‘We are all in the same storm’

ISLAND sportsmen and women are being urged to remain connected through tough times, amid rising concern that Covid-19 is sparking a surge in mental illness.

Sports psychologist Debbie Thompson
Sports psychologist Debbie Thompson

Sport and exercise psychologist Debbie Thompson has highlighted the importance of support structures for those who rely on physical activity and competition as an outlet, particularly as government restrictions on grassroots training and fixtures – both here and in the UK – are set to dominate for weeks, if not months to come.

Feelings of anxiousness and confusion are likely to be plaguing a vast number of Islanders following the loss of their normal routine in 2020, while the postponement of major sporting events like the Island Games could well have left Jersey’s elite bereft of motivation. Thompson says those emotions are ‘absolutely normal’, given the circumstances, but is also keen to emphasise the need to acknowledge togetherness.

‘There’s a quote that I like which says: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm”,’ said Thompson, an Island Games shooter for Team Jersey.

‘All of our journeys have been different over the last year but it is because of the same thing that we’re all experiencing frustration and loss. What’s really important is how you respond to this experience.

‘There are all sorts of readjustments going on and you do have a choice. Yes, you have restrictions but you also have choices such as going for a walk each day. It is that loss of control that can become so overpowering, but those choices can help give people control.

‘The athletes who make a success out of Covid will be the ones who manage this period of time well. You’ve got time off, so how can you use the time so that when you’re back to training you are where you want to be? There is going to have to be a reality check, because gyms are closed and we don’t have access to the facilities we might have had, but it’s the same for everyone.

‘You have to be in the present moment. At the present moment things are different and it’s about not giving in to the situation. What can you do about this? You’ve actually been given an opportunity that you wouldn’t normally have, so can you take that into your everyday life?

‘From a general mental-health and wellbeing point of view, routine and structure is important and a lot of athletes have lost that structure. Could they look at making their own timetable with their coach? What can you do at the moment that’s positive, now that you’ve got time that you perhaps didn’t have before? Some athletes might use the time to rest, because they don’t often get that rest time, while others might spend time on mental training. During the season we don’t often see the importance of mental training, but now is a good time to tackle something like that.’

Thompson has highlighted the need to look beyond the athletes, too.

‘If you’re looking at clubs – what could they be doing at the moment? They’ll want to look after their athletes but it’s also important to look after the coaches,’ she said.

‘We’re not very good at looking after coaches, who are often adults and a lot of them are volunteers who may well be struggling with their own personal situation at the moment as well. Coaches might have insecurity with their jobs or might be missing that contact with their athletes whereas for kids ... life is different but they are going back to school and they’ve still got that structure.

‘It’s important to look after each other and check in with players and coaches because sports people are often gregarious characters.’

Thompson, who has recently worked with the Island’s top footballers, added: ‘Jersey Bulls were still having games initially but then we had that uncertainty of “are there going to be games or not ?”, and then they had the fear of having to isolate when they came back. Did they want to go away for their sport and then have to isolate when you come back if working from home wasn’t an option?

‘It’s an added pressure, especially when you remember that all of our athletes and coaches are amateur and they’ve got to work as well.

‘It hit the Island Games as well, so we’ve got athletes who would have been going [to Guernsey 2021] who may not compete until 2023 now. Some of them may be feeling loss. It might be difficult to accept that feeling but it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. It’s all slightly unusual.

‘Be kind to yourself. We talk about self-compassion and it’s evidence-based. We need to be kind to ourselves, accept that it’s a difficult time and not give in.

‘Mental illness is real, there’s no doubt about it and you have to remember that in times like this feeling anxious, demotivated, confused, scared ... it can also be absolutely normal. There could come a point where you may need to seek help, which is important, and there are lots of resources available. The Jersey Recovery College, Mind Jersey ... the resources are there, and it’s also important to remember that sometimes it’s good to see someone before you have a problem. You don’t have to have a problem to see someone. If you’re sliding, perhaps we can nip it in the bud.

‘We don’t know what’s going to happen next week or the week after. Three weeks ago there were 1,000 cases and now we’re down below 300. We wouldn’t have known that then. All we can control is staying in the present moment and that really does help anxiety.

‘It may be different at the moment but there will be sport again when things settle. It will come back.’

For further information on the work and support offered by Debbie Thompson, email sportpsychologyjersey@gmail.com.

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