How to stay mentally and physically healthy as a female footballer during COVID-19

On top of the worry and stress of the global COVID-19 pandemic, many female footballers are also facing uncertainty about the future of their teams, leagues and careers. We spoke to Stephen Leckey, Director at Athlete Focused, about how you may be affected and what you can do to keep yourself healthy, both physically and mentally.

Woman ankles in trainers walking up steps

What kind of reactions would you expect to see from players due to the current COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting cancelling of leagues?

There will definitely be a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty can manifest in a lot of different ways and it’ll be a challenge to them as people. They’ve been known for a number of years as a footballer; what they do is they play football and they train. And now they’re not able to do either. So the first challenge to get through is physically not being able to train. That can kind of come across in frustration and worry, especially when you think about things like contracts and the future of careers. There’s a lot of uncertainty specifically for footballers, but also just based on the situation that we’re in with this pandemic.

I think what a lot of players will try and do is try and find some certainty in all of it but what I’d encourage them to do is to accept the uncertainty. There’s really not a lot you can do to change anything that we’re going through at the moment.

I think what a lot of players will try and do is try and find some certainty in all of it but what I’d encourage them to do is to accept the uncertainty.

There are definitely small things that you can do in terms of staying active and continuing to train. But in terms of those worries that you really have no control over like your contract, the loss of identity as a footballer or not being able to train or play, it’s not so much fighting against it, it’s more trying to accept it. That is difficult because uncertainty gives us worry, it gives us concerns, it gives us doubts. I would encourage players to think about that and accept the situation that they’re currently in. Rather than trying to search for certainty in it, look to work with it, accept the uncertainty and then shift your attention to more beneficial activities.

What are more beneficial activities for players at this time?

Think about staying active, get your sessions in once a day. Stay connected as a group; the great thing about football being a team sport is that there’s that social support around them whether it be coaches, support staff or other players. I think staying connected and building those relationships while in self-isolation is really important. Those activities also give structure to a day which is really important.

This time is an opportunity - now players may have more time than they’ve had previously, time they can use to try to do things that they’ve maybe always kind of put off, whether that be learning something new, reading that book they got for Christmas but never picked up, phoning that person that they haven’t spoken to in a long time.

There are lots of things that they can do and still move towards that kind of athlete and player that they want to be. It’s really important they understand that there’s still opportunity in this difficult situation.

Social media is one way to stay connected, but how much social media is a healthy amount?

I think it can be a bit of a double edged sword. On one side it’s certainly engaging and helps people stay connected. I know some of the Glasgow City girls that we work with have been putting things online which has given them a bit of structure and also keeps them connected to their teammates.

The darker side to social media at the minute is just the heightened uncertainty that it brings when you read something about, for example, how long something might last. Nobody really knows, so trying to search for some sort of answer and looking to social media to provide that answer can often just make things worse in terms of the worries or anxieties that you might have. It can certainly be overwhelming to read some of the things and hear some of the stories.

Trying to search for some sort of answer and looking to social media to provide that answer can often just make things worse in terms of the worries or anxieties that you might have.

I think it’s worth noting that social media’s got a part to play in the pandemic in terms of social support but it’s also got a dark side in terms of the amount of information you can access and what that can do to you and also just the time that you spend on it. It is a healthy activity, but certainly not one you should spend five or six hours a day on. That’s probably when it’s becoming unhealthy and maybe contributing to some of the stress or anxiety you might feel during a pandemic.

For many players sport is so much more than a career; it’s their life and often their coping mechanism. How can they deal with missing that?

A lot of people play sport because it takes them away from other things. Often when we play sport we’re really mindful. Mindfulness is a term we’ve all heard before, but during this time it’s even more important. It’s really important to stay in the present and not worry about what might happen or what has happened. Just do what’s in front of you. Spend time in your workouts, get present in your workout and just enjoy that feeling, enjoy the challenge that it brings; the physical challenge but also the mental side of it as well.

Even doing workouts will be still difficult, there will still be difficult thoughts to cope with. Things like ‘I don’t have the equipment’ or ‘This isn’t going to be the same’. In essence, we’ve just got to accept that. You might not have the equipment, it might not be the same, but I think it’s really important for players to understand what kind person they want to be and what sort of player they want to be and think about what that person or player would do in certain moments. Often they would do the session, they would make that trip to the park and go for that run, as difficult as it is and despite their mind telling them not to.

I think it’s really important for players to understand what kind person they want to be and what sort of player they want to be and think about what that person or player would do in certain moments.

All these thoughts around things not being the same or promising to do it tomorrow can get in the way of a player doing stuff that they actually really want to do. They want to be this committed, hard working, driven athlete, and part of that is doing these sessions.

I think a lot of people take up sport as a way of maybe coping with things, and I think certainly with the increase in stress that we’re feeling at the minute, staying active and completing sessions just allows people to get away from things and shift their attention to something that they enjoy.

Should players be looking to keep in touch with the game by football videos or using other football resources?

It’s certainly going to keep them engaged. I think you can see from social media a lot of people are doing a lot of things. I think it’s really important to feel that you don’t need to do as much as people may think you do. I know some professional teams have had work out plans and obviously staying in shape is important, but it’s important to acknowledge that the time we’re in is unprecedented. You’d hope that for most clubs, there is an expectation that it won’t be the same, that players won’t be able to spend as much time on their football, but that’s okay because it’s the time that we’re in and everyone’s experiencing that.

If players have that drive and willingness to want to engage and watch videos it’s certainly something that could be really useful. Even psychological techniques can be of use; imagery and imagining different parts or different scenarios in a football match and just sitting there and going through that imagery process is like training. That’s something that they can do through which they’re still moving towards that athlete they want to be.

All of this comes with the caveat of accepting that over the next few weeks it won’t be the same, you won’t get as much training done, you won’t get as much football work done, but that’s okay because what we’re facing at the minute is unprecedented and everyone’s in the same boat. So players might get difficult thoughts around needing to do this and needing to do that, but I would encourage them just to take a step back, think about things and see what they really need to do to be the person they want to be.

When we get to a point where training and matches can begin again will there be an adjustment period for players?

I think there’ll definitely be an adjustment period. Players have gone from that structure of training, to then being a bit more unstructured in their house, to then maybe developing a bit of a new structure at home, and will then go back to the old structure of training. There’ll be a lot of emotion and thoughts going with that, whether excitement or anxiety about going back and being part of the group again.

Players will experience a whole host of different thoughts and feelings and that will play a role in how they come back. I think most players will be excited to get back and knowing the kind of players that they are they’ll probably just jump back into it straight away and adopt the old training regime quite quickly.

What role do leaders, such as coaches and captains, have to play at this time?

I think they play a massive role. It comes down to a lot of leading by example and certainly trying to reach out and stay connected. In terms of staying connected, they can lead on that by running a quiz or just being active in the WhatsApp group. That may obviously be difficult for them too - they may have their own stuff going on and at times they may feel it’s a bit of a chore but as a leader they’ll put all that aside and think about what they need to do and do it.

They can lead by example with some of those activities I’ve spoken about including staying connected and remaining active and doing your workout sessions. It’s really important they also acknowledge this isn’t a time where athletes are going to make massive gains. This is something that we haven’t seen before, and leaders should be encouraging players to adopt a bit of self care – look after yourself and if that means having a chocolate bar, it means having a chocolate bar, that’s okay.

Leaders can lead by example with activities including staying connected and remaining active. They should be encouraging players to adopt a bit of self care.

Leaders can also post or highlight stuff away from football. The time that they had with friends and family or something that they read that was interesting, by sharing that stuff they’re not only looking after themselves but also showing the team the importance of doing so. Showing them that this time we’re in isn’t about doing three workouts a day and spending six hours watching video, it’s about keeping yourself going and staying positive. Coaches and captains can certainly lead on that in terms of the picture that they paint for other players to follow.

Are there any resources you’d recommend to players at this time?

Something I’ve mentioned throughout is just staying present. Mindfulness is gathering a lot of pace now in sport and there are some really helpful apps. The Smiling Mind app, for example, has a specific sport program. It’s specifically developed in cricket but there are some really good examples of how players can be mindful when stretching, or walking or just going about the day. Calm is another great mindfulness app. These apps will help you engage in the present moment both at the start of your day and throughout the day.

At Athlete Focused we ran a free sports psychology webinar which looked at an athlete’s values and how they can use them to allow them to do things during this difficult time. It’s important to realise what thoughts are guiding you, whether it’s boredom or distraction, and if those thoughts are going to allow you to be the person I want to be. The webinar is based on my research around mental toughness and using values to do mentally tough things.

That’s actually one area social media’s been great in: I see a lot of things on Twitter about free webinars and resources for athletes to access and I think it’s the perfect time to engage in some of those things that they haven’t engaged in previously, whether that’s nutrition, physiotherapy, training or psychology. There’s a real opportunity again for athletes to engage in support right now.

Follow Athlete Focused on Instagram at @athlete_focused on Twitter @athletefocused and on Facebook @athletefocused.