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Sports Psychologist On The Advantages & Disadvantages Of The 2020 Toyko Olympic Delay

Fencing - Olympics: Day 2
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(L-R) Silver medalist Inna Deriglazova of Team ROC, gold medalist Lee Kiefer of Team United States, and bronze medalist Larisa Korobeynikova of Team ROC, pose on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's Foil Individual Fencing Gold Medal event on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Makuhari Messe Hall on July 25, 2021 in Chiba, Japan.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are now underway after a year-long delay due to the pandemic. For a group of elite athletes who plan their lives in four-year cycles, the delay has certainly posed challenges for them, staff and organizers of national governing bodies and teams.

The impact may have been positive, negative and neutral — but sports psychologist Barbara Meyer says it's not one size fit's all. She's also a professor in the department of rehab sciences and technology in the college of health sciences at UW-Milwaukee and the lead sports psychologist for the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia.

Meyer notes that the delay could have been positive for athletes who were carrying an injury last season, or perhaps the extra training time allowed them to physically or technically peak at a higher level.

"It depends on you as an individual, it depends on your sport, it depends on your country. So many different variables that can impact it," she says.

An elite athlete's life plans revolve around the Olympics, and a delay of the games could have meant a delay in retirement, going to school or starting a family. On the physical side, the delay could certainly be more negative for athletes in certain sports who need to practice in specific facilities or with teammates.

"If you're a marathon runner, the restrictions of the lockdown may have impacted you differently than if you are a swimmer," Meyer explains.

Since the coronavirus pandemic is a global event, some athletes could have a competitive advantage depending on where they train, according to Meyer. Countries like New Zealand and Australia have had some of the most restrictive COVID-19 policies, while the United States has more diverse environments to travel to if athletes need to train in multiple altitudes.

"In countries like that you may have had a competitive advantage, particularly if you didn't need to leave to see your coach," notes Meyer. "But countries that had those more restrictive lockdowns, I think you could see a disadvantage." She adds that countries have also rolled out the vaccine at different rates, impacting an athlete's ability to get back into their normal training environment.

A 2020 International Olympic Committee survey of more than 3,000 athletes worldwide found that 50% of respondents labeled “keeping myself motivated” as a major challenge and nearly a third said managing their mental health was difficult too. However, Meyer thinks that the athletes in Tokyo shouldn't have as big of a problem with motivation.

"I would suspect that motivation is not going to be an issue for them. Once the qualifications happened and they got their ticket stamped to go to Tokyo, I think they're motivated and ready to perform," she says.

Athletes are trained to compartmentalize and block out distractions to perform during a game, and Meyer says they've used this extra time to also strengthen and condition their minds. Just as athletes have adapted their workouts to be at home or virtually with their teammates, they've also trained more in mental visualization and imagery and stress reduction or concentration techniques.

"We really tried to find competitive advantages working on things that we might not typically get a chance to work on," notes Meyer.

One major difference of the Tokyo Olympics is the lack of spectators in the stands. While it will make for a different experience for fans of the games, Meyer says athletes have been dealing with this environment and lack of normal support for some time — from local little leagues to professional sports.

"I'm labeling this 'F-cubed': friends, family and fans," she says. "I think that has been good lead up and good practice to what they're facing in Tokyo because their friends and family can't come and watch them and there are few, if any, fans there... [so] getting back into that environment in Tokyo will be easier."

Meyer says that one of her athletes said the lack of spectators made the Olympics seem like, "Just another game, just another competition because they wouldn't normally get over-the-top support. And so this just seemed really normal, less stressful and she was more able to concentrate in that environment."

Meyer says there is another element of COVID anxiety, especially for athletes in a team sport. She says this goes beyond not knowing the long-term physical and health implications if you get the virus to continue elite participation in your sport. If you are identified as a close contact of someone who has the virus, your entire team may need to quarantine, which will impact your training and competition schedule.

Along with this anxiety is a greater sense of guilt if you do test positive, notes Meyer. "We're gonna see sort of that little contact tracing. I mean there's so much to keep an eye on in the pools and in the pitches, but there's also some of this background that's just unique. We're not used to seeing this in a competitive environment," she says.

With all these variables impacting the 2020 Olympics, Meyer has no doubt that there will be studies into the future of both athletic performance and mental health. "I think there will certainly be a lot of retrospective research conducted trying to identify the factors that certainly were contributors to people's ability to be successful so that we can keep doing those things in the future," she says.

Likewise, they'll look at what contributed to athletes and staff getting off-track to avoid them. For now, Meyer encourages being students of the game and cheering for the athletes who have waited so long to compete on the global stage.

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