Beyond COVID19: A strength-based approach to athlete mental health and well-being: Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre

Timing is everything in sport-this applies to athletes’ synchrony in their 1,600 day Olympic cycle, their seasonal, meso-cycle and micro-cycle. When timelines shift it takes a great deal of adaptation for athletes. Athletes adapt all the time and the life of an athlete typically involves multiple transitions due to team selection issues, injury or dual-career commitments. An international team of scientists, practitioner sport and exercise psychologists, clinical psychologists and leaders in the mental health sector tried to rapidly address the vacuum in advice for athletes to guide them and their service providers though these challenging times.

In a week we created a strength-based model which we foresaw would be appropriate for the majority of athletes based on our experiences de-briefing Olympic and Paralympic athletes and in mental health and resilience research more broadly. Time was critical and we disseminated our recommendations with the help of our research partner Mental Health Ireland the day before the announcement that the 2020 Tokyo Olympiad would be postponed on March 24th, 2020. Psychology should, if our evidence is sound, have utility in promoting mental health among athletes, and this was an opportunity to bridge a gap and translate science to impact under time pressure. RTE Brainstorm featured our athlete recommendations which eerily spell COVID: Connect-Outdoors-Visualize-Identify-Discover-Recover and it has been promoted by the Psychological Society of Ireland and the European Federation of Sport Psychology, FEPSAC. An interview on Al Jazeera news and coverage by The42 and a podcast with PESS MSc graduate sport psychology and medicine student Maire Treasa Ni Cheallaigh and support in dissemination from the Psychological Society of Ireland and BPS Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology (who endorsed our advice) are examples of our media coverage.

The model is outlined in the attached images and here I provide the rationale for some of the components of our framework. We were informed by the convoys of information on this topic moving down the internet superhighway. Discerning the wealth of resources was challenging and thankfully the Association of Applied Sport Psychology won the race to the market with a positively framed approach encompassing tips for athletes, coaches, parents and the sport community. They focused on the challenges of an emotional rollercoaster and the need for acceptance, social support via virtual connectivity, monitoring well-being and building upon the cohesion of the sporting community. We had experience developing public recommendations for green exercise and guidelines for the use of mental imagery in sport previously so we knew that it had to be include suggested actions, potential risks and be disseminated using effective communication tools. UL graduate of the MA Psych Cassie Murphy showed her infographic skills had been honed working on GOGREEN research proposals (we recommend Piktochart). Our output included a research brief with supporting evidence to substantiate the recommendations and provide guidance for practitioners.

One unique dimension in our guidelines was our second recommendation to go outdoors as physical activity in the outdoors, what we term green and blue natural spaces (e.g. in parks, beaches, etc.) is an obvious choice for many athletes to continue physical activity of some type despite the current challenge. Exercise in natural settings has additional benefits above gym-based activity and indoor training for many. Research in our most recent book on green exercise has established that the environmental conditions (e.g. good air quality and reduced noise pollution), presence of nature (e.g. tree canopy overhead and birdsong) and challenge of the activities (e.g. trail running) has both benefits and co-benefits beyond much of our typical sport activity in indoor or in hybrid settings (e.g. field game pitch). Amongst the benefits, exercise in natural environments helps to reduce anxiety – important in the current challenge – and also helps to improve mood and psychological well-being. Focusing on the natural scenery, such as hilltop views or the sounds of birds, can also distract from the physical sensations of effort and discomfort we often experience during exercise. The net result is that exercise can feel easier, more pleasant and more enjoyable in natural settings in comparison with indoors. The co-benefits are interesting too, as nature contact typically increases our connection to nature and increases empathy and group cohesion (e.g. after outdoor training people often share their memorable moments which is rare in gym-based activity). A caveat here is that going outdoors is not a choice for some of us even now in this challenge. Two alternatives exist here: 1. Train indoors on, for example, a bike trainer, with an indoor cycling app to provide a visual display of outdoor routes; 2. Use images of your prior experiences in nature to remind yourself of previous positive experiences and feelings (something psychologists call savoring). In our recent review of workplace based interventions, led by former PESS intern Susan Gritzka, this savouring approach was one of the most effective ways to boost positive mood. For example in this case our suggested actions was for athletes  find a range of outdoor spaces for physical activity and try to photograph images of the nature scenes for subsequent viewing. We included potential risks of outdoor activity based on the commensurate guidelines from the HSE to maintain physical distancing and try train at off-peak hours.

Our six point plan (CONNECT-OUTDOORS-VISUALIZE-IDENTIFY-DISCOVER- RECOVER) was a true collaborative effort with PESS graduates Dr Noel Brick (Ulster University), Dr. Clodagh Butler (University of Limerick), current doctoral student Jessie Barr MSc (IRC Doctoral Researcher and Sport Ireland Institute), PESS research associate Cassie Murphy MA with Aisling Doherty (Mental Health Ireland), Professor Andrew M. Lane (University of Wolverhampton), Dr Robert Morris (University of Stirling), Dr Eddie Murphy (University College Dublin), Martin Rogan (Mental Health Ireland). We continue to work on key initiative including a survey of elite athletes in Ireland and the UK shortly with a free webinar series to address the unique needs of athletes and their support staff. We will soon launch a research topic in the journal Frontiers in Psychology  section on Movement Science and Sport Psychology on this topic entitled: “The Implications of Covid-19 Pandemic on Sport.”


Brainstorm Article: How can elite athletes and players deal with coronavirus issues?


Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre ( is the Course Director of the graduate training programmes in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology at the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, University of Limerick, and coordinator of the Horizon 2020 project GO GREEN ROUTES on urban health and well-being at the Health Research Institute.  Follow Tadhg’s research on @Tadhgmacintyre or Researchgate  

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