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Experts Share Four Ways to Start Mentally Preparing for a Return to Sports

Dr. Kevin Chapman applies his expertise as a clinical psychologist to those skilled in sports. 

“I played sports my whole life,” says Dr. Chapman, an all-conference sprinter and football player at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. “Once an athlete, always an athlete.”

Dr. Chapman, who works with Louisville F.C., and Olympians, taps his expertise to help athletes develop strategies and approaches to cope with the loss of sport during COVID-19 — and develop a positive mindset for its eventual return. 

That includes his two daughters, a 15-year-old cheerleader and a 13-year-old sprinter and volleyball player. 

The latter has missed her entire season. 

“She was disappointed,” says Dr. Chapman, an expert with TrueSport, an organization committed to “changing the culture of youth sport by providing powerful educational tools to equip young athletes with the resources to build life skills and core values for success on and off the field. “More than anything, socialization was the big piece, not being able to see her teammates and friends.

“This is one of those times, where especially with youth and athletes, to not judge their emotions right now,” he adds. “In sports culture, we can communicate the wrong message about emotions.”

Though parents may be busy or uncomfortable, Dr. Chapman insists families should have “hard conversations” about COVID-19.

“The whole gamut of emotions should be experienced by most people,” he says. “Recognize that anger, fear, are all related to grief. A lot of our youth are grieving. Loss of memories. So we must allow youth to experience any of those emotions.” 

Mike Bass was a longtime sports reporter and editor, and he’s now a certified professional coach who specializes in the mental and emotional side of sports. He notes that this unprecedented time has another effect that’s hard to overcome.

"We haven’t been here before, so kids are struggling,” says Bass, who is based in the Chicago area. “But parents are struggling, too. There’s nothing to compare it to. So the idea is to really listen to (to young athletes) and assure them what they are feeling is real.”

Dr. Chapman and Bass provide four ways athletes can keep their bodies and especially their minds sharp as sports start to chart a return.

Focus on process, not outcome

The question Dr. Chapman is asked most is, “How do I maintain structure in my training?”

That’s something Carleigh Hofelich, a 14-year-old rising sophomore field hockey goalie in Louisville, wanted to know. 

Dr. Chapman has worked with Hofelich for a few years, helping her with anxiety, particularly when working with a new group of teammates or during difficult training sessions. 

Earlier this year, Hofelich was thrilled because her team, the International Field Hockey Club of Kentucky (IFHCK), had just wrapped up a promising indoor season, with a strong showing at a national tournament. More important, she adds, “I had never had such a great connection” with teammates.

But the outdoor season never started, as Hofelich — and millions of athletes around the country — were devastated with the cancellation of sports in the midst of the pandemic. 

Hofelich, her mother LaCherry and Dr. Chapman brainstormed what she could during quarantine.

“It was such a boring time for her, and she loves to keep working,” LaCherry Hofelich says. “As a parent, I like her to have a break and a breather. But she likes to keep moving.”

Dr. Chapman encouraged Carleigh to not focus on the next game or season but rather enhance her mastery by developing a routine. 

“Come up with a schedule that you follow, that includes creative ways to work on training,” Dr. Chapman recalls.

Run in the neighborhood. Utilize apps and devices. Be creative. 

Carleigh’s solution: She does two workouts a week with her trainer via Zoom, some agility lights work in the family basement, and she has teammates and even neighbors shoot on her at least twice a week. Shooters fire from the driveway toward Carleigh, who is set up inside her family’s garage, in front of a net.

“It’s nothing fancy,” LaCherry says, “but there’s no replacement for a real kid hitting a ball.”

Carleigh even says she’s improved in two facets during the pandemic. First, she’s mentally stronger, after taking responsibility for her own training. Second, she has gotten better at handling the ever-tricky knee-high shots. But she’s worked with a goalie trainer, and she’s been able to get more of those shots taken on her.

“Those shots are unpredictable,” she says. “You don’t know how they will bounce.”

Take time to connect as a family 

Bass says he’s troubled when he hears parents say they “don’t have time.” He says most people should have more time, given shorter commutes to work and limited driving times to practices and away games. Practically speaking, car insurance companies have taken the unprecedented step of crediting customers; at least 20 states have reported a noticeable drop in fatal car crashes during the pandemic, according to a report on CBS News.

“Parents and kids are stuck together, and it doesn’t always feel like fun,” Bass says. “But try to establish this idea of, ‘We’re listening to each other. We enjoy each other’s company.’ ” 

Some families, Bass says, are “rediscovering” family dinners. But in those opportunities on interact, he adds that parents should not try to steer away from discussing COVID-19. 

“Kids are smart. They’re going to figure stuff out,” Bass says. “Discuss together what you’re comfortable with because you’re still the parent.”

In fact, Dr. Chapman has noticed something unique.

“Some parents are having a harder time with this than the athletes,” he says. “But parents to model good communication and normalize those emotions and modeling good, self-care.”

Bass says parents should also make sure they and their children are reflecting on what they want out of sports, especially since a return for some may be different for a while. 

“Maybe it won’t be with fans, or it might be — depending on the level they are at and age — less organized and more unsupervised.”

Or perhaps your child wants to try a different sport. 

"During this time,” Bass asks, “do they want to experiment?”

Regardless, he encourages parents to get active with their kids — and it doesn’t have to be big and grand.

“It’s like that scene in Field of Dreams,” Bass says. “Have a catch. Or pull out old board games.”

Mind matters more 

One of Dr. Chapman’s specialties is helping athletes who deal with anxiety. 

A few years ago, Dr. Chapman helped Carleigh Hofelich with that. 

"I would have anxiety working with a new group of players and doing things that were difficult,” she says. "It would make me nervous and affect my performance.”

Dr. Chapman had Hofelich do an exercise with her stick. Looking at the stick would “trigger” her. 

“I say positive things like, ‘I am a great goalkeeper. I work hard. I love what I do,’ ” Hofelich recalls. “Those things calm me down.”

Dr. Chapman points to a softball player who had struggled with an eight-game hitting slump. She wrote the words, “What’s important now,” on a bracelet. 

“Focus on the right thing at the right time, and not focus on the last pitch, last swing,” Dr. Chapman says. “Get out of the box, take a breath, look at the cue.”

Recently, Dr. Chapman got a panicked text from a high school golfer he works with. 

“I have my first tournament since quarantine,” she wrote. “It’s coming up this weekend. Any wisdom?”

Dr. Chapman called her and encouraged her to reflect on the centering techniques they worked on. 

“You have self-talk analysis to prepare before a match. Mental imagery you’ve been practicing,” he recalls. “Know you are prepared.”

Dr. Chapman adds that athletes must be “flexible in their thinking,” during this challenging time and develop a handful of “self-talk” statements that are conducive to the athlete’s sport or position.

For instance, he says a basketball player’s self-talk could focus on the three-point shooting or the ball-handling they have been working on. To that end, a basketball player could take that a step further and write one of those statements on a ball. 

“Their brain has to learn not to view their identity based on their performance,” he says. 

Count on a community  

Dr. Jim Taylor, who teaches at the University of San Francisco, wrote a piece in March for Psychology Today. He noted that people can go into “protective mode” during a crisis. 

“Unfortunately,” he writes, “this strategy is the worst thing that we can do. When a crisis strikes, it’s important to seek out support from others.”

He adds that everyone is impacted by COVID and is frustrated, to some degree. So he recommends looking for others to engage with, especially people who are optimistic and forward-thinking. Further, he says it’s important for people to share their emotions and ideas on how to respond “constructively.” 

Hofelich, for one, took that to heart, calling upon her teammates, older athletes in her sport and even neighbors to keep working on her craft. 

“Everyone is different,” Hofelich says. “We all need to use the resources we have.”

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