Editor’s note: To help Christian sportspeople navigate these uncertain times, we will be publishing a series of posts focused on what it looks like to “Run The Race Well” in a time of coronavirus and quarantine. We will be getting contributions from a variety of perspectives: theologians, philosophers, athletes, coaches, mental health professionals, seminary students, and more. This post comes from Aviry Reich, a counselor, researcher, and advocate for mental health and wellness among athletes.
To all the athletes whose seasons abruptly ended with no warning, I see you. To all the athletes who feel robbed of playing the sport they love and enjoy, I see you. To all the athletes who can no longer use their sport as an outlet to cope with their anxiety or depression, I see you. To all the athletes who feel isolated from their teammates and coaches, I see you. These scenarios just scratch the surface of the impact COVID-19 is having on athletes at all levels across the country.
No matter what level an athlete you are, the shared experience right now of anyone who plays sports is that your ‘athlete identity’ has been temporarily—and for some permanently stripped away due to COVID-19. As a mental health professional and former collegiate athlete, let me be the first to validate and normalize how challenging this is. The mental and emotional impact the loss of that identity can have on you is tremendous. Researchers have found that the loss of one’s athlete identity can cause grief, anxiety, and depression among athletes (Menke & Germany, 2019). This is no surprise given that for many athletes their ‘athlete identity’ is one of the most salient parts of their identity—one that they spend years forming and developing (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993). To unexpectedly lose that part of yourself is devastating.
While it is important to grieve and be saddened by the severe physical, financial, emotional, and relational impact COVID-19 is having on our country and world, it does not have to come at the expense of minimizing your own personal struggles during this time. You can simultaneously mourn this pandemic, while also validating your own painful feelings and experiences.
You can also take steps to address your pain. In a time where everything is uncertain, it is essential to find ways to take care of yourself physically, spiritually, relationally, and emotionally. To get you started, here are four practical ways you can cope and engage in self-care during this time:
- Acknowledge and validate your feelings. Make space for however you’re feeling during this time. Repressing difficult emotions can cause more emotional harm to your mind, body, and spirit. As a counselor, I tell my clients to acknowledge the feeling, name the feeling, allow the feeling to exist, and release it (don’t stay stuck).
- Use this time away from sports as an opportunity to explore or develop other parts of your identity (e.g. career identity, spiritual identity, partner identity). Start by asking yourself and/or journaling what parts of yourself have been neglected? Then get specific, What would growing in that area of your life look like during this time?
- Creatively foster your athlete identity. How can you improve your physical and mental fitness during this time? Maybe it’s a weight routine at home, running outside, mindfulness/meditation exercises, visualization…think outside the box. Free mental health apps I would recommend: Headspace, Insight Timer, and Calm
- Stay connected. In a time that can be extremely isolating, find ways to continue connecting with your teammates, coaches, friends, and family even if that’s on FaceTime. Schedule weekly virtual movie dates, game nights, dinner parties, or check-ins with people.
You are not alone during this time. There are family, friends, and mental health professionals available to help. Mental health awareness is gaining traction in the sports world, so let’s continue speaking up, supporting each other, and keeping the momentum going.
About the author: Aviry Reich received her Bachelor’s in Family Science (2014) from the University of Maryland, and earned both her Master’s in Counseling (2016) and PhD in Counseling/Counseling Education (2019) from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Aviry is a former Division I collegiate athlete, and has developed a passion for professionally supporting and advocating for athletes’ mental health through clinical and research practice. Currently, Aviry is working as a clinician at Santé Counseling in Greensboro, NC, where she specializes in working with athletes, college students, and young adults surrounding issues such as anxiety, depression, sports performance, grief/loss, identity concerns, and career exploration. You can contact Aviry via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Menke, J., D. & Germany, M., L. (2019) Reconstructing athletic identity: College athletes and sport retirement. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 24, 17-30.
Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J., & Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscle or Achilles’ heel? International Journal of Sport Psychology, 24, 237–254.