By Alexandria Olton

THESE are extraordinary times,” a phrase that has become commonplace in our everyday language due to the raging global pandemic. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it has found its way into the world of competitive sport, and aids in guiding how global sporting organisations plan and execute mega-sporting events such as the EPL, PGA tour, US Open, Olympics, World Cups etc. But what impact does spectator-less, mask-wearing, hand washing, PCR testing, non-contact competitions truly have on elite athletes’ psychological wellbeing and performance?

I was recently afforded the opportunity of accompanying the Trinidad and Tobago Men’s Futsal team, as a member of the technical staff, to their pre-competition camp in Costa Rica and Concacaf Futsal Championships in Guatemala. This opportunity provided me, as a sport psychologist, a first-hand look into what is required of athletes and their technical staff wishing to compete in times of Corona.

The uniqueness of the entire experience begins with the genesis of the team and technical staff only occurring three months before departure for Costa Rica. Keeping in mind that although most, if not all, of the athletes, are elite footballers, the game of futsal is very different; demanding faster footwork, more skilful passes, patience in a high-intensity environment, and capitalisation on every opportunity in the very small space in which the game takes place. Our incredible athletes and knowledgeable staff, however, immediately stepped up to the challenge and began their journey of learning and teaching on the road to Costa Rica and Guatemala. With “tight,” restrictions in place for national athletes training for competition, the potential of “a positive case” and uncertainty around how we might leave and return to Trinidad with a border closure, the resilience against adversity for the athletes, began at home.

From the day of departure and the ten days that followed we as a team entered a bubble. Every member of the team and technical staff were required to use more masks, more hand sanitiser, wash our hands, conduct more PCR tests and socially distance from everyone we encountered (including the teams we competed against), more than we had done for the entirety of the pandemic prior. The process was both anxiety-inducing and exhausting.

Concacaf introduced a strict “testing schedule,” that had to be adhered to in order to compete, this schedule required PCR nasal swab testing every two to three days including match days. When we sat for meals we were not able to sit as a team on one large table but instead sat in pairs (in keeping with our buddy system) on smaller tables to minimise risk. Every training session was strictly scheduled, and no team or staff member was allowed to come off the bus a second before the scheduled time. Paired with Guatemalan traffic that meant that we left at least an hour in advance and sat on the bus for anywhere between 15-45 minutes waiting for our allotted time slot while the sanitisation crew finished cleaning. For match days the strict schedules were the same. It seemed bizarre to walk past, at a safe distance, of course, other teams and technical staff and not be able to interact, say hello, shake a hand. Warm-ups before a game took place in a corridor as the court would have already been sanitised in preparation for the match, subs sat at an awkward distance apart with their sweat-laden masks, unable to discuss the goings-on of the game with their teammates and during half-time, you had to return to the locker room, no exceptions. At the end of each match you, “weren’t allowed,” to shake hands, as we have traditionally done with our opponents, instead engage in an outstretched elbow bump or hand gesture acknowledging their efforts.

Add to this all the “usual” stresses of competition for an athlete, outside of a pandemic, such as decision-making under pressure, leadership, skill execution, team communication, player attitude, pre-competition anxiety, coping with adversity…Are you tired yet? I certainly am and I didn’t even play.

The mental fortitude, commitment, talent, resilience, emotional agility, and adaptability demonstrated by both the players and staff on this team was, in keeping with my opening statement, extraordinary.

As a sport psychologist, it was a case study like no other and provided an understanding of the remarkable mental potential many of our TT athletes possess, if developed and stimulated in healthy and productive ways.

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