Tokyo Olympics: COVID-19 causes record spike in Kiwi athletes seeking mental help

  • 13/04/2021

By Felicity Reid (RNZ)

New Zealand's top athletes sought psychological support in record numbers last year, as COVID-19 disrupted the sporting calendar.

One year on, a leading psychologist says athletes and coaches are suffering sleepless nights and trouble making decisions and controlling their emotions, as the stress associated with the pandemic lingers.

When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed last year, High Performance Sport New Zealand's head of performance psychology and mental skills consultant Dr Kylie Wilson said there was increased demand from athletes dealing with acute stress associated with the abrupt end to training during lockdown and four years of planning being thrown into disarray.

Wilson's team of 14 contractors offer services for around 350 athletes and coaches - including around 200 Olympic athletes with their sights set on the Tokyo Games.

Athletes on the cusp of retirement as well as young athletes heading into their first Olympics turned to Wilson's team when the going got tough early last year, and continue to do so.

On Monday, Kiwi Paralympics great Sophie Pascoe revealed the ongoing mental struggles she'd experienced during the height of the pandemic in New Zealand.

"COVID took me into a pretty dark place," Pacoe told Newshub. 

"Lockdown really made me re-evaluate the Games in general and me as a person - 12 weeks out of the pool, obviously I had a lot of thinking time."

through the "What we're seeing now and not just with athletes but coaches, support staff, leaders of high performance programmes is more chronic or cumulative stress starting to emerge," Wilson says.

"Where people had been living in uncertainty and having to adapt and change plans, that takes quite a bit of emotional and cognitive energy and they've been doing that now for well over a year.

"You see the typical responses to that type of chronic stress - things like sleep dysfunction, perhaps not being able to manage emotions quite as well or impact on decision making."

Wilson warns there could be more to come, as the postponed Tokyo Olympics - which start in July - would be unlike any other.

"A Games experience is normally pretty taxing because there is a high amount of focus and energy and discipline goes into that period of time, but you're going to have the other factors involved in terms of restricted movement," says Wilson. 

"It's not going to feel quite like it normally does and that's going to be a spike in stress."

Athletes planning on another campaign at Paris 2024 face a quick turnaround in a shortened Olympic cycle, which Wilson says will also need to be managed carefully.

"People will really have to take time out, try and refresh really effectively, maintain their self-care strategies and adapt if they are feeling they can't physically or mentally regauge when they thought they would," Wilson says.

"Be to give themselves permission to taper off and make some changes in how they're training and preparing," Wilson said.

According to Wilson, an advantage of missing out on international competition due to border closures has been the strengthening of relationships between the HPSNZ psychologists and athletes.

"Our engagement has been really high and really consistent because we've had the opportunity to be in their training environment for extended periods of time," she says.

"Often what you'll find is, when athletes go overseas to tour or compete, it's a little bit more challenging to stay connected.

"We've felt that the quality of some of our work has really increased over the last period because athletes have been based in New Zealand. 

"It will be interesting once those athletes travel again and go offshore for tours or competition how that does impact on consistency of engagement."

With overseas competition and training on hold for extended periods over the last year, Wilson says athletes had to figure out why they loved what they did, without the marker of success against their international peers.

"Whilst motivation has ebbed and flowed, the quality of connection to purpose has been really high and they've also realised that sport - or the career of being an athlete - is a little bit more fragile in these circumstances than what they previously might have thought."

Being forced to consider professional and personal interests outside of their current sporting prowess would be beneficial now and in the future, Wilson says.

"It's positive in terms of their general well-being and understanding who they are beyond being an athlete, which is really psychologically healthy but is also quite a performance enhancer."

Wilson says some athletes who planned to quit after Tokyo have changed their mind.