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Athletes' mental health following Olympic delay is a concern

Athletes who were preparing for the Olympic Games or any other major sports event might experience a sense of loss. Photo: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Athletes who were preparing for the Olympic Games or any other major sports event might experience a sense of loss. Photo: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Published Apr 9, 2020


CAPE TOWN – Dr Marteleze van Graan, a leading South African sport psychologist, has warned that anger and a sense of loss following the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics must not go unchecked.

Even before it was officially announced that the Games would be moved from 2020 to 2021, athletes had to contend with lengthy periods of uncertainty. These three factors could prove detrimental if allowed to run rampant in the minds of athletes.

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“Athletes who were preparing for the Tokyo Olympic Games or any other major sports event might experience a sense of loss,” said Van Graan.

“It may feel as if they have sacrificed hours and hours of training for nothing. Some might even experience anger. Feeling down and out for a day is normal. Every one of us is going to go through a bad patch in these uncertain times, but we need to resist letting it get the better of us.”

There will always be the danger that athletes might lose focus or give up on their dreams if they don’t deal with negativity.

“No athlete should give up on their dreams. They should, however, adapt their goals. Don’t think about winning a tournament or a gold medal. It is more important to set one specific goal for each day. Achieving that goal creates a sense of achievement even when not on the track or the court,” Van Graan said.

“It might also be worthwhile to think about some of the psychological aspects of sports. For example, the fear of failure during a significant competition. It could lead to an athlete thinking that they are ill or battle to eat on the day they are competing. It won’t resolve itself. Athletes should face up to it. There is no better time than now.”

Watch: Top SA weightlifter Johanni Taljaard in training during lockdown

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A post shared by Johanni (Hugo) Taljaard (@johanni_taljaard_weightlifter) on Apr 7, 2020 at 6:01am PDT

Van Graan is based at the University of Pretoria’s Sport Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI) where the primary function is to help people attain excellence at the highest level of international sport.

She says that as a result of the national lockdown in South Africa, athletes are in uncharted territory as there is no chance of following the usual routine. To add to the complication is also the matter of not knowing when sport will resume, but she says the focus should be on controlling the controllable.

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“It would be useful if athletes and coaches could find ways of embracing new technology to try and simulate an online group training session,” said Van Graan.

“Apparently, the national rowing coach Roger Barrow has succeeded in doing so.

“While all are forced to self-isolate, it is essential to try and create some sense of contact. Such interaction will make athletes realise they are in the same situation. Sharing one’s experiences is also a way to vent frustration.

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“Athletes should try to keep a daily diary to record what they have done. It is especially important to take note of what worked and what didn’t. It is a way to take responsibility for one’s actions.”

Herman Gibbs



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