Staying mentally healthy: the biggest challenge faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes’ survey shows

16 Jun 2020
IOC News Athletes

A survey conducted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in May revealed that managing mental health and sports careers, as well as nutrition and diet, were the biggest challenges faced by athletes during the unprecedented time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mental day

The survey was conducted among more than 4,000 athletes and entourage members from 135 countries and was available in eight languages. The results highlight that 50 per cent of athletes struggled with the complexity of conducting proper training as a consequence of the restrictions imposed in most countries to contain the virus.

Managing mental health and sports careers (both 32 per cent) were identified as the two biggest challenges, followed by nutrition and diet (30 per cent).

The key outcomes of the survey can be found here.

The importance of mental health

“It is very hard to train due to many of the restrictions,” said one elite athlete from South Africa who took the survey. “Training adds structure to my life, and I feel that the lack of structure without training is negatively affecting my mental health. Everything I'm struggling with is linked together. They can't be viewed as separate.”

The lack of access to sports facilities and to a normal training schedule, but also the isolation from the wider athlete community, led to a struggle to stay mentally fit. Sixty-three per cent of the entourage members who took the survey also said they found it hard to keep their athletes motivated.

Recognising the importance of mental health, the IOC published a Consensus Paper on Mental Health in 2019, and the topic was extensively discussed at the International Athletes’ Forum last year. These discussions will lead to the creation of a Mental Health Toolkit for athletes.

Additional resources on how to stay positive during isolation were made available for athletes on the Athlete365 platforms at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Furthermore, the IOC launched a series of webinars to support and inspire athletes during these uncertain times. One of them, which took place on 16 June, was specifically dedicated to mental health with Dr Claudia Reardon, a member of the IOC Mental Health Working Group, who shared tips for athletes and their entourages on how to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Athlete 365
Sharing athletes’ experiences

Other webinars opened the floor directly to athletes for them to share the lessons learned and explain how they managed to overcome the issues they were confronted with during lockdown.

Olympic champions Eliud Kipchoge and Aksel Lund Svindal provided their unique insight and advice on how to stay motivated and reach their goals.

“I said to myself that this is a big challenge, but I am a marathoner, and the marathon is like life,” explained Kipchoge. “We have many courses in the world – flat courses, uphill and downhill – and this period of COVID-19 is like an uphill course, where we need to live in a slow way, in a positive way, in order to finish the race well.”

Svindal had some useful advice for athletes and compared the situation to the numerous injuries and rehabilitations he went through.

“Because I had a lot of injuries, that’s one of the lessons that I learned: how to control that fire inside of really wanting to compete,” he explained. “You have to take down that inner energy but still keep it alive so that, when you come back, you’re ready to get back on a high level.”  

Many athletes around the world also featured in the IOC’s #StayStrong, #StayActive and #StayHealthy digital campaign, which from March 2020 shined a spotlight on athletes’ efforts to stay active during lockdown and keep their spirits up during this unexpected period.

Resources for athletes

Articles and resources to offer support in relation to areas identified in the survey are already available on Athlete365 and will be updated accordingly:

  • Isolation from the wider athlete community: British yachtswoman Dee Cafari has spent up to six months alone at sea while sailing around the world, so she is expertly placed to offer advice about coping with isolation.
  • Staying motivated: Team NL’s Performance Manager in Performance Behaviour, Paul Wylleman, has some top tips to help stay motivated and stay positive during this time.
  • Funding athletes’ sports careers: the IOC has partnered with Airbnb to create an opportunity to support athletes.
  • Entourage: Dr Karen Cogan has some advice for entourage members about how best to support athletes during this period.

Athlete365 will be constantly updated with new content for athletes and their entourages, who can sign up to the platform to receive regular updates.

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