Top Kiwi athletes seeking psychological help

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 Olympic Games 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 as athletes dealt the with acute stress associated with the abrupt end to training during lockdown and four years of planning 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 Olympic 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.

"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 said.

"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 so 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."

Bystanders watch as giant Olympic rings are reinstalled at Tokyo's Odaiba Marine Park in December...
The Tokyo Olympics postponement has led to record numbers of Kiwi athletes seeking psychological help. Photo: Reuters
Wilson warned there could more to come as the postponed Tokyo Olympics, which start in July, would be unlike any other.

"The Games itself is going to be very different and unique and whilst 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 you're going to have the other factors involved in terms of restricted movement and it's not going to feel quite like it normally does and that's going to be a spike in stress."

For those athletes planning on another campaign for Paris 2024 they faced a quick turnaround in a shortened Olympic cycle that Wilson said would 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 re-gauge when they thought they would and be able to give themselves permission to taper off and make some changes in how they're training and preparing," Wilson said.

Building better relationships

An advantage of missing out on international competition while border closures kept athletes based in New Zealand is 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 and often what you'll find is when athletes go overseas to tour or compete then 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 whether they're home or away."

More than an athlete

With overseas competition and training on hold for periods of time over the last year, Wilson said athletes had to figure out why they loved what they do 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 is potentially a little bit more fragile 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 said.

"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 an performance enhancer because when you get to perform the outcome doesn't define who you are as much because you have other things and you understand why you do it beyond getting that gold medal, so that's been something that's been interesting for us to observe over the last year."

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

The courage to step away

The welfare of New Zealand cricketers was thrust into the spotlight when White Ferns captain Sophie Devine took time out from the series against Australia for fatigue.

Unlike some other codes, cricketers had a busy schedule of games over the past year including domestic competitions and international tours by England and Australia to New Zealand this summer.

In a statement when Devine stepped away playing, New Zealand Cricket said: "after an extensive season...Sophie will look at how she can best balance her cricket commitments with the need to rest and recover over the coming days".

Devine did not return against Australia in an ODI series the visitors won on Saturday.

Devine is set to captain the Birmingham Phoenix in The Hundred in England in July and there is a potential White Ferns tour of England in September. Further down the track New Zealand will host the delayed Women's World Cup in February and March next year.

Wilson does not work with the White Ferns but recognised what it took for any high profile athlete to acknowledge when it was too much.

"Each athlete is really different and I think it takes a lot of courage to actually say 'I need some time'," Wilson said.

"When you're in the public arena and you're every decision or action you take is subject to judgment and commentary by others it takes a lot of courage to actually own those decisions to take a step back or completely retire.

"When you're in high performance sport I think it takes all of you to give yourself to that when some parts of you might not be as ready as other parts to really give to that."

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