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Mindfulness as a Means of Coping with COVID-19-Related Stress and Uncertainty in Athletes


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions all over the globe face hardship and loss. Athletes, while facing the same adversity as the general population, are also forced to cope with their own set of unique challenges. It is vital that athletes identify a means of coping with the stress and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic that may still linger today. A helpful resource comes from two research teams who have provided insight about the impact that COVID-19 has had on athletes (Polizzi et al., 2020) and how mindfulness can be used to help these performers cope with related challenges on and off “the field” (Mosewich et al., 2014).

Athlete Well-Being and the Impact of COVID-19

To best understand how to enhance optimal functioning, Polizzi et al. (2020) detailed the impact COVID-19 had on athletes. Specifically, the pandemic brought fear, feelings of helplessness, and uncertainty about the future. Simple pleasures, training routines, and social support that would typically help athletes feel prepared and able to cope in times of crisis were inaccessible under stay-at-home and social distancing mandates. A certain level of stress was to be expected given the current circumstances. However, the inability to cope with high levels of stress over a prolonged period can have detrimental effects on well-being. As stressors that negatively impacted mental health accumulated and coping resources were stripped away, there was (and continued to be) a need to identify useful coping strategies for athletes to enhance their well-being. The practice of mindfulness presents a possible means of coping for athletes who experienced unexpected displacement from sport and continued uncertainty of when regular training and competition will return. 

Mindfulness-Based Intervention

In short, mindfulness consists of intentional awareness on the present moment in a non-judgemental and accepting way (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Practicing mindfulness has been shown to enhance appreciation and understanding of difficult circumstances, decrease anxiety and stress, and improve coping skills. The efficacy of mindfulness approaches is grounded in enhancing an awareness and acceptance of thoughts and emotions as opposed to attempting to supress or control them (Polizzi et al., 2020).

Mindfulness has also been shown to help athletes cope with setbacks and situations that are perceived to deter progress towards goals, such as injury or COVID-19 (Mosewich et al., 2014). Cancelled seasons and the inability to train due to COVID-19 created setbacks for athletes that may have invoked frustration from being held back, feelings of aimlessness and isolation over loss of typical sport routines, uncertainty around return to sport, and difficulty accepting that goals needed to be adjusted to meet the reality of the situation. Further, mindfulness has been shown to be effective in stressful and uncertain waiting periods (such as the anticipation of sport returning to “normal”) as the practice encourages that acceptance of one’s circumstances and finding joy and meaning in what can be done in the present moment (Mosewich et al., 2014; Sweeny & Howell, 2017). 

Implications for Athletes

For athletes in need of adaptive coping strategies during and after the pandemic, mindfulness exercises may encourage a focus on the present and factors under athletes’ control. If practiced regularly, athletes may be able to remain hopeful and optimistic, cope with setbacks and uncertainty, avoid rumination and anxiety, and maintain acceptance and positive appraisals of their situation (Mosewich et al., 2014; Sweeny & Howell, 2017). While effective coping strategies are individual- and context-specific (Mosewich et al., 2014), the following formal mindfulness techniques may be effective for athletes currently coping with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic (Mannion, 2020): 

  • Mindful walking allows athletes to focus on the present moment and the sensations of their body as they put one foot in front of the other with a focus on the journey of walking rather than the destination.
  • Observer meditation allows athletes to scan their body and mind for any feelings of discomfort or tension. Athletes may increase their self-awareness and foster an awareness and acceptance of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they come and go rather than attempting to supress or control them. 
  • Mindful breathing may decrease anxiety by allowing athletes to direct their attention to the rhythm, sensation, and sound of their breath. By engaging in breathing meditation athletes able to focus on the present moment without worry over the past or future.  

Informal mindfulness practices involving an intentional focus on moments throughout the day, such as washing dishes or noticing nature, may also be effective in cultivating mindfulness (Mannion, 2020). 

Final Thoughts 

While further research is needed to determine the specific effectiveness of mindfulness-based approaches in mitigating COVID-19-related stress, previous research regarding the use of mindfulness in dealing with setbacks and ambiguity makes a strong case for its use for athletes coping with uncertainty and stress in these unprecedented times. 

References

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life.
New York: Hyperion Books. 

Mannion, J. (2020). Mindfulness in sport. In J. M. Williams & V. Krane (Eds.), Applied sport
psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 334-347). McGraw-Hill Education.

Mosewich, A. D., Crocker, P. R. R, and Kowalski, K. C. (2014). Managing injury and other
setbacks in sport experiences of (and resources for) high-performance women athletes. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 6 (2), 182-204. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2013.766810 

Polizzi, C., Lynn, S. J., and Perry, A. (2020). Stress and coping in the time of COVID-19:
Pathways to resilience and recovery. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 17(2), 59-62. https://doi.org/10.36131/ CN20200204 

Sweeny, K., and Howell, J. L. (2017). Bracing later and coping better: Benefits of mindfulness
during a stressful waiting period. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(10), 1399-1414. 



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