Johannesburg – The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s mental health, driving stress levels to levels never seen before, and elite athletes are not immune, many of them them facing a loss of motivation and a feeling of discouragement.
Several top athletes have even withdrawn from major sporting events, citing mental health issues as the reason.
This week, The Saturday Star sat down with some of South Africa’s top athletes to find out what impact the pandemic has had on their mental health and what they’re doing to stay mentally alert during testing times.
They stress the importance of speaking out about mental health issues.
Babalwa Latsha- Springbok Female Rugby Player
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on all aspects of life, especially as an athlete. We’ve been kept away from what we love for a while, and it has come at a cost in trying to reinvent ourselves and adapt while making sure we meet the required physical standards.
The biggest thing I have done to make sure I stay mentally alert has been to tap into my hobbies other than rugby and other passions. I developed a talent for writing and had one or two of my articles published in Cape Sport at Six. I did a lot of reading, a lot of soul-searching, and just reassessed my goals and dreams. Also, just take some time to meditate and take care of myself, so that when it’s time to get back into the bath, I’m at my best mentally.
I think it’s critically important that athletes speak out on issues that affect their mental health because naturally when you are an athlete you are elevated to a platform that allows you to have a large audience, and with that comes the responsibility of creating awareness of the critical issues that affect society and ourselves, and I think mental health issues are one of those issues.
It’s okay to be vulnerable and to ask for help and to have mental health issues, and talking about it is not a sign of weakness. If anything, it’s a sign of strength that you recognize that you need help, and that’s okay.
Sinalo Jafta – Woman wicket keeper Protea
I think I speak for many athletes that the hardest thing was just struggling to cope with it. I went from playing cricket every day, going to the gym, being unable to do anything. And the president said it would only be 21 days. But after the confinement was extended, I think that’s when it really affected me. It was an overwhelming feeling.
I didn’t do anything to stay mentally alert, to be honest. I think it wasn’t until we got back into play and I got my bearings in cricket that I started to wonder why I hadn’t done anything.
Everyone is so big on physical health, but we always neglect the mental part, and I think that was the hardest thing to adjust to.
I think the more we keep silent about issues like mental health, the more we cripple our growth. More and more athletes are coming out and asking for mental breaks, and I think that does wonders for your career as you start to identify the things that you need to tackle.
I am working with a psychologist now, and I think I really see the gaps. And working on it is a big step, but it must be taken.
Dricus Du Plessis – UFC middleweight and former EFC champion
The Covid-19 pandemic made me realize how lucky I am to have a healthy body and mind, and how much I enjoy my career as a professional athlete.
Not being able to fight for more than ten months really made me reevaluate everything and motivated me even more. It made me realize how much I love competition and never take my career for granted.
My performance was affected but in a positive way. I am ten times the athlete I was before the pandemic. I’ve had time to work on things that we don’t always get the chance to when you’re constantly preparing for a fight. My whole game has become more perfect. I could spend time on all the technical aspects, not worrying about being fit and ready for a fight.
I stayed mentally alert keeping an eye on the goal. The situation you find yourself in should never take your eyes off your main goal, and my main goal is to be the greatest fighter the world has ever known.
It is crucial that athletes speak out about mental health issues. Mental health and mental toughness are probably the most important thing in being an athlete. This game is 70% mental and 30% physical both are important, but if you are not mentally in the right space you can be the strongest, fittest and most skilled athlete in the world. , but you fall apart.
Bridgitte Hartley – Medalist at the London Olympic Games in K1 W 500m, South African sprint paddler, three-time Olympian
It was extremely difficult at first when the lockdown started as I was still training to re-qualify for the Tokyo Olympics training.
When they announced the postponement of the Games, it was a blow. There was no reason to wake up and train every day, and financially I had to find a job because focusing a few more months to be an SA athlete with little funding was no longer an issue. option. I started to hate being contacted by the media because it was already a very difficult time, and no one really understands unless you are in this situation.
Then I got a great online coaching job with Jeff Together, guiding people through training programs and eating habits, which was amazing.
But I struggled to sit at a desk most of the day. I tried to resume training, but ended up buying an ATV and enjoyed spending time with cycling groups in the Karkloof, and spent less time paddling as I didn’t didn’t want to.
I think it’s very important for us to talk about mental health issues because athletes are always seen as difficult people as we train at such a high level and push our bodies to the extreme. Admitting to mental health problems is considered a weakness. Many athletes will not talk about it until some of their role models have spoken.
But talking about it is not the solution. It is important to talk to the right person (s) so that athletes can be encouraged and guided in the right direction.
Jean-marc Johannes: Professional skateboarder
My performance was not negatively affected by the pandemic. I spent a lot more time training, both on and off the board.
I use the Nike training app to help me with my physical training and have a simple homemade rail that I used during the lockout to control my rail tricks.
Talking about mental health issues is as important as anything else in our sport. It is real, and if it is not talked about or recognized, it can have a long term detrimental effect.
Zane Waddell – SA swimmer. 11-time All-American in Alabama and world champion in the men’s 50-meter backstroke
The pandemic has had a huge impact on my mental health. It kept me from training and ultimately swimming for financial reasons. This prevented me from having adequate training and having access to training facilities.
I did a ton of meditation and breathing exercises. Meditation has helped me stay focused and ready.
It is extremely important that athletes speak out. It could be used as a source of encouragement, especially from an athlete with a large platform.
Keenan Horne – Protea Men’s Hockey Player
The hardest part of being a “professional” hockey player in South Africa is that you don’t get paid to play if you are based in South Africa. To really put in the necessary training and commitment, you sacrifice the start of your career outside of your sport and as a result you are essentially putting your life on the back burner.
I was incredibly lucky to play in the UK right before the pandemic and got home before the borders closed. The pandemic derailed my plans to return to Europe and make a living while preparing for the Tokyo Olympics. Since returning from the UK in April, I have spent about eight months training without any real competitive games. Fortunately, I have a huge support system that has always kept me mentally alert.
It is extremely important that athletes speak out about mental health. A lot is said about athletes in the media and social networks. They do their “job” with the whole world judging them. No one who does a normal office job has that kind of pressure or that kind of hype surrounding their every performance.
As the world waits for the headlines, the more athletes talk about how they feel, we will get a lot more support. We are people, entertaining and doing what we love. Not robots designed to be perfect.
Igeu Kabesa – Former EFC featherweight champion
Before the pandemic, my mental state was there. I woke up at four in the morning and started my training. I planned my schedule and worked hard at the gym because I was always in my office. When Covid-19 hit the gyms closed and all I could do was jog and workout at home, and it was tough.
My performance was definitely affected, and it showed in my last fight. To stay mentally and physically sharp, I asked my wife to join me in training and just be around me. My kids got involved too and we now train as a family. It is important that athletes talk about their mental state. We forget that we are also human, and it is important to talk about things and make sure that our minds are healthy.
Luthando Biko – Former EFC bantamweight champion
The pandemic prepared me mentally for more difficult situations because I lost loved ones. Two of my aunts and my uncle passed away, so that made me mentally stronger, and now I’m hungrier than ever to be successful.
I trained at home to stay focused and mentally sharp because I knew I would come back to the ring eventually, and I had to be prepared.
As athletes, we need to open up to anyone close to us whom we trust. When your mind isn’t in the right space, it shows in performance.
The Saturday Star