Finding the opportunities within

Dr Mike Wilkinson, Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee, takes a look at the opportunities to be found in the current situation for athletes and entourage members, and offers important advice on how to best return to regular training once COVID-19 restrictions are gradually removed.  

  • Dr Mike Wilkinson is the Chief Medical Officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee and Rowing Canada. 
  • He argues that the COVID-19 pandemic can be an opportunity for you to improve your mental resilience.  
  • He also advises athletes to maintain a routine, monitor their health and avoid jumping back into regular training too soon. 

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that the reaction to this period of uncertainty is different for each athlete, and that’s normal. Athletes were not only prepared for a year of training for Tokyo 2020; they also knew the start time for their race or event – and now it’s suddenly been moved.   

It’s about resetting those goals and acknowledging the different phases you’re likely to go through. You have that initial phase of heroism where everybody is offering to help and reaching out to the community, and then, depending on where you are in the world, you can end up in a phase of prolonged disillusionment or boredom, asking yourself how long it’s going to go on for.  

Different places in the world are opening up again at different times, and because of social media you end up with athletes becoming anxious seeing their competitors restarting training ahead of them. Dealing with that anxiety and its implications is going to be one of the bigger issues over the next month or two. 

A test of resilience 

Rather than worrying about peaking for the Games in July, the initial emphasis for the athletes during the pandemic was on trying to maintain their health. How do you prevent yourself from getting infected and, probably more importantly, infecting those who are vulnerable in your community  your parents, or your grandparents?   
In actual fact, there’s an opportunity here for mental resilience training.  All the aspects are there  there’s the unknown, the uncontrollable, the ever-changing scenario, the stress, the anxiety and the isolation. With the help of coaches and mentalperformance consultantsathletes can work on these aspects to takthem to the next level.  

There’s an opportunity here for mental resilience training.  All the aspects are there  there’s the unknown, the uncontrollable, the ever-changing scenario, the stress, the anxiety and the isolation. 

Athlete routines are planned by the second, every day, and it’s important that you help them maintain that routineWhere possible, maintain training times, waking times and eating times. We may not know when certain qualification events will be, but we do know that the Games will start on 23 July 2021, so focus on the smaller goals in the near future and things you can control. 

Remain vigilant of symptoms  

Another thing we can do is help athletes understand the science behind de-training, and the fact that, by maintaining a base, you can actually bounce back very quickly. Ensure your athletes get enough sleep and recovery time, and that their nutrition is up to par.  

As physicians, we always say that if you have a mild cold that’s above the neck, and there are no other symptoms – so no fever, tachycardia or myalgia – you can train. But with COVID-19 we need to be extra careful, meaning athletes need to do their own daily self-monitoring. Do a symptom check, monitor your temperature and be more cautious about training, particularly cardiovascular training, if you have any symptoms.  This is where linking up with team physicians and/or other entourage members is even more important.   

Avoiding illness and injuries when returning to training 

Looking across the world ahow things are developing, returning to normal training is going to be on a gradual basis. It’s likely to initially happen in groups of two, five, or less than ten, depending on the jurisdiction you’re in. There will still be physical distancing for a while, so you will need to manage sport-specific training while also minimising contact, whether that’s human contact or incidental contact with equipment. 

One of the dangers we’re going to see is that when the gates open and athletes are told they can go back to training, we have to be extremely careful they don’t get significant injuries from jumping back to where they thought they should be at this stage before COVID-19 

Ultimately, however, it’s about understanding that we’re all privileged to be in sport, and part of an incredible community of athletes, coaches, entourages, support networks and spectators. 

Nelson Mandela once said that sport has the ability to inspire the world and show light when there is despair, and I think that’s what we need to focus on – at the end of all this we will have the Games, which will hopefully be a symbol of what we can achieve together as we get through this. 

For more expert tips on dealing with COVID-19related anxiety, check out Dr Markus Rogan’s advice here