S1E16 Sport Psychology and COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many of our routines and experiences, including those in the world of sports. Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss the suspension of fall 2020 sports in the NCAA, and the tremendous impact this has on student-athletes, coaches, staff, administration, and fans. Given that American culture is often defined by sport-identity, sport psychology has become more important than ever. Tune in to learn how this context may serve as a broader metaphor in learning how to navigate unexpected and difficult circumstances.




Pete: So today there are a lot of issues and some big revelations related to the world of sports psychology. Nikki, I know you're interested in this.

Nikki: I am and I think I'm going to be like one of the listeners today I'm going to be ‘chin in my hands’ asking you questions, because I am not a sports psychologist. Pete, you are a sports psychologist, so I'm really curious to hear what your thoughts are about everything going on.

Pete: Well, you know how I don't like identity, so I don't necessarily identify as a sports psychologist. I just happened to be a psychologist that works with athletes and high performers.

Nikki: Yes, that’s fair.

Pete: Which is why I think any real clinician psychologist can do the work that we do, but I will say that just my background in swimming and my history being around sports my entire life has definitely led me in this path.   

Nikki: Your passion too, for it. You love it.

Pete: I do love it. And really one of the things I love is just getting the opportunity to work with some really amazing people and, certainly motivating people and the work within the NCAA is also just so motivating. It's all of these really amazing kids. They’re kids, right? They're emerging adults.

Nikki: Yes, emerging adults.

Pete: And I do like that, so that's what I wanted. Today, and it is whatever date August 11,

Nikki: 2020

Pete: 2020, we're in a pandemic, still.

Nikki: We are.

Pete: And the big 10 announced today that it is going to cancel it's football season, which this is a really big deal. It's a roller coaster that we've all been riding, because each day, and each moment, we're getting new answers. There's been a ton of uncertainty; no one knowing what's going to happen. So just today, a couple hours ago, not even that this big 10, which is one of the first power five conference. So within the NCAA, there's the power five conferences, and this includes conferences that are large, and things like big 12, big 10, Pac 12, SEC. There's also like the ACC biggies.

Nikki: It’s like another alphabet soup, it's just like psychology.

Pete: There it is again. It is really alive. We're not going to go into that. But, there's this documentary called ‘The Scheme’, which is on HBO. And it was all about college basketball, and there's a lot of stuff that goes on there, because there's a lot of money. And basically, this decision has really been based. We're saying it's unsafety, and it is because we want the kids to be safe. And, there goes a beautiful dialectic; I know how much you like those.

Nikki: Love is the right word.

Pete: So yeah, it's billions of dollars,

Nikki: Wow.

Pete: Billions. And so that's a tough decision to make. If you're going to make this decision, you are saying “I'm going to lose at least 600 million or more dollars in revenue these upcoming three or four months”.

Nikki: Well, the first thing that comes into my mind, and I've definitely thought about this before, with professional sports, and college sports, of course, as well. The pressure on these, as you're saying, on these kids, on these emerging adults that I can't imagine what that must feel like to just have the weight of these powerful organizations, corporations.

Pete: Well, it's a lot of money at hand.

Nikki: That's lots of money. That's got to be really, I'm just really intense. I just can't imagine what that's like.

Pete: Well also add that with our race and power episode that we did, that’s a big part of this. That's where my passion lies, because there's a disproportionate match between coaches and admin and the athletes.

Nikki: Well, being that the coaches and admin tend to be white men,

Pete: Correct.

Nikki: Whereas the athletes tend to be men of colour or women of colour obviously,

Pete: Exactly. So that's another piece but I'm going to stand corrected, the big five, I think I mentioned them all. I think I added an extra one in there. Maybe I didn't actually ACC, big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC, and then the Big East. I'm involved with the big 10 and the Big East. And the Big East is the sixth. So it's a power conference for basketball, but they don't have football. So that's why it's not there. But anyway, so big 10 announced today, which Rutgers University that I'm associated with, is a part of that they will not be having a football season.

Nikki: So how are you beginning to think through the impact on all the people involved, the athletes, the coaches, the fans, what's going through your mind? This is where I'm like, it's so many moving parts, I'm very curious about this because again, have I have no experience in this world.

Pete: Well, I think it's like anything else in life where when there's uncertainty, and there's all this concern, you would expect, and it's like this pandemic, we're expecting, there's going to be an uptick in trauma, anxiety, just general mental health issues. I will say that as far as NCAA goes, these are emerging adults, and they are resilient. So let's just put that out there, resilience. Many of them are pragmatic. So those that I've talked to, and I've been working with have already been having this part of the conversation. I found an outdoor pool that I started to swim at a couple weeks ago. There's a couple of college swimmers that are there. So of course, they're like, “hey, you're old and you're not so slow, where did you swim?” It's like a language lingo?

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: But for them, I said to them, “Hey, what are you guys thinking about your winter season? Are you are you exploring this idea that you probably won't have a season?” And they're like, “totally”, one of the kids was like, “yeah, I'm actually thinking, maybe I'll take a leap year, and just go travel or go do something different for this year”. And I'm like, “that's really amazing”. That's making lemonade out of lemons.

Nikki: So if we kind of begin to weave in the eastern and the western, obviously, When East Meets West, there's a reason we call the podcast that, which refers to both the western behavioural science and eastern spiritual traditions, the first thing that I hear and what you're beginning to observe in these student athletes, is there's also emerging flexibility showing up, behavioural flexibility. And I'm wondering also, if that's something that you tend to focus on, just in general, in sports psychology, that's what I'm wondering too, with regards to resiliency or the things that they've already worked on, do you think that help them cope more effectively with this context?

Pete: Absolutely. And one of the things Gardner and Moore, they have this protocol called MAC, so another acronym, Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment, which is basically ACT for sports. So it's the same protocol, its values, its mindfulness. So yes, I think that a lot of the athletes, of course, if they're working with me, they're getting this mindfulness stuff. But some of them are getting it through their own religion, or spirituality. Not necessarily like a meditative practice, but where praying or finding something they connect with. But flexibility is a big piece, because really any race, any competition, you have to be flexible, because defence is going to throw you off, a referee or umpire might throw you off. So really, I think what makes the best performer is somebody who is flexible.

Nikki: What's interesting, because again, obviously not somebody, myself who practices sports psychology, or a sports psychologist, though, I end up using quite a lot of sports metaphors with patients. And I think, just for the exact reason that you're describing, there's flexibility, and mindful presence, that's kind of redundant, frankly, to say, mindful presence, but is such an integral part of playing sports, because you're having to respond without doing a lot of thinking. The overthinking, tell me if I'm wrong,

Pete: You're 100% right.

Nikki: Is going to get in the way. And I was a high school water polo player.

Pete: I was going to bring that in.

Nikki: I was. I was co-captain in my high school water polo team.

Pete: Well, that's like getting in the zone. That's mindful presence, so it’s not so redundant.

Nikki: Well, just to say mindful presence, I’m like, “Isn’t the definition of mindfulness to be present?”

Pete: You’re going to be flexible. But yeah, getting in the zone, is focusing, there's all these aspects of it that are about whatever the moment is, and you're going to miss a shot, you're going to miss a strikeout, these are all things that are going to happen at some point, you're going to drop a pass. So this mindfulness, acceptance and commitment focuses on that, and I think within the Western world to work on the behavioural flexibility, cognitive flexibility, psychological flexibility. And then the eastern stuff is about just the spirituality. So for example, with a football season being cancelled, many athletes are saying, “Well, God had this plan” or, some kind of finding the meaning. This is all out of our control. No one has said, “Hey, I hope we have a pandemic this year”.

Nikki: Right. And it's interesting, because I think that when. and again, just people that are listening that maybe aren't sports fans, or don't know anything about sport psychology, what Pete and I are talking about today, really, again, can represent how we respond to other situations in life, which is that when you can make meaning out of something and say, “this is what it means to me” or, “this is okay”, like, “this is God's plan” or “this is just a part of living on this planet and pandemics happen”. Okay, well how do I want to respond? It makes us feel more in control, because then we're focused on what we actually control which is our own behaviour.

Pete: Exactly. Our response to the situation. Right now, I can either pout and be angry. Or I can say, “Alright, now I got a couple months to get in shape better” which a lot of these athletes are in better shape than we’ll ever be anymore. I reflect on my eight-year old self with this, but some of the other divisions, so Division One is where the most money, but Division Two and Three within NCAA has already cancelled the season. Because they lose money sometimes in the sport, so for them, it was almost like a relief to be like, “okay, I can cancel the falls for now”. There's still no word about winter, which is like basketball, which is another big money-maker that decision has yet to be made. I wanted to throw in just for the listeners that the NBA so far seems to be the professional league that's handling this the best. So the NBA, what they did is they all went down to Disney World.

Nikki: Like they’re all contained together.

Pete: They’re content. So, so far medically speaking, that has shown to be the most effective in keeping the new exposures and the new, positive COVID test down, whereby the major, like baseball, not so great.

Nikki: Well, and of course it’s funny. Anyone that knows me knows I have a deep long term love for the Dodgers.

Pete: Yes, you do.

Nikki: Yes, and as is my family and so I was, of course very happy when Dodger games were going to be back on. But I'm also thinking a lot about, in terms of weaving in the spiritual lens that Dave Roberts, the manager of the Dodgers, one thing that he's kind of famous for is that they'll kind of describe him as very Zen in his approach to coaching, that he's very even keeled. It's sort of a theme and how he manages is that ‘okay, things are going to happen that we don't like, we keep going, we keep putting one foot in front of the other’. And, of course, I love the Dodgers, I love the vibe of the team. Obviously, it's a bias perspective being an Angeleno and a Dodger fan, but it really resonates with me, because it really speaks to a lot of what we do. Right. You just keep going, and you come back to focusing, from what I can tell, it seems like focusing on values, like values of teamwork and competition and supporting one another. And I'm imagining that for the Dodgers, that's probably serving them well, in navigating these unknown.

Pete: Hey Dodgers, If you’re listening Dr. Nikki might be available. We joke, but I'm sure they have a whole staff. Actually, what they've done really well is they've had a staff of performance psychologists, orange providers for many years. NBA just started that this last year, like last year is 2019. And the NFL has also been having that for a little bit. So I think one of the things you asked is about my approach. And so, it is about recognizing their resilience, celebrating their resilience, reassessing their values. Because this will be for some people, if it's their senior year, perhaps they're going to make a different decision, but that being said, some athletes were really reliant on a senior year within the NCAA, then to get drafted. We have no idea what's going to happen with Tokyo. It looks like it's not going to happen. I don't think they've made the official announcement yet.

Nikki: Well it comes back to this, in the pandemic I say to patients, “every week is like a million years”, so I mean summer of 2021 seems like 20 million years from now. So yeah, I don't think they know.

Pete: Well, to your point, it's like every day we have new decisions about if learning is virtual on campus, are they going to do this containment model, everything is changing. So with Tokyo, I think what I read recently was that if it cannot happen, summer 2021 it's going to be cancelled. So it's

Nikki: So the whole Olympics period.

Pete: They’re just going to skip that fourth year, and then they'll just wait until, I guess 2024. So for the Olympic sports, if you were waiting to go this summer, you're like ‘okay cool, I have another year’, but now it might be three. Which really, depending on the sports, for example in swimming, those two or three years, especially as a man, I might not be able to make it.

Nikki: That’s where, I’m guessing, radical acceptance comes in. If listeners haven't heard that term before, Pete and I use it a lot on the podcast. Radical acceptance really popularized, if I can speak accurately here by Dr. Tara Brach, and also in DBT, Dr. Marsha Linehan, I always kind of joke radical doesn't mean cool here, even though I do say radical as cool in my personal life, but it means with one's whole self, like holistically. In behaviourism, the term radical means consistency. And so radical acceptance, is this, with our whole being, accepting something that is unpleasant? And I can't imagine the training that goes into the Olympics.

Pete: It's hours and hours and hours. The NCAA says 20 hours per week, but really, it's probably 30 to 40.

Nikki: And that’s like physical, emotional, time.

Pete: I referenced ‘The Scheme’, and within the NCAA, California actually, Hey, West Coast. They're the first state that is approved that athletes within amateurism can get paid by third party companies. For example, if I’m a top athlete and Xbox wants to make a caricature of me, I can get money for that as an NCAA athlete, and California is the first state to pass that. And I'm excited about that, because again, within sport, billions and billions of dollars have been destroyed. So let's share the wealth. One other documentary is Michael Phelps, with HBO also had ‘The Weight of Gold’. And speaking about Olympic sports, I wanted to bring it in there again, because Big Five, NCAA, all this stuff is talking about money, but Olympic sports like track and field ice, skating, swimming, we don't get paid. And ‘The Weight of Gold’ is a documentary that explores how we do it for the passion, but then you can hardly afford to pay your bills. If you're like a member of the National Team, I think you get 11 $100 a month.

Nikki: I'm also curious what your thoughts are on this, Pete. Because I haven't watched the documentary yet. But I plan to, as I was reading, I think it's an article in The New York Times about it, and talking about how there's a quote that Michael Phelps says, like he couldn't see another suicide.

Pete: That's right. And there have been several, and so the mental health pieces, they interview athletes and some figure skaters and other sports, bobsledding, who they've tried to access mental health care, but that there was nobody there for them. And that, I got a little defensive watching and pissed, because I felt like ‘no, that's where my passion comes in’. Because we need to better serve. And again, I think some of the professional leagues are now starting to do it better, coaches are starting to get it. So I'm going to end on I'm going to end on this note about that, ‘We're going to make lemonade out of lemons in this sports psychology podcast here’. Because right now maybe we use this time to reassess and recreate systems to ensure that our athletes are receiving and have access to care that they need, because they're human too. And I think that that's the values piece that I always bring into my work that says you're more than just an athlete, you're more than just a student. You're more than just this like godly figure. You're human. So I leave you and I say let's find flexibility and hashtag we got this.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.