Sport psychology and counseling expert discusses new psychological challenges Olympians could face this year.
After a year’s delay caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games are officially gearing up to take place in Tokyo, Japan. The Opening Ceremony is slated for Friday, July 23 and athletes from around the globe will once again gather to compete in 28 different sports with the hopes of taking home the gold. But despite some of the normally scheduled programming for the Games, Olympic officials have implemented strict COVID-19 protocols for all competitors, coaches, and attendees (or lack thereof.) In June, the International Olympics Committee announced that all venues would be capped at 50% capacity and only people from Japan could attend the competitions. In recent weeks however, the Committee has taken an even stricter route, now placing a ban on all spectators from attending the events. This move comes after a rise in localized coronavirus cases, prompting Tokyo to declare a state of emergency. Frequent COVID-19 testing for athletes, their coaches, and trainers will also be in place throughout the competitions as well as masking requirements and travel restrictions limited between the venues and the Olympic Village.
To learn more about how these elevated COVID-19 precautions may affect an athlete's game day performance, we turned to Dr. Edson Filho, an Associate Professor of Sport Psychology and Counseling in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. Dr. Filho researches human excellence and performance optimization, is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and a member of the Sport Psychology registry of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. We spoke with him about how athletes can prepare for the Games without the energy of cheering fans, maintain a focused mental headspace, and overcome the emotional challenges this year’s competitions may bring.
Concerned about containing the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese organizers and the International Olympic Committee have announced a ban for all spectators at the 2021 Summer Olympic Games. How could this rule affect an athlete's emotions and psyche while competing?
We know from research that what we call “audience effects” can either facilitate or debilitate performance in different sports. Having an audience can enhance performance (a process known as “social facilitation”) by increasing motivation, energy recruitment and expenditure, and concentration, while not having an audience may lead to lower motivation and effort and social loafing in team sports. However, having an audience may also lead to what we call “choking under pressure,” as athletes are more likely to get distracted or experience anxiety when performing in front of people, especially at high stake events, such as the Olympics. The truth is there is no simple answer to this question because human behavior is complex and multidimensional. Performance in athletic events is a by-product of the person, the environment, and the task. Athletes need to be mentally prepared to cope with the challenges that an audience, or lack thereof, will inevitably create.
Are there any specific and/or new psychological challenges Olympians are facing this year as athletes are forced to evaluate whether or not risk their long-term health and safety to compete vs. give up their dream, life’s work, or window of peak performance in order to protect themselves from COVID-19?
Athletes are experiencing additional challenges as their practice and competition schedules have been disrupted. Also, we know that social support is key for mental well-being and athletic performance, and the pandemic has precluded athletes and us all from engaging in optimal social recovery. This said, I don’t think athletes should have to be making the decision on whether to go to the Olympics or not. I trust an international committee, formed by leading scholars acting on the best scientific evidence available, to inform athletes and their nations on whether it is safe to have the Olympic games. I understand the pandemic is complex, and it is impossible to have 100% certainty on anything, including health and safety matters. In any case, a panel of experts should be able to state whether the Olympic games should be hosted or not. It seems like the games are going to happen, and so proper measures should be in place to ensure that the health and safety of the athletes, and all those directly and indirectly involved, is the number one priority.
For the athletes that feed off adrenaline, how can they best prepare for the Games without the energy of fans in the stadiums? Is it likely to change any of their usual game-day preparations?
Athletes must focus on what they can control. With or without an audience, athletes must prioritize their mental game and ideally should arrive mentally healthy and strong for the Olympic games. Psychological Skills Training (PST) includes teaching athletes mental and life skills, such as goal setting, imagery, relaxation, attentional regulation, communication, mindfulness, and recovery-stress balance. In a nutshell, the ultimate goal of PST is to provide athletes with the ability to self-regulate (manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviors), be very confident (“I can and I will” mentality), and develop an unshakable belief that they can cope with any adversity thrown their way while remaining positive, i.e., mental toughness. It is important to say that not all athletes have access to PST. Hopefully, this will change in the years to come. We need to be talking about mental health and teaching mental and life skills to athletes of all levels and people from all walks of life.
Could the public’s resistance towards this summer’s Olympic Games on a global and local level — primarily driven by safety concerns — impact athletes’ emotions and motivation to compete? Could this lack of support impact performance?
The short answer is yes, and I say that is simply because COVID-19 has impacted us all. I know there is some emerging research on the impact of COVID-19 on athletes’ psychological well-being, and in turn, we know that psychological well-being impacts performance. We also know that this pandemic has highlighted how important research and evidence-based practice is to inform decision-making at all levels. Therefore, to be able to better understand the impact of this pandemic on athletes’ psychological well-being and performance, we will need to look at the results, records, and psychological research emerging from the Olympic and Paralympic games.
Outside of the context of pandemic-related stress, Olympic athletes face a balancing act between intense stress management and self-confidence. Their life’s work can ultimately come down to just a few fleeting moments throughout the competition. Can you talk about how athletes balance these two competing forces?
Athletes need to be able to cope and recover from biological, psychological, and social stress. We know stress is an imbalance between the bio-psycho-social environmental demands and one’s ability to cope. If this imbalance goes on for too long, athletes are likely to get injured, experience mental health issues, and likely burn out. That is exactly why mental health support and PST are an important part of an athletes’ preparation. This said, it is important to clarify that anxiety is different from stress, by definition. Anxious athletes cannot be in the present moment as they occupy their minds with feelings of apprehension and fear of failure. We also know that anxiety and confidence are, in a sense, opposite sides of the same coin. The more confident someone is, the less anxious they are likely to be. In some Olympic sports, the difference between a gold medal and no medal is minimal (e.g., a fraction of a second), so mental readiness is key to successful performance. Sport psychologists help athletes to learn how to cope with somatic and cognitive anxiety and how to become more confident. PST should be a priority, and there is no magic formula for it. It takes time and work for someone to become confident and able to cope with different sources of stress.
Is there anything athletes can do to stay in the moment and help them focus?
Developing a strong sense of self, life and performance values, practicing with purpose, and cultivating a growth and learning mindset are some key ingredients that will allow athletes to stay in the moment and excel. On a more practical note, we explain athletes’ ability to perform at peak level by using the “toolbox analogy.” A performer’s mind is like a toolbox, and the more tools they have in it, the better they can feel and perform. Adding tools to your mental toolbox involves learning about self-talk, effective goal-setting, challenge mindset, attentional control strategies, and mindfulness practices, to name but a few. Again, PST takes time and requires hard work. Athletes from all levels should prioritize their mental game and seek advice from qualified consultants to help them stay in the moment and focus on the core actions that will lead to successful performance.