Staying in the Game When You’re Forced to Take a Break

Practice important skills, even while sheltering in place

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 has changed so much about our daily lives. Whether you’re a Major League Baseball fan missing Opening Day, or a Little League player missing their team practices and games, the need to keep social distance and shelter in place has thrown a curveball to our sports-loving lifestyles. From Tokyo Summer Olympic hopefuls whose races are now delayed, to professional athletes wondering if they will have a season, to school-aged athletes who can’t play their sport with their teammates, the pandemic has impacted athletes on all levels.

The good news, however, is that even with the restrictions in place meant to help keep us safe and slow the spread of the virus, there are opportunities to practice important elements of sports.

Matt Johnson, Ph.D., LPC, CMPC, a licensed professional counselor and certified mental performance consultant with Texas Health Sports Medicine, likens this break from play to what many of his clients experience when they are injured and so are forced to train in other ways. “We talk about how we can use this time [away] to make them even better than they were before,” he says.  “It’s an opportunity to come back mentally stronger.”

Johnson recommends these tips for athletes who have suddenly found themselves sidelined from their normal routines because of the pandemic:

Take this time to work on mental skills

“They take practice; that’s why they’re called ‘skills,’” Johnson says. “Mental skills take awareness, understanding, practice and training, over time.” Work on the visualization of the game, he says, but more importantly, train your mind for how to respond after you make a mistake or have an error. The more resiliency you can train into your brain, the more you can reduce your chance for getting frustrated and shutting down. It’s not only about visualizing success, Johnson stresses, but learning what to do with negative imagery when it does appear, and learning to control the images in your mind. If you need help with exercises, reach out to a coach or counselor.

Make a list of what you can do

In challenging times like these, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by change and loss. What instantly comes to mind, perhaps, are all the things you can’t do — training with your team, playing games, having access to weight rooms, in-person coaching, and other tools of play, for instance. Shifting your mental focus to what possibilities do exist can be beneficial, Johnson recommended. “An athlete I worked with had a back injury and was very frustrated with all the things she couldn’t do,” Johnson remembered. “But by simply writing a list of all the things she could do, including adaptations she could make, it took her from feeling limited to understanding the possibilities that existed.”

Find ways to adapt

The art of adaptation is not only a handy means to an end, but is also a skill worth practicing for sports success. When Johnson works with athletes, he prepares them not only for winning, but also for how to handle the change that comes with play not going exactly to plan. He points to the example of a baseball player: No player ever wants to strike out, but every athlete is going to make mistakes. “Having a plan for the response is key,” Johnson says. “Keeping in mind that everything isn’t always going to be perfect and that you have to adapt to the situation is important.” Necessity is the mother of invention, he noted, and adapting your training to what you have on-hand is important in practicing adaptability. “Putting several rocks from the backyard in a bucket can become a 25-pound weight you can use, for example,” he mentioned as an idea for an athlete who doesn’t have access to their typical training facility. [Johnson recommends working with a coach or physician if you’re unsure if something is right for you.]

Get creative

Sure, you may not have enough family members in your home as you shelter in place to field your own team, but consider ways you can be creative with game play to include everyone you do have. Invent new games to get everyone involved, perhaps borrowing elements of your chosen sport. “My young sons and I have soccer ball juggling contests and play soccer H-O-R-S-E,” Johnson says. He likens this creativity to playing baseball when he was a child with a handful of friends at a neighborhood park. “We had to adapt the rules, such as making two fouls ball an ‘out’ and ‘pitcher’s hand,’ or allowing fielders to throw to the pitcher rather than basemen, since we didn’t have enough players,” he remembers. “What that forces people to practice is problem-solving and creativity when it comes to adaptation. You have what you have, so you adapt to what you have, which is ultimately an important skill for athletes.”

Teach others

One of the Olympians that Johnson works with is using the additional time to not only train his own body, but also to teach others. “He derives joy from teaching others,” Johnson says, as he explains the benefits of instructing others in a sport you love. “Just by teaching others, you can reinforce some of the fundamentals of the sport to yourself,” he says. Enlist a family member and show him or her how to play elements of your game, and be the student in return as that person teaches you a new skill.

Athletes are well-positioned to handle the changes and challenges brought on by the recent pandemic – while the uncertainty that comes with times like these might derail some people, seasoned athletes are used to excelling despite uncertainty.

“They put in a lot of training and they don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Johnson says. “They’re training to do well and to win, but ultimately they don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s about the process versus the outcome.”

“We can’t control when sports are going to start, but we can take control over our time. Staying in shape, mentally and physically, is one thing we can do,” he says.

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