A psychologist’s role and tips in the times of COVID-19

Anna Marie Kennedy (far right) with President Michael D Higgins. © Cricket Ireland

In times like the lockdown that most countries in the world are under, things may seem simple from the outset – stay at home, stay safe, binge watch your favourite shows or movies or do what you love and learn new things. But that’s not all. A pandemic like the COVID-19 also has an effect on our minds and that’s where the role of a psychologist is important.

Anna Marie Kennedy, Ireland’s consultant sports psychologist, talked about these unprecedented times, saying, “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.”

The very basic curtailment of humans – to not be mobile and be confined to the walls of their houses or compound – plays with their minds, believes Kennedy.

“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,” said the qualified Sport and Performance Psychologist, who is accredited by the Sport Ireland Institute.

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“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 said that the emotions like sadness, frustration, disappointment, despair, stress, anxiety, relief, helplessness, lack of hope, anger felt throughout the sporting words are valid given the circumstances.

“How do athletes and sports people 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,” she said. “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.”

Anna Marie Kennedy with her husband, Craig. © Cricket Ireland

Kennedy also listed down twelve strategies for sportspersons to follow during coronavirus in order to be stable and resume their bit once normalcy returns:

  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.