COVID-19 Curveball: How athletes are adjusting to life without sports

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – In the days that lead to the opening night of a show the actors in the cast are often found on stage, repeatedly going over scenes, practicing lines and costume changes. The show’s director the determining voice dictating if they’ve mastered the scene or if another run-through is required.

Tennessee Director of Mental Training Dr. Joe Whitney’s day looks similar, though he’s not directing actors in for a play rather prepping athletes for peak performance in their sport.

“We rehearse the role so much that when you get there you’re not playing the character you are the character,” Dr. Joe Whitney said.

Student-Athletes had no way to truly rehearse for the impact COVID-19 would have on their lives, instead, their improv skills are being tested.

“It’s about being able to read the situation, come up with a plan in the moment that matches the needs of that situation that ultimately helps you get to your goal through that situation,” Dr. Whitney said. “That’s a skill in and of itself, that’s also something that we work on.”

Much like the way a play is divided into acts, Dr. Whitney divides the athletes he’s worked with post-COVID-19 into three categories.

Act One: Restoring Energy

“In this particular case, what was fortunate was that everything ended the week for us the week before spring break. So they got a chance to go back with their families and take a break, take a mental break, recover emotionally, and get their physical energy back which allowed them to come back and go through the second stage.”

Act Two: Adjusting

“This has been a tremendous adjustment. Getting back into a routine, getting adjusted to the technology, online classes. We’ve got athletes, international athletes who have to adjust to taking classes at 10 o’clock at night or whatever because they’re in a different time zone and so there’s a lot of problem-solving that goes through that. And the biggest adjustment I think for athletes to go through is that athletes really love their sport. They enjoy the competition. They enjoy the preparation. They enjoy being with their team and their teammates. That source of enjoyment has suddenly been taken away. And so part of the adjustment in the lives that they’re living and the locations that they’re at is that they have to learn to find other sources of enjoyment sometimes smaller, quieter sources of enjoyment – and that’s something that we work with them on too. “

Act Three: Mastery

“You’re getting back to that mission, you’re getting back to improving, you’re getting back to that preparation for the next game, the next tournament, the next race whatever that’s going to be, whenever that’s going to be. So we see more and more athletes getting there and the work that I’ll do with those athletes is about creating a vision for what’s next. Evaluating what’s going on before and getting a new plan, a plan to fit their situation and to see the opportunity to master their sport even where they’re at right now.”

The third act takes the longest to get to, it’s also the act athletes will live in the longest as they await the return of their sport. Because of that, the third act presents its own unique struggles. Dr. Whitney noted that the first of which comes in the easiness of getting comfortable once adjusted, the next struggle comes as athletes don’t’ know when their sport will return.

“We know the fundamentals of what you have to do to be ready for that,” he said. “So what we want to do with athletes is rather than focusing on the uncertainty of when and where we compete again, we want to focus on the certainty of our fundamentals the things that I know I need to get ready for that competition.”

Once an athlete has chosen to be in act three, Dr. Whitney can resume his work, working with the athletes to strengthen their mental game. In the same way, an actor learns lines before they mark the scene, Whitney gradually adds more facets to an athlete’s mental training as the resume the physical work.

“Whatever workouts or preparations they’re doing just work on that and then progress from there and then maybe add a little more intensity to that and then a little bit more purpose to that,” he said. “So we’re really working through those stages with those athletes and challenging them to do a little bit more each week and be a little bit more in tune with their preparation. “


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