The number of pieces that need to be in place for football to return can be difficult to keep in mind. Testing, sterile environments, quarantine locations, suitability of venues, the scheduling of events, creating an atmosphere in an empty stadium. Each has its own difficulties, which impinge on others. But the most complex challenge of all may be the one players have to undertake themselves.
The assertive aspect of sports psychology – visualising goals, excluding doubt – is understood but last week the international players’ union, Fifpro, reported an increase in depression during lockdown. The former Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro, in assessing players’ condition, described people we often imagine to be unstoppable machines as “vulnerable”. The anxieties provoked by Covid-19 have inveigled their way into the lives of athletes just as much as they have the rest of us.
Footballers, particularly those in the Premier League, may also face a choice many of us do not. That is the question of how to return to work – work that requires forceful, physical contact – in the middle of a pandemic.
“The majority of players are scared because they have children and families,” said Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero. “They will be quite nervous and extra careful.” In describing the measures necessary to get games back on, the Brighton striker Glenn Murray said, “It is not going to be natural.” Simon Francis of Bournemouth put it bluntly: “There’s no doubt of the risks involved.”
The hurdle athletes have to clear psychologically to be ready to compete could be as difficult as any other challenge facing the game and for a number of reasons. “There is so much research going on about this right now,” says Matt Cunliffe, a performance psychologist in the department of life and sports sciences at the University of Greenwich. “There are a lot of people looking at the psychological effects of the pandemic on sporting performance but also psychological health and wellbeing. That’s because the situation is unprecedented, it’s completely new.”
What psychologists do know is that stress has an impact on performance. It leaves players more prone to falling ill and more prone to sustaining injury. It also impacts on the ability to recover
“If you don’t do rehab or prehab because of stress, that can have an impact”, Cunliffe says. “If you’re not hydrating, or your heart rate or blood pressure is high, it can impact on recovery. Stress has an impact on all that. It can also impact on decision-making, particularly during a match, like the decision to make a rash tackle.
“What stress is essentially doing is making your behaviours sub-optimal,”, Cunliffe adds, “which then impacts on the physiological. But we also know that stress, in particular psychological stress such as excessive training and performance demands, or stress on social relations, but also fear of infection – we know that it does impact on the immune system too.”
Teams are well versed in dealing with stress but not the kind that comes from fear of infection by a virus. “Uncertainty and uncontrollability are the key factors that cause stress,” says Martin Turner, a reader in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. “If you think about how athletes operate, especially in team sports, there’s been a drive to create an environment that is predictable. Everything is in place to maximise potential.
“In some aspects of training they will build in uncertainty to pressure but [Covid-19] is adding uncertainty into the environment per se. It is not a stress athletes are used to.”
Not only does the addition of a new stress have the effects that Cunliffe describes, it also impacts on the other messages coaches may want to pass on to players, according to Turner.
“This stress requires a different way of coping,” he says. “It requires a kind of emotional coping, for players to be able to tell themselves: ‘I’m in a safe environment, I trust the medical staff.’ But at the same time they have to try to maximise their potential in a less than ideal context. They have to ask themselves: ‘What can I do to maintain prowess and keep safe?’ Those two things could be opposing.”
The strength of any footballer lies in the team and the routes out of Covid-induced stress will be found through collective support, says Turner. “One thing about being in a team is camaraderie. The virus could be perceived as a unifier, a shared challenge. What you need is for a leader in the group to come into training with focus and confidence and display trust to staff, so that it can then ripple through to the team.”
Another irony of the current situation is that football often spreads its camaraderie through physical contact, not just in playing together but the hugs, head rubs and pranks that are part of squad building. That, too, is impossible right now.
The pandemic is unlike anything anyone has experienced before and that means that there is no guarantee that taking certain measures will lead to the outcome people want.
“I think anxiety is the right response in this situation,” Turner says. “Anxiety is there to tell us that things are not right in the environment. If a club was going back into [competition] and they weren’t anxious, that would be a concern.
“Accepting and recognising anxiety is key,” he adds. “Footballers are not going to let [the anxiety they are feeling] get into the public domain, which is a shame because I think it could help to normalise it. But, internally, they would do well to accept and recognise it. It’s about helping people to cope.”