How coaches, parents can counsel athletes through pandemic

Communication the key for athletes who may be missing out on sports

Andy Gillham walking and talking with Brett Maher.

The pandemic has been messing up sports in the United States since March. This is true of all levels of competition and all degrees of participation.

It ranges from the comparatively minor sacrifices endured by pro sports fans who can’t attend games to high school and college athletes who are seeing lifetime memories and opportunities fading off into the COVID-19 fog.

Andy Gillham, Ph.D., is a senior sports performance specialist with Sanford POWER who advises athletes and coaches on developing and maintaining strong mental approaches to the sports they’re involved in.

That remains true during the pandemic for Gillham, whose doctorate is in sports and exercise psychology. But in addition, any involvement these days in the life of athletes and coaches and their mental approaches includes at least a few chapters on coping with the pandemic.

Consider athlete’s perspective

For those fans who aren’t getting to see their teams play? In that case, it may indeed be “just a hobby” that comes with relatively minor emotional discomfort. But let’s say you missed out on playing in a state basketball tournament last March, or you’re a college volleyball player who is crossing their fingers about getting a season in next spring.

Then it’s not just a hobby.

“You might tell a 17-year-old, ‘Well, it’s just high school sports, relax, calm down,’” Gillham said. “But a lot of times we’re saying that with 30, 40 or 50 years of life experience behind us. We realize that it was just four years of our time, but for a high school athlete, that’s a much larger percentage of life that might be ripped away.”

The time and effort young athletes devote to sports invariably makes an impact on their identity. In short, what they do becomes who they are. For Gillham, conversation with young athletes about the impact of the pandemic involves asking a lot of questions and listening closely to the answers.

“I want to find out what is missing,” Gillham said. “Is it the competition? Is it the daily structure of knowing you’re going to be at practice from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day? Is it the way sports always gives us something to focus on in the future? Is it the team camaraderie aspect? Is it the physical movement of going to practice and the physical exertion? There are any number of layers to what might be missing.”

Listen to motivations

The answer to those questions is not always going to be about the actual competition. It’s the obvious answer, but not always the right one for the athlete.

“It is not my place, or a parent’s place or a coach’s place to say, ‘No, you’re a competitor. That’s what you’re missing,’” Gillham said. “That’s not fair to a kid at all.

“As adults we don’t always do a good job of talking to high school kids. The kids become conditioned to give the ‘Yeah, okay, sure’ sort of answers that don’t actually advance any conversation. Those kinds of questions and answers don’t actually help you build a relationship and they don’t help either the athlete or the other adult in the conversation.”

Going back to March when the pandemic changed everything, those closely involved in sports have come to understand that COVID-19 related decisions can have short shelf lives. In April, for instance, the idea that sports would still be profoundly affected in October would have been shocking to some. As a result, the uncertainty of it all can lead to motivational challenges.

“We’ve been seeing what I’ve been calling ‘The Charlie Brown effect,’” Gillham said. “Lucy puts that football on the ground and says ‘Charlie, come kick it.’ And then she pulls it away. And then she says ‘Oh, that was pretty funny. Let’s try this again.’”

And then Charlie tries to kick it again and, yes, Lucy pulls it away again.

“That kind of a situation with the pandemic can lead to demoralization and a lack of motivation,” Gillham said. “It’s not so much with the high school kids around here because they’re getting to play, but for college athletes it can be difficult.”

Build a foundation

It’s a common theme in Gillham’s conversations with college coaches. Athletes have had the football pulled away from them too many times. So we’re going to have a season in the spring? Well, how do you know for sure about that?

“It becomes ‘Well, I’m having a hard time buying into what you’re asking me to do here,’” Gillham said. “It’s an entirely natural and predictable outcome. We humans don’t always do well with thinking something is coming up and then it doesn’t happen. That’s particularly true if it’s something we want.”

What everyone wants in this case is a return to sports as we knew them. In the meantime, patience, perseverance and all those other qualities we associate with athletic success will come into play. The fact that we need these attributes in the absence of sports is an irony that supports their overall value.

Getting through it for athletes, parents and coaches is not about a specific to-do list. It is much more about building a foundation. At Sanford, that foundation is built by people like Gillham. He is part of an orthopedics and sports medicine team that delivers expertise via sports academies, sports performance training, physical therapy, sports science and athletic training.

“We need to emphasize the need to communicate well with each other,” Gillham said. “We need to actually listen. We need to hear. Good communication is generally going to be honest communication. And that means we may hear things we don’t really want to hear. We may experience feelings we’re not used to feeling and we need to have a way to express those feelings. We need to have someone who will hear us.”

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Posted In Behavioral Health, Coronavirus, Healthy Living, Sanford Sports, Sports Medicine, Wellness