Credit: Illustration by Ronan Lynam

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Not much has changed about Caroline Silby’s day-to-day routine. As a sports psychologist based in Montgomery County who counts the U.S. Figure Skating national team and elite youth athletes across the country among her clients, Silby is used to teleworking.

Except that, now, it’s her only option. Instead of occasionally flying to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is based, for a meeting, Silby relies on video conferencing apps. Her typical week involves hours of talking on FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, or whatever telehealth platform her clients use.

Because the sports world has shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes may not be able to physically train like they normally would. But sports psychologists like Silby believe now, perhaps more than ever, athletes can and should work on their mental fitness.

“I think everyone is trying to find their way, and certainly we’re encouraging people to talk about the worries and concerns that we all have,” she says. “In doing that, we’re also trying to cultivate some hope, because hope is one of the tools that helps us manage that primary emotion of fear. So that’s what we’re doing, and we’re trying to be as creative as we can in helping athletes to kind of have some safe places to talk about these things.”

In conversations with City Paper, three sports psychologists—Silby, Georgetown University’s Erica Force, and Stu Singer, the mental performance coach for the Washington Mystics—shared their thoughts on what athletes can do to stay mentally healthy and strong, lessons not only applicable to professionals and student athletes, but also to athletes of all levels.

Practice your ABCs.

Young athletes, particularly those in Gen Z (defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1997 and 2012), are constantly looking to other people for feedback, Silby says, meaning they need adults not for information, but for genuine and authentic connection. During the pandemic, athletic focus has shifted from results to relationships, according to Silby, and she believes it’s important for youth athletes to stay connected with each other and their coaches.

“One of the things that I’ve been seeing that I think is really interesting that I might not have thought about right off the bat is that these athletes are used to getting really direct feedback,” Silby says. “Because they’re able to see whether these actions and behaviors translate into performance. And they don’t have any of that kind of feedback right now.”

To combat that, Silby has been using “sticky messaging” with her athletes around mental training. One of those strategies is a “daily ABC,” which can be done by yourself or with other people. Sometimes Silby pairs up athletes or puts them in small groups over video conference. The premise, Silby explains, is to identify one thing you accept about yourself, choose one thing you believe about yourself, and then challenge yourself to do something 1 percent better.

“The challenge can be something in the literal outcome goal for the day, but it can also be something mental,” she says. “So attention, belief, persistence, patience, something about yourself, a quality that you could kind of work on and improve. But you can also do that for other people. So families can do it together and kind of define one thing I accept about you, one thing I believe about you, and one thing I challenge you to do.”

Silby also asks her athletes to think about five things they’re grateful for every day and gives them journal prompts to write about for five minutes a day each week.

Research shows that you get about a 25 percent boost of optimism when you express five daily gratitudes, things that you’re grateful for on a daily basis,” she says. “So we have them kind of monitor when they wake up and before their feet hit the floor, what are a couple things I’m grateful for?”

Reevaluate your goals.

Collegiate athletes, Force says, are really coping with a sense of loss. Not only have schools canceled some seasons altogether, but students have also been told that they need to move off campus, away from their friends and teammates. They are suddenly without a support group.

“A lot of their identity is wrapped up in being an athlete,” says Force, who joined Georgetown as the head of athletic counseling services last June. “Their schedules are packed between sport and school. And so it’s a very structured schedule, they’re very busy, a lot of time goes into their training for their sport, and to be told all of a sudden, and in a very abrupt way, that there’s no more sports and actually, ‘Go home. You can’t go to school anymore either.’ That’s a really big change. And so I think coping with that has been one of the main areas of focus … recognizing that this is a grief process and just learning to cope with all these emotions, and all of this change.”

Force, who is a registered sports psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Committee and served as the team sports psychologist for the Dallas Wings of the WNBA, recommends creating a daily routine with “purposeful activities.” That includes leaving time for fitness and taking breaks from schoolwork to do some “relaxation and mindfulness” exercises. Continue to interact with your teammates and coaches.

“Things like learning mindfulness, pre-performance routines, visualization, managing self talk, staying connected with their teams [are important],” Force says. “Holding each other accountable is another great strategy that I think can help with motivation and support in general or staying connected with their coaches.”

This can also be an important time for athletes to reevaluate their goals in sports by reflecting on their most recent sports season and performance, and list both what went well and what areas need improvement, Force says. As some athletes have reported, the mandatory time away has helped them better understand their relationship with their sports.

“I think practicing mental skills and just the ability to cope and focus on what’s in their control right now, not only will help them stay connected to their sport and perhaps improve their performance when they really get back to it, but it’s also going to help them cope with the current situation going on right now,” Force says.

‘Routines are massive during this.’

Athletes’ lives revolve around seasons, especially at the professional level.

“Routines and regimens really come first,” says Singer, who helped the Mystics win the 2019 WNBA championship as their mental performance coach. “I’ve been telling everyone—of course, I’m a little bit biased—there’s never been an opportunity to work on the mind like there is now. We’re always putting in so many hours physically, now at this point we [can’t].”

Because of that, working on mental strength is even more essential due to uncertainties surrounding sports, he adds.

Among the main challenges he sees in his athletes, regardless of the level, are sleep (Singer recommends eight to nine hours a night), maintaining a healthy routine, and staying motivated. When athletes don’t have to wake up early to be at the facility and don’t have a specific date to train toward, it can mess with their motivation.

Singer, who also works with the Wizards, recommends that athletes get things done earlier in the day to make sure important activities, like at-home training sessions, are not put off.

“I had a meeting [with the Mystics] a week ago. I said look, you’re adults, grown-ups, it’s not a demand, it’s a suggestion: If I’m you, I’m putting the stuff, the job duties of all this in the first half of my day, and I’m committing to that,” he says. “Get my workout in before lunch, if we’re doing any kind of video related stuff… Later in the day, you can go out for a walk with the dog. If you want to read, want to Netflix, all the other stuff is fine and good, actually. But don’t start doing that immediately because later can happen or maybe not happen. Try to create healthy routines. Routines are massive during this.” 

Specific exercises that Singer has his athletes do include mindful meditation, which he does for 10 minutes daily and defines as “non-judgemental awareness of the present moment, what’s happening now.” Find somewhere calm and quiet to sit with your own thoughts, or use a guided meditation app. “Focus on the sounds around you, focus on breathing, focus on body sensation,” he says. 

Singer believes that while not much separates what pro athletes like Mystics players need right now in terms of mental fitness from what other people need, professional athletes may feel more pressure to stay physically fit. Sports isn’t a hobby to them, but a job.

And while the team hasn’t done regular weekly sessions with Singer, he’s been doing individual check-ins with anyone who is interested. It gives him an opportunity to remind players of the importance of mental fitness and how they don’t need equipment or a court to train it.

“Now is the time for practice for the mind like you never have before, so use it,” Singer says. “It’s the one thing you do have some control over right now, because you don’t need special space. You don’t need anything to practice your mind. Everything is at your fingertips, and you have the time.”