Sports are a way of life for people around the world. It is almost like a language of sorts; sports have a way of transcending language, cultures, and traditions. Whether you play on a team, are part of an intramural league, enjoy watching professional sports, or find delight in seeing your kids participating in the game, sports is a universal experience. Not only is sports a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry, it can be a lifeline and a catalyst to changing lives. Numerous athletes have earned college scholarships and gotten onto successful pathways, fuelled by participation in their respective sports.
Involvement in sports offers a number of benefits; being active is good for mental and physical health. It can teach the value of teamwork and sportsmanship. Social gatherings often revolve around sporting events— think tailgates, viewing parties for the playoffs, get-togethers during the World Cup, and annual Super Bowl festivities. As we have seen recently, sports of all kinds can be a platform to convey powerful and important messages, especially during times of duress.
When the coronavirus first disrupted our daily lives back in March, the sports world took a hard stop. Virtually every element of sports was put on pause. From professional tournaments to kids playing in local leagues, it seemed everything was either cancelled or delayed. Even the 2020 Summer Olympics were postponed. While some teams, athletes, and leagues made modifications to their schedules, others decided to forgo the 2020 season altogether. It seems there is no “right” answer of what to do in this Covid-Age of uncertainty.
Dr. Jim Afremow, a Sports Psychologist and Licensed Professional Counselor spoke with Mental Health Missions about the psychological benefits of sports, the silver lining of having to pause, mentally prevailing during this precarious time, and coming through stronger on the other side.
Mental Health Missions: The Covid crisis has hugely impacted sports at every level (high school, college, hopeful Olympians, and professional athletes). Perhaps someone was preparing for their Olympic debut or a high school student was hoping to be scouted for a coveted place on a university team. What advice can you offer to those in these kinds of situations?
Dr. Jim Afremow: The pandemic has altered the way we live and are now participating in sport. All of us have been affected. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t surrender to it. You embrace it. Not everything always happens for the best but we can and should always strive to make the best of whatever happens. In fact, champions use every situation to give themselves a competitive advantage. This calls forth a mantra that is repeated in many U.S. military units: “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.”
MHM: What are some of the psychological benefits of participating in sports?
Dr. Afremow: There are so many psychological benefits and healthy values that can be enjoyed and developed through sports– participation, including confidence, focus, poise, grit, creativity, competitiveness, mindfulness, teamwork, leadership, work ethic, goal-orientation, sportsmanship, and mastery.
MHM: Can you discuss the psychological effects that can arise for athletes in the absence of participating in their respective sports? Oftentimes sports have been a huge part of their lives, goals, and dreams. You have spoken about being “underprepared mentally verses being over-prepared.” Can you elaborate?
Dr. Afremow: As is often the case after a major loss, scores of competitive athletes have been cycling through various “stages of grief” after the cancelation of their athletic season and the uncertainty surrounding their future. There is likely a combination of denial, anger, bargaining, anxiety, depression, and acceptance. Acceptance is about embracing the different. Symptoms of grief can be emotional, physical, social, and spiritual. The grief reaction most athletes are currently experiencing is perfectly normal and to be expected. However, the challenge is for athletes to show determination and self-discipline by staying on their grind and being mentally and physically ready at any given time to return to action because no one knows for sure when one’s sport will be back. So, it is better to risk being over-prepared mentally and physically and then if it doesn’t happen – we can live with that – rather than to be under-prepared by thinking, “What’s the point?” and then being filled with regret because we end up missing out on a starting spot in the lineup, getting injured because we weren’t in shape, or underperforming in competition. Remember, when opportunity presents itself, it’s too late to prepare. Knowing that you are doing everything to get ready provides peace of mind.
MHM: In the absence of many sporting events, what guidance can you offer to athletes?
Dr. Afremow: Pledge to yourself that you’ll maximize this period of time by making yourself better in all ways until you return to competition. This time in your life will either be time wasted or time spent – it just depends on what you do with your time until you’re fully participating in your sport again. Rather than simply counting the days until this happens, make each day count because you can emerge as an even stronger and better athlete on the other side of the pandemic. Most importantly, utilize the gains in your understanding of mindset training and recovery in order to fuel the journey.
MHM: Do you see any silver lining to the current situation? Are there any benefits that can result from so much being on hold right now? When asking this question, this quote by Winston Churchill comes to mind: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Do you believe that?
Dr. Afremow: The silver lining to this transitional time is the opportunity to downshift from “Go Mode” to “Slow Mode” and reflect more deeply on your life goals. It provides the chance to spend quality time with family, as well as the chance to dial in not only your mental fitness, but also your mobility and movement quality, nutrition, and sleep.
I do think there is a lot of truth to what Winston Churchill said about the difference between optimists and pessimists. Optimism is being able to see the positive outcome, even in the face of adversity. It is also positively correlated with life satisfaction, happiness, and psychological and physical well-being. Specifically, optimists tend to see negative events as situational, short-lived, and specific, whereas pessimists see them as personal, permanent, and pervasive. Having optimism and working hard will make good things happen. Importantly, research shows that you get a significant boost of optimism when you regularly express things that you’re grateful for, so think about 3-5 big or small things you’re grateful for every day and jot them down in a journal.
MHM: The subtext on your book, “The Champion’s Mind” reads “Think, Train, and Thrive.” How can athletes embrace these tenets during this time and possibly come back even stronger than they were before?
Dr. Afremow: I’ve found that the most effective approach is to develop all the main mental skills simultaneously. For example, visualization is a wonderful tool for athletes to get in mental repetitions when they can’t perform physical ones. Other key mental skills and strategies include positive self-talk, goal-setting, and relaxation training. Of course, you can’t do everything all at once. But the sections of the books [written by Dr. Afremow] and the Champion’s Mind app are designed so that athletes and others interested in peak performance can begin working on performing well under pressure, being more confident, and so on, in just a few minutes a day.
MHM: As numerous sports have been cancelled in schools all across the country, what advice can you share with parents of child athletes during the pandemic? How can parents be encouraging and supportive about the disappointment their kids might be feeling? What do you say to those who are fearful of their kids being exposed to the coronavirus while participating in sports?
Dr. Afremow: There’s a lot of parental concern about screen time, boundaries on social media, and video games, and rightly so. But technology can also be a positive force if there’s the right balance between discovery and supervision. Kids and parents alike need to remember that their phones work for them, not the other way around. One positive use is to put mindset skills and strategies in the palm of young athletes’ hands. Instead of a child complaining about being bored or mindlessly surfing the web before dinner, they could do some mental skills training instead. An app such as Champion’s Mind also provides the opportunity for parents and their kids to learn together. John Wooden once said, “Before you can lead others, you must be able to lead yourself.” Parents need the same coping skills as kids and if they can model confidence, concentration, composure, and commitment, then everyone around them – both at home and at work – will benefit in the long run.
Regarding parents being fearful of their kids being exposed to the coronavirus while participating in sports, I suggest following a simple, three step protocol:
1) Talk about your concerns.
2) Get the facts from experts (as best you can).
3) Develop and execute a plan.
This isn’t a one-time deal. Instead, for the entire time that we’re dealing with this challenging situation, you might cycle through these three steps several times.
MHM: Another thing that has been hugely affected is watching sports in-person. While some sports like baseball and basketball have resumed, stadiums across the country are devoid of fans. Watching sporting events (whether it is live or at events such as viewing parties) can bring people together and be a means of socialization. In order to avoid feeling isolated in the absence of going to games and sporting events, how can fans continue to safely engage with others during this time of social distancing?
Dr. Afremow: Fans can still have a lot of fun engaging with each other on social media about their favorite players and teams. Another avenue is to create a fantasy league or team and challenge your friends to play.
MHM: What advice can you offer to those who are not involved in team or individual sports but value staying active and exercising during the pandemic?
Dr. Afremow: Team up for support. The danger is that self-isolating and social distancing might lead to true loneliness, which is never a good thing. To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, make it a priority to reach out to one of your friends and/or relatives every day. This could be as simple as sending a text to ask, “What are you doing for exercise today?” Don’t be hesitant to ask for emotional support and freely offer it to others. Additionally, consider how you will want to reflect on this time in a few years. Do you want to think back and question why you let your mentality and physicality slide? Or would you rather take pride knowing that you did your absolute best to grow, develop, and progress, in spite of the obstacles that were placed in your way?
MHM: In the past few years there have been numerous conversations across the sports world about social justice issues and inequality. How can staying true to one’s personal beliefs and morals be advantageous for athletes?
Dr. Afremow: Being well-informed about justice and equality is advantageous for all of us – a rising tide lifts all boats. In relationships with others, just ask yourself, “What is fair and reasonable to all parties in this situation?” The goal is to work together to find a solution that suits everyone. Know your rights and entitlements, be present while listening, avoid mind reading, discuss problems when they begin, and criticize the behavior rather than the person. Assume goodwill from the other party, as this will help you develop a more open-minded perspective conducive to resolving any conflicts. And, when in doubt, follow the Golden Rule. It’s old, and it’s quite the cliché, but that does not make it less relevant for us today. The rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can be useful in almost any sports or social setting.
Dr. Jim Afremow is a sports psychology specialist, a licensed professional counselor, and author of the bestselling applied sports psychology books, “The Champion’s Mind,” “The Champion’s Comeback,” and “The Young Champion’s Mind.” He served as the sports psychologist for Counseling and Consultation and Intercollegiate Athletics at Arizona State University, the peak performance coordinator for the San Francisco Giants, and has worked with global athletes and performers from a range of disciplines, including Olympic athletes and teams. He is currently on a mission to make his ideas and philosophy accessible to everyone. From mental toughness to meditation to mental health, it’s all wrapped up in “The Champion’s Mind” app. Dr. Afremow believes that everyone can and should learn how to think, feel, and act like a champion to accomplish our loftiest goals and reach our full potential. Dr. Afremow is based in Eugene, Oregon. To learn more about Dr. Afremow’s services click here.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Afremow.