Sep 02

The Psychological Implications of Returning to Sport Post-Isolation

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Note: I had to take a mental break from the research on “Abuse in Sports” as it became too overwhelming!

I get daily Emails from SIRC Canada (Sport Information Resource Center) and find the article below extremely useful for athletes and coaches returning to sport during these hardship times.

This article was originally published on SIRC’s blog – sign up to receive SIRC’s daily newsletter and follow them on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn.

The Article was released August 5, 2020 

Original Post July 8, 2020 

By Lori Dithurbide, CSC Atlantic & Amelie Soulard, INS Québec 

Note: With some modification to original Text by M. Schloder

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As public health restrictions begin to lift across the country, the return to some form of sport participation will require adjustment and adaptation. As athletes return to sport, the virus is still present, and so is the uncertainty. The cancellation of sports events and the imposition of stay-at-home and physical distancing protocols over the last several months have caused many athletes to experience a loss of control, even loss of their sense of identity (Koninckx & Teneau, 2010). These feelings may continue long after returning to training.

With the return to sport, athletes may move through three phases of emotional challenges: 1) Managing the emotions associated with losing their bearings; 2) Making sense of the situation and giving meaning to the necessary change, and 3) Mobilizing energy and efforts to adapt to the new reality. What are the implications of each phase for athletes and coaches?

Phase 1: Managing Emotions

Athletes are going to experience different reactions and varying levels of comfort and motivation when returning to sport. This may range from joy and excitement to being with friends, returning to training, and looking forward to competition; or potential fear and anxiety relating to the risk of infection, the effects of detraining, or ‘being behind’ competitors and teammates. It is important to acknowledge these differences and increase our emotional awareness of others and ourselves.

Expectations for the first few training sessions should be low and focus on reconnection and relationships. If small groups of athletes and coaches are training together, allow time for them to catch-up and reorient themselves to the training environment. This is important for emotion management and supports adaptation to the new training environment, which most likely be quite different compared to pre-pandemic training.

It is also likely that athletes and coaches may experience some levels of mental fatigue once returned to their sport environment. The stress of adhering to guidelines, the new environment, and simply interacting with others following months of limited social interactions can lead to greater feelings of tiredness.

Phase 2: Making Sense of the Situation

The second phase is the ‘reconstruction of meaning.’ If an athlete’s motivation and commitment have not been affected by the circumstances surrounding the pandemic, they are a source of energy to move forward. If motivation and commitment have been altered, feelings of incoherence, lack of efficiency and effectiveness, doubts, and mood swings may be experienced (Koninckx & Teneau, 2010).

At this phase, physical and technical assessment is important as athletes may return to sport at different levels than in the pre-isolation phase. However, if they kept up at-home exercises and conditioning, they are probably not as far behind as one might expect. Athletes who spent time working on other aspects of their performance (e.g. mental or tactical performance) may find themselves ahead of the game once they return to their sport. Training and overtraining should be gradual to avoid injury, and both athletes and coaches have to remain adaptable as they navigate changing the restrictions and also renew goals (re-set).

Some athletes may return wanting to resume training at pre-pandemic levels while others may even question their return. It may be helpful for athletes and coaches to explore and discuss with each athlete the reason for pursuing their athletic career and goals.

Phase 3: Mobilizing Energy and Efforts

The third phase is ‘new balance’ when athletes return to focus on their performance. While specific target events may have shifted due to the pandemic, daily performance and process goals should still reflect the pursuit of long-term goals. It can be challenging to maintain motivation when the ‘finish line’ is somewhat unclear. To assist in this process, athletes and coaches should re-focus on short-term performance and process goals that are within their control that ultimately will support performance in the long-term. Athletes should also maximize the use of available resources and expertise (e.g., integrated support teams, coaches) to ensure their training plan and objectives are well aligned with the physical, technical, tactical, and mental aspects of performance.

At this phase (and any phase), athletes may find themselves struggling with doubts and decreased self-confidence. Coaches can facilitate athletes to challenge false beliefs (e.g. “I’m so behind”) with facts by regularly measuring and tracking progress, and comparing results with pre-isolation data. By setting and evaluating short-term goals, athletes can gain confidence and motivation moving forward, even in the uncertainty of tangible long-term goals.

Returning to training following isolation is similar to returning following a long-term injury. Gradual reintegration is key. However, one major difference between returning from injury and returning from isolation is the way athletes are likely to feel. Returning from injury, athletes might not be at 100%. However, returning from isolation athletes may feel the most rested or recovered they have in a long time. This may lead to athletes wanting to do too much, too soon.

Lastly, it is so important that coaches and athletes use the mental skills, creativity, and lessons learned during the COVID-19 public health restrictions and transfer them to the adapted training environment. As a result, a new reality will be created, confidence will return, and new ideas will emerge (Koninckx & Teneau, 2010; Deetjeans, 2005). Ultimately, we may realize that the pandemic has helped build athletes’ resilience and tolerance to uncertainty, develop transferable skills, and have increased their wisdom.


Deetjeans, M.C. (2005). Résilience et autodétermination : l’art de rebondir après la souffrance. [Resilience and Self-determination: The Art of Rebounding from Suffering]. Montréal: Les éditions Quebecor.

Koninckx, G. & Teneau, G. (2010). Résilience organisationnelle: Rebondir face aux turbulences. [Organizational Resilience: Bouncing Back from Turbulence]. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgique: De Boeck Supérieur.

The Author(s)

Lori Dithurbide (@DrLoriD) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University. Her research focuses on the psychosocial aspects of sport. She is also the Lead Mental Performance Consultant for the Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic and the Canadian Women’s Artistic Gymnastic team, and has worked with high-performance athletes from a variety of different Olympic and Paralympic sports.

Amelie Soulard is a registered psychologist and Lead Mental Performance Consultant for the Institut National du Sport du Québec (INS Québec) where she works with boccia, wheelchair rugby, and other international level athletes from different sports. She also teaches sport and performance psychology at the Université de Sherbrooke and at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal.

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