It is great to see professional sport preparing to return following the Covid-19 pandemic enforced absence. Following lots of discussion, the English Premier League is due to resume on Wednesday 17th June. Players have been back in training for the last couple of weeks, and now have concrete dates to prepare for the return of competitive games. However, while I am sure, players are glad to be getting back to training, there are still significant challenges to overcome.
First, nothing about the last few months has been normal, players have been required to train at home in isolation, and interact via video conferencing platforms. These changes to normal life and normal routines could well have taken a toll on the coping capacity of individual players to deal with stress and pressure. This could mean that the ability of players to cope with situational and environmental demands is reduced. Also, while players are happy to be returning to training and playing, the environment is not going to be in any way normal. This fact will have already been experienced first-hand at training complexes and grounds up and down the country. Social distancing and virus transfer precautions (including PPE), will have made what has been a very familiar environment feel different.
While players are starting to adapt to these changed training environments, there are a lot of unknowns about the performance domain. Such as what will it be like playing in empty stadiums? It is interesting that since the restart of the Bundesliga home advantage appears to have disappeared. Away teams are performing much better than home teams. Part of this fact might be due to the expectation that as an away team the environment is something different to what you are more familiar with (playing at home). Teams, and players are so used to interacting with the home crowd, that they are probably not really aware of the impact it has. How will the players achieve their optimal performance state? Hoe can they achieve the required arousal level? There might be a bigger job of coaches, managers, and leaders in the team to help players to achieve this. There could be other issues too, comments from other players and support staff will become more audible without the crowd, will the match officials behave differently? Will players act differently to match officials? There is also be different routines to match days, and even travel arrangements.
Players will also be seeing the example of the Bundesliga, the games on the pitch looks familiar (apart from less contact for goal celebrations), but look off the pitch and it looks very different, most people are wearing face masks, there is significant gaps between substitutes.
As psychologists we know that it is often the fear of the unknown that induces much of the performance stress and anxieties experienced. As a result, it is crucial that clubs go out of their way to work with players on what to expect and to help to prepare them for the environment in which they are going to perform. Also, it is crucial for players to understand their mental state for optimal performance and to understand what techniques and tools they can now use to achieve these states. Understanding that it (performance) will be different, and as such refined and revised preparation routines will be crucial to ensure optimal player performance outcomes.
While the circumstances have changed helping the players understand what to expect and how to cope with it is right at the heart of the sport psychologist’s skill set. A challenge, I am sure we as a profession can meet!