing is normal. As many athletes, coaches, sports fans and others process the reality of no sports for the next few months because of the spread of COVID-19, this unprecedented time can cause overwhelming fear, anxiety and stress. With that, I felt obliged to write a little article on some key things to remember when it comes to mental health and the unknowns of this pandemic and the other side of what athletes are going through at this time, well I’m assuming so… being retired and all.
Being abruptly removed from anything that you were regularly doing in your life, whether it be your career as an athlete or if you work as a teacher or an office job like myself, if anyone says, "You need to go home, you can no longer do this," it's a piece of your identity, and it's a piece of your routine, and for many of us we don’t tend to drift far off from our routines. So, for athletes of all levels, training, practices and games fill the majority of their time. These schedules offer consistency. For some, it's contentment, its satisfaction. It's what they're used to. It helps them feel better because routines help people feel good.
Unfortunately, the majority of these athletes won’t have the typical finish to a season, take for example the Fremantle Dockers AFLW side who had their season abruptly finish or the uncertainty of leagues like the A-League. There needs to be an opportunity to consider what closure is. For each person, that could be different. But again, it's like something ending abruptly where there was no finish. There was no end. So how do we determine that this was the end for us and move forward and believe that we did not have control over this? How each person individually determines how they're going to identify closure is very unique. For me, the end of the season was a relief, fortunately for me on most occasions we ended with a championship, but irrespective of results, you can reflect on a season, receive feedback and implement training in preparation for the next season. The one year where my season was cut short due to an injury (torn calf), left me an empty feeling… what could’ve been?
Some people are still in shock. We don't know how each athlete is coping with loss or grieving the loss of their season. But understand that it's normal for them to have different feelings.
In the technological age, social media has always had a dark shadow but this is the perfect opportunity to stay connected. We’ve already seen the creative side of athletes on many platforms, but it’s awesome to a gain an insight into an athlete that generally in the past can be restricted. That distraction and that connectedness is really critical.
Then there’s teammates, obviously, any individual competitor in a sport is dealing with things as well, but teams specifically spend so much time together that taking that away so completely is, again, another loss. Finding those ways where they can connect to each other helps tremendously. Athletes do a great job in sticking together, group chats are common, and banter is high, but it’s one thing I missed upon retirement. That everyday banter upstairs in the club room after you just spent two and half hours on the court beating each other up, it’s those moments you learn about someone, find out what makes them tick, and whether they are disgusted by feet.
To many athletes, and fans, the challenge will be to find that joy they have ultimately lost due to COVID-19 and the cancellation of sporting events. What provides joy, strength or hope to each person is different. Finding joy when your usual source is depleted requires a little bit of trial and error to find out what helps to distract people, to offer entertainment. Also, we use watching sports to alleviate stress. It completely distracts us from our lives.
I think staying grounded and really being self-aware will be very important for everyone. Focusing on things that we have control over and listening to whatever rules are being put in place for our own safety is important and minimising the risk. For me, I see this as an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to reset, and an opportunity to connect one’s self. Constantly we put things on the back burner, don’t prioritise items that are of benefit to us, or have forgotten about items that brought us joy. Now is the time to investigate opportunities to grow, if you thought about taking up meditation… try it! Have you wanted to do yoga… do it! Have you put off that book… read it! Use this opportunity to grow as a person, connect with those that have drifted off, and most importantly, have perspective and be grateful for what you have.
How are you when it seems like everything in the world is going against us? Sometimes limiting our immediate exposure can be helpful. Not to say someone should isolate from the news or the world news, but that we should be mindful of how much media exposure we're getting. Overexposure can really increase symptoms of anxiety. It's overwhelming. I can testify to that.
Maintaining a good mental state really will have to prompt people to create a schedule outside of their usual. Again, people can remain physically active at home and continue to follow healthy eating and sleeping and all those other foundational self-care basics. Some of it goes back to having a schedule and a routine that feels comfortable but also determining, are there other things you could put in place in your life? Mental health is not a cookie cutter approach, that one-size-fits-all treatment doesn’t work, so whilst in isolation or on lockdown, here’s your opportunity to explore what method of self-care works for you.
I don't know that many of us alive today have experienced anything quite like this. Times are changing, so we're having to be adaptable in how we modify our lives. That can be very uncomfortable for people who like to know in advance how their day is going to go. That is a luxury we no longer have. So thinking of other ways that we can support ourselves and provide self-care and nurturing routines can really be the difference of keeping ourselves feeling ok. Taking care of our brain health is critical, and just as important as physical, if not more. Having that understanding that we might have different emotions as each day passes or as each new directive comes forward is important.
Everyone needs to build their emotional toolbox. If they haven't already, they need to start thinking about what are things that they are doing for themselves that help them to feel comfortable, that help them to feel better when they're not feeling so great emotionally… not about how much toilet paper they have in the house.
Lastly, we also don't want to forget that we can use our national crisis phone and text services. They're free. They're 24 hours a day. We might just have a few questions or want to talk to another human for a few minutes. Because let's think about people who don't have a lot of social support in their life. They might just need to talk to another person.
Stay safe everyone and take care of yourselves and others.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
Lifeline on 13 11 14 or text 0477 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
Headspace on 1800 650 890