As athletes, coaches and parents, we’re consistently striving to improve on- and off-the-ice, and to do that, we must learn from the situations we face and the mistakes we make. It seems only fitting then that, in the midst of hockey (and all sports) recovering from the COVID-19 shutdown, we look back to see what we can learn and how it can help make us better in the future.
For insight, we sat down with Dr. Aimee Custer, a clinical sports neuropsychologist at TRIA Orthopedic Center, who specializes in working with athletes dealing with time away from sport due to concussion. Dr. Custer’s expertise made her a go-to resource this past spring as thousands of athletes across every competitive level were forced to deal with the sudden loss of their sports and in many cases, the dreams attached to them.
“This year was my first year giving a presentation specifically on identity and self-esteem issues related to injury,” said Dr. Custer. “It was really sparked by COVID-19 and return to sport. The majority of my presentations briefly address these psychological concerns in relation to concussion, but now it has become the forefront.”
The connection between the psychological impact of injuries and COVID-19 may seem unusual, but the common theme is athletes are forced to cope with the abrupt loss of an activity that plays a major role in their identity.
“We all have different experiences of ‘self’ that we define in various ways, across different settings and different times,” said Dr. Custer. “When our experience of self is harmonious or valued at an equal level across settings, we’re able to have a strong sense of core worth. If a part of how we define ourselves is taken away by injury and that part was weighted too heavily, the loss of identity can be very challenging.
“This is the danger in only defining oneself as an athlete. When an athlete is pulled away from their sport, those who can identify themselves as students, friends, children or by other hobbies and interests cope better. Those that have really spent a lot of time defining themselves as an athlete, that is their main coping mechanism. When that is lost, we see a real challenge or a big impact. It presents as stress, anxiety or depression, but it’s really deeper than that. It’s a loss of self.”
Coping Is a Skill
One reason the COVID-19 pandemic has been so hard on mental health is it stripped people of key parts of their identity and their favorite coping mechanisms at the same time. The good news is most sports, including hockey, have resumed and that should have very positive benefits for athletes.
“Young athletes are facing challenges across various levels simultaneously; globally, academically, athletically, socially, even how their homes are being changed or set up for virtual learning and work.” said Dr. Custer. “These challenges create a lot of disruption in identity. Humans face challenges in one of two ways: they either try to escape or ignore the challenge or they embrace and face it head on. As sports return, there’s going to be an increased desired to use that as an escape, which may actually benefit them mentally and psychologically, particularly the adolescents that are facing a lot of challenges.”
While many hockey parents are starting to see the benefits of their kids being back in the rink already, there may be no better time than now to help your kids learn more coping skills.
“We find that those who face challenge head on, actually cope better,” said Dr. Custer, who recommends demonstrating support through action and communication. “Discussing the changes and challenges these athletes are facing is needed. Again, better to embrace, not ignore”
Dr. Custer also highlighted a few of the coping strategies she teaches her athletes, including “relaxation and visualization skills, positive self-talk, goal setting and preparation. These skills are transferable across settings and will not only help them be a better athlete, but also help them in life when facing other challenges or stress.”
The Benefits of Sport
There’s no shortage of research showing the multitude of benefits of participating in sports, many of which last far beyond when athletes stop competing, but the impact of their athletic experience isn’t always obvious to athletes trying to cope with the initial loss of sport.
“Many don’t realize they have generalized coping skills learned from their time in sport that can help them face other challenges in life,” said Dr. Custer, who also works extensively with retired professional athletes. “Athletes have a unique development of mental strength and ability to face adversity, loss and learn from failure; sometimes reminding them of these skills or applying them to a new context is all that’s needed.
“Athletes build resiliency and inner strength with participation in sport. Sports help them focus on values, goals, challenges, confront fears, embrace uncertainty, and understand importance of preparation, practice and teamwork. Sports teach athletes to see failure or loss as an opportunity to grow and learn. These are some of the concepts I discuss with the athletes I currently work with, especially with the rise in psychological distress I am seeing in my clinic with response to COVID-19. These types of skills are invaluable when dealing with the variety and depth of stress and uncertainty in today’s world. Sometimes it is just a matter of helping young players understand how to apply them off the ice.”
A Balanced Approach
No one can argue this pandemic has caused an extraordinary amount of pain and turmoil, but there have also been a few silver linings that may serve as important reminders.
Families having dinner together and weekends off; kids having time for free play or to discover new interests and activities. These are just a few examples, but the importance of them can’t be ignored.
“Going from season to season without a break, not only risks burnout, but it can increase the risk of imbalance in identity” said Dr. Custer. “We have to make sure athletes are having time to develop a wide range of skills and values by engaging in numerous rewarding activities.
“The development of sport specialization has increased pressure sources on youth athletes. We actually see more benefit in skill building and development with multi-sport athletes or involvement in other extra-curricular activities.”
Sports and training have so many positive impacts, but there is a tipping point where too much practice or competition can lead to negative effects. Knowing that line is different for each athlete, Dr. Custer encourages parents to, “literally have a discussion with your kids about their desire to play sports.”
“I’ve been surprised numerous times when I’m working with an athlete and their parents, and there’s an inaccurate belief that the athlete has to continue to XYZ to please the parent. Or if they don’t practice more or make a certain team, then they’re not going to be good enough. I’ve seen many parents surprised by these conversations in clinic. We can sometimes overlook things and think everyone is on the same page when they’re not.”