Editor’s note: Second of a two-part series looking at the physical and mental toll of the abrupt stop to the NBA season, and what is needed for a return to play.
SALT LAKE CITY — Athletes, especially NBA players, are very socially connected. Even if they are natural introverts, there are always people around whether it be family, friends, teammates, coaches, training staff, doctors, entourages or fans.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, players have been isolated in a way they never have been before and that isolation, paired with the abrupt and prolonged disruption to the season, will present a whole new batch of mental and emotional issues in addition to the physical struggles they might be experiencing.
“It’s really similar to having a season-ending injury and for some a career-ending injury,” said Dr. Nicole Detling, owner of HeadStrong Consulting, and the mental performance coach with Real Salt Lake and the Utah Royals. “The problem is that it’s the whole league, and each individual will go through similar emotions as they would if they had a season-ending injury. They were fine and they were good one day, and the next day they weren’t.”
There is a whole range of emotions that every athlete, and every individual for that matter, is going to experience as they navigate through normal life coming to such an abrupt stop.
Detling said initially, most of the emotions felt will be negative ones, and she emphasizes that it’s completely OK to have those negative emotions.
“I tell athletes all the time that when you go through something traumatic, such as this; embrace the suck, but don’t get stuck in the suck,” she said. “In other words, this totally sucks. Let’s not try to pretend it doesn’t. Whatever emotion that you’re feeling is valid. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to punch, punch a pillow. Have outlets and allow yourself to experience emotions. If that’s something you can do on your own, great. If not, then get the help of a professional.”
“Have outlets and allow yourself to experience emotions. If that’s something you can do on your own, great. If not, then get the help of a professional.” — Dr. Nicole Detling
In addition to the range of emotions that will follow the suspension of the season, it’s not as if players can be around teammates in the same way they would if they had experienced a season-ending injury. One of the biggest challenges for the players is going to be finding ways to stay connected and keeping themselves from falling into loneliness rather than just being alone while isolated.
“We talk a lot about social distancing and I really wish they would have called that physical distancing,” Detling said. “I think that physically we need to stay apart from each other but socially we don’t.”
Many NBA players have already shown ways they are staying connected to people, whether through virtual group workouts, online gaming, or chatting and connecting with fans through social media. Detling strongly approves of all these resources and even notes that the competitive aspect to online gaming can keep the athletes engaged in a way that will be important when sports return to their lives.
But it’s not just the social or physical aspect of the suspended season that players will be contending with. Many players identify as athletes, and are having to work through what it means when sports is not a part of their life. From that standpoint, this can be a scary time, but also a great opportunity for self-reflection.
“One of the things that comes up when people are finishing their careers is this issue of identity,” said Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist and the founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, who is also the sports neurology consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers. “There can be a significant emotional toll and people will often go through periods of anxiety, periods of depression and increased stress because in part they’ve identified so long as an athlete that they kind of have to find a new way to frame themselves and a new narrative for themselves.”
There are things people can do to understand that their identity consists of more than just their athletic identity. Focusing on family and their role as a father, mother, brother or sister can be helpful. They might also embrace their role as a person who is looked up to by a community or as a mentor.
“It’s an opportunity for them to engage themselves in the context and framework of an identity that’s more than only an athlete,” Williams said. “Not to minimize the athletic aspect of things, but this is a reminder that they are more than just that.”
For a select few, instead of initially feeling negative emotions, Detling said that there will be athletes who are feeling a sense of relief, and that being self-aware is very important if that’s the case.
“The ones that feel some sense of relief might want to question themselves,” she said. “Is this something that they really want to continue when this is over?”
Once the initial emotions are recognized and dealt with, one of the top priorities for athletes will be creating as much of a routine as possible. Athletes, often more than most people, adhere to a strict routine and schedule that is often predetermined, and the lack of that predetermined schedule can have a profound psychological and emotional impact if there is no effort to try to recreate it.
“One of the things that we deal with in sports neurology is this whole idea of focus and concentration and speed of mental processing. When athletes are dialed in, in season, they are practicing cognitive aspects of competition on a daily basis. It’s hard to kind of turn that on and off.” — Dr. Vernon Williams
While a large part of that routine is going to focus on the physical aspect of their lives, there is still another part that is specific to athletes that will be important, according to Williams.
“One of the things that we deal with in sports neurology is this whole idea of focus and concentration and speed of mental processing,” he said. “When athletes are dialed in, in season, they are practicing cognitive aspects of competition on a daily basis. It’s hard to kind of turn that on and off. That’s one of the things that will be difficult, the idea of competition and how people approach that from a psychological and emotional standpoint.”
More and more in recent years, teams and players have reached out to sports psychologists and neurologists to help train their brains and increase their mental endurance. Again, that all usually comes while the world is operating as normal and there is an offseason, and regular intervals between games.
How is the idea of cognitive processing and focus on competition affected when there is no end, or in this case, a beginning in sight? We don’t know how long this hiatus for the NBA will last. So, how does that unknown affect the mental training of an athlete?
“The answer to that question is that we don’t know,” Williams said. “I would predict that the longer the stoppage is in place the more significant that issue is going to be. It takes time and mental energy and effort and practice and there are increasing options to train the brain in some way.”
With increasing options and resources available as well as continued research in sports psychology and neurology, both Detling and Williams are hopeful that athletes will see this downtime as an opportunity to increase their mental fortitude.
The NBA in particular has tried to shine a light on mental health more and more over the recent years, and Detling says it’s that kind of awareness that is leading athletes to understand they don’t have to be sick or have specific problems in order to get better.
Just as athletes practice and work on their physical games in order to get better, they are becoming more open to the idea of talking to people like her or Williams in order to become more mentally tough.
“Some people might even be better when they return if they use this downtime to increase that kind of mental training,” Williams said.
That’s the silver lining that might be most helpful for players to consider as they navigate how to adapt to this time without basketball. If they prepare properly and use this time, no matter how long it is, productively, they could come out of this better than they were when the sports world shut down.