Life as a professional athlete is a stressful business — particularly during a global pandemic.
- Research has found COVID-19 has been the most stressful influence in athletes’ lives
- There’s been a 79 per cent jump in mental health referrals among athletes compared to last year
- A survey found nearly half of all athletes experienced anxiety due to the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics
Many have been separated from their coaches, have nowhere to train and have limited practice against their competition.
So it is no surprise the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on our prospective Olympians.
Diver Maddison Keeney won bronze in the synchronised 3-metre springboard in Rio 2016.
While the Olympian is still able to compete at the Tokyo games, she faced the reality of not being able to defend her key event due to circumstances outside her control.
“It’s unimaginably stressful,” Keeney said.
“Honestly, having to give up our Olympic spot because we weren’t able to travel has been really hard.”
‘A different kind of stress’
The Australian Diving team opted not to attend a qualifying event in Japan in April due to safety concerns.
The competition pushed ahead, despite Australia’s withdrawal and the risks involved.
“We can see everyone else going, competing getting to see the Olympic pool, qualifying — it’s been really quite difficult,” Keeney said.
Her coach, Adrian Hinchliffe said he still has no words to explain the situation.
“I still, as a coach, find it hard to articulate that scenario … they’re very experienced but it doesn’t make this any easier because it’s such an unknown,” he said.
“As athletes, and as coaches, we’re used to stress, [but] it’s a different kind of stress which has created frustration.”
Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) researcher Chantal Simons has been examining the causes of stress among elite athletes – such as injury, relocation and travelling — since before the pandemic swept the globe last year.
She continued to examine 15 elite athletes, who were all affected by the pandemic differently, and found they all experienced a spike in distress levels when restrictions came into play.
“We had a few athletes who were overseas that had to come back, they had to do their quarantine which was very stressful,” Ms Simons said.
“We had athletes who couldn’t access their normal training facilities, couldn’t communicate with their coaches as per normal.”
During the first two fortnights under Australia’s harshest restrictions, all participants in the study reported COVID-19 as the most stressful influence in their life at the time.
Like many Australians, stressors included uncertainty about the future and decreased income.
For many, the fact training facilitates were unavailable and their competition or season was cancelled was also hard to deal with.
But the resilience athletes showed was a positive takeaway.
“Their distress levels definitely came down again actually quite quickly – quicker than we would have expected,” Ms Simons said.
Sprinter Riley Day managed to remain optimistic, despite having to juggle study and work at a local supermarket, while training to gain a qualifying spot in Tokyo.
“I used that extra year of training under my belt, just to get stronger in the areas that I didn’t have time to before,” Day said.
In doing so, the 21-year-old’s qualified in the 200-metre sprint for her very first Olympics in Tokyo, but admits it has been far from a stress-free scenario.
“We didn’t have a gym here or the track here, so we had to find alternative solutions,” Day said.
Major jump in mental health referrals
At a national level, the issue of mental health among athletes has also concerned the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
The AIS recently reported a 79 per cent increase in referrals to its mental health network, compared with the same period last year.
The impact of COVID-19 was the primary or secondary issue in about 80 per cent of the referrals.
Olympic Games preparations and selection were other key themes.
The AIS also conducted a mental health survey of 700 of its athletes, coaches and support staff, which revealed almost half of athletes were dealing with anxiety and stress due to the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Diving coach Adrian Hinchcliffe said putting athletes’ mental health first has been crucial.
“I think the most important thing that we’ve done well so far is that we have been able to look after our athletes first, before we think about the sport and what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
Where possible, team camps and national competitions have been the saving grace for many sports and Hinchliffe said his divers just take each day as it comes.
“The next bit is still going to be very challenging, but it’s challenging for everybody else,” he said.