Tips for Athletes in Quarantine

Whether season cut short, postponed, or called off entirely- athletes all over the world are finding themselves in a position where their daily lives, demands, and routines have been completely interrupted by COVID-19. Competitive athletes arguably more so affected compared to the normal population because the life of an athlete is one that is reflected in their physical activity, travel, time, energy, nutrition, and routine every day of the week. Rather than just living for financial gain (especially in female sport), an elite athletes’ commitment is reflected in a passion and a love for the sport they play, but also serving as an escape (or coping mechanism) from everyday stress, negativity, and poor life situations.

That overall high and enjoyment causes a chemical to be released in the brain, called dopamine. Dopamine is the ‘feel good’ chemical that when released, keeps us happy and impacts things like motivation, drive, and productivity.

So what does COVID-19 and quarantine have to do with any of this? Absolutely everything! With athletes unable to train, compete, and interact with teammates and staff, there’s a complete disconnect from all that they’ve known.

Ex-professional footballer and mental health expert Kevin George stressed that “Some (players) will struggle. A lot of footballers are lonely and don’t have family, or have come from broken homes. Without that dopamine hit, and escape, players may go elsewhere to find that hit.”

While top players may still have access to home equipment and facilities-many don’t- and even so, at the end of the day athletes aren’t able to play the sport they love and interact in a team environment the way they thrive in.

Without just being the bearer of bad news, where there is intention- there is hope. As a player, don’t just sit back and accept this news as fate- rather take accountability and your situation into your own hands. The situation is as bad as the mind allows it to be. With that in mind- here are several HUGELY important tips to help athletes not just cope, but to thrive in quarantine.

Develop a personalised (morning) routine

The way you start your morning will set your momentum and intentions for the entire day- so do it right. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every weekday- just as you would do in sport. Lack of sleep causes poor decision making, too much sleep can cause you to feel lethargic, unproductive and demotivated. A helpful tip from the army- once your alarm goes off, make your bed. Yes it’s a little thing but by making your bed you have already started the day with cleanliness, organisation, and a sense of accomplishment. Play around with your morning routine and perfect it- there is no better time to find an effective morning routine to carry on into life when training resumes. Experiment with a mixture of exercise, flexibility & mobility, meditation (for beginners I recommend apps calm & headspace), come up with three gratitude’s, write a daily to-do list, read for twenty minutes, listen to one podcast, intentionally make a nice cup of tea. My morning routine typically looks like this; wake up at 7:00, make my bed, stretch for 5 minutes, morning run for 30-45 minutes (starting out slow) while listening to an audiobook or podcast, take a hot shower, intentionally make a healthy breakfast, and write out my tasks for the day. There is no one size fits all- but solidify healthy morning habits that suit you.

Set tasks like you mean it (daily routine)

To utilise the copious amounts of free time that you now have during your day- set tasks like you mean it. Plan and write your tasks at the beginning of the week or day, by writing them you’re more likely to hold yourself accountable to following through. Find a balance between work, responsibility, and fun. For example; run in the morning, complete a house project that you’ve wanted to get around to, watch an episode of your favourite show, make a nice meal, and finish your day with a flexibility/mobility session and maybe a book before bed- balance is key.

When it comes completing tasks, consider this… what do you personally struggle with now that you had assistance with in your normal routine. Are you the kind of person who needs accountability to stay motivated? Ask your teammates, staff, flatmates, etc. to help keep you accountable, or download a task app and set notifications. Do you need social support during a workout? Set Zoom up and do a team session together- or try a group fitness class online.

There are many things you can be doing with your time that are beneficial for your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Spend time with your family, call long-distance friends and relatives to catch up, start a new hobby- take up knitting, learn a new language, play scrabble with friends, break out an old puzzle, clean out your closet- or better yet, the attic!

Hope for the best- prepare for the worst

Being in quarantine for months may not be ideal, but it may become the new normal. Stay positive in hoping that the situation will change soon- but prepare for it not to. What do you need to do during your day to find enjoyment, but more importantly an avoidance of consistent unenjoyment. US renowned Sport Psychologist Trevor Moawad coined the idea of ‘neutral thinking,’ whereby our mindset- particularly as athletes- needs to consist not with emphasis of more positive thinking- but with less negative thinking. A negative thought is up to 7x more impactful than a positive thought. Nobody likes being in quarantine- but truth is EVERYBODY is in it- so why dwell on it? You don’t have to be positive about your situation- but resist the urge to be negative. Challenge yourself to avoid speaking anything negatively while in quarantine, your thoughts will eventually follow and you’ll notice a change in your overall mentality and mood. It’s a great tool to have when returning to full-play.

Speak Up- Listen Up

With movements like Heads Up, the importance of mental health in athletes and talking about it are more widely acknowledged and promoted. This movement doesn’t stop behind closed doors- in fact it’s even more important during times like these- it’s more than okay and normal in fact to feel anxious, uncertain, confused, and frustrated. As Mental Health Expert Kevin George said on Sky Sports, some players use sport as a coping mechanism when it comes to their support network, family, and overall lives outside of sport. Without sport, any underlying mental and emotional pain may start to surface and become more prevalent. It’s important that as an athlete, you have a network of people just a phone call away that you can trust, and who will take the time to listen to you, or even just keep you company over the phone during low times. If possible, working with a counsellor or sport psychologist who can help you unpack some of the reasons for coping can help prevent the issues from deepening and returning once again after retirement or even during an injury period. Don’t be afraid to seek and utilise support. Sporting Bounce is a search engine that helps you find qualified sport psychologists in your area.

Don’t dwell on circumstances- Recognise privilege

While this situation may seem like a huge inconvenience and frustration- stop your thoughts- and look through a new lens. Never before like this have athletes had this sort of downtime in their career, one that didn’t put them at a disadvantage compared to other athletes. The entire world is in the same situation as you are. I can’t stress this enough: the downtime is a privilege, use it to your advantage. Think about it, what are your weaknesses? How can you improve as a player? Kobe Bryant took up tap dancing to improve his footwork on the basketball court. This is your chance to use free time to improve your weak side- be that physical, mental, or emotional.

Use these tips to spark your thoughts: Improve your confidence as a player by working with a Sport Psychologist. Ask your coach what you can improve on- it’ll show your being proactive, and they may even have a few ideas or plans for you to do at home. If you’re injured or have had a small nagging injury, this is your time to nurture it and be on top of your rehab. With time comes responsibility and accountability- no excuses.

Humble yourself to realisation

Surely a situation like this has given each of us the realisation that life is much larger than the day by day we dwell so much on. Let these times give you a chance to reflect not only on what’s important, but what life could look like for you when playing is no longer your career. What do you want that to look like? Have you thought about an alternative career before? All too many athletes don’t prepare for life after sport, in fact when it hits they find themselves in a whirlwind of confusion and depression: unsure of a career direction, qualifications, or how to get there. If you know you’re lacking basic job qualifications, online courses could be something to consider at this time. The Transition Phase is an initiative that understands the difficulty of life outside of sport. They offer free service for athletes that include career information and guidance, career opportunities, and a lasting support network including a mentorship scheme.

Elle’ Nelson MSc Sport & Exercise Psychology