3 Questions with a Mental Performance Consultant About Handling the Coronavirus Crisis

Ben Oliva is a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC) and licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). He specializes in training athletes and performers of all ages to maximize their potential by teaching evidence-based mental skills and techniques that apply both on and off the field.

He is the mental performance coach for Fordham University and New York University athletics, and also works with the Baylor football program and other NCAA teams.

Oliva answers three questions related to the coronavirus outbreak for FNF Coaches.

How can coaches serve as a calming influence for their players without downplaying the severity of the issue?

“Coaches can serve as a calming influence for their players without downplaying the severity of the issues by both acknowledging the true emotions they are feeling about the situation (like fear, anxiety, sadness, and frustration), while also modeling a poised response. Modeling is one of the strongest tools a coach has to teach players. Acknowledge that feeling stressed and upset about the situation makes sense, but also that feeling that way does not mean you need to ACT out of control or fall into the trap of ‘catastrophic thinking’. By acknowledging the emotion of the situation, coaches can connect with their players on a deeper level. With a deeper connection, coaches can then help players remain calm by showing them, through their own behavior, how it is possible to remain composed even in difficult moments. Of course, this requires the coach to have that skill themselves.”

In what ways can coaches set an example for how to behave during this period of quarantine and social distancing?

“Coaches can set an example for how to behave during this period of quarantine and social distancing by acting as a role model and a teacher. Coaches can help their athletes understand how and why social distancing is important for the greater good, and the moral value of putting others before yourself. Importantly, coaches can also show athletes how to avoid falling into the trap of complete isolation and putting life completely on hold. Coaches can talk to their athletes about setting up a daily routine to ‘come out of the quarantine better than you went in’. Physically, making time for exercise, even if you can’t get outside (push-ups, sit-ups, jump squats, stretching/yoga). Mentally, making time for a daily imagery or meditation practice, and/or journaling. Emotionally, making time each day to reach out to friends and family over video. Coaches should try to model this type of daily routine and encourage their athletes to make their own.”

What are some strategies for coaches/players when they start getting overwhelmed by the stories of the virus spreading?

“Strategies that help when getting overwhelmed by the stories of the virus are the same as the strategies that help when getting overwhelmed about anything. At most basic, it’s helpful to refocus on the things that you have control of in the present moment. That is much easier said than done, so here are a couple steps that can be helpful:

“First, recognize you are feeling overwhelmed and try to slow yourself down using diaphragmatic breathing (in through your nose about four seconds, out through your mouth about six seconds like you are blowing out the candles on a cake; your stomach should be expanding on the in-breath and contracting on the out-breath).

“Second, try to examine your thoughts and feelings by writing down the thoughts you are having and the sensations you are experiencing, for example:

“Thoughts: ‘Everything is falling apart.’ ‘I can’t handle this.’ ‘Things are never going to get better.’

“Feelings: Stressed – tight chest, tense muscles, racing thoughts, heart pounding, sweaty; Sad – tired, heavy, numb

“By turning towards your feelings you will be better able to address them and let them pass. Trying to ignore your feelings or push them away only makes them come back stronger.

“Third, try to refocus your attention back to the present-moment and back to the things in your control. You can do this by finding something to do in the present moment (work out, puzzle, read, call a friend), or sometimes it’s more helpful to look at the thoughts you wrote down and reframe or respond to them with more adaptive thoughts, which we sometimes call self-talk. ‘One thing at a time.’ ‘Everything has a beginning, middle, and end.’ If you are having trouble thinking of self-talk that is helpful for you, think about what a good friend or coach might tell you or what you might tell a friend of yours.”