Q and A with the experts: The psychology of the return of major league sports

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Soccer player heads ball in empty stadium.

What is the mental toll of asking players and staff in major league sports to risk their lives for our entertainment?

We talked to sports mental performance consultant Wade Wilson in the Department of Kinesiology to help us understand some of the risks of convening the major leagues to play again.

Wade Wilson.What will returning look like for the majority of sport franchises?

Very different, if possible at all, given the current regulations and new cases being reported in the professional athlete population. If return to play resumes it will be without fans, which will be an adjustment for players as the energy and atmosphere will be minimal. It will look and feel very weird at the beginning, but athletes will adjust. For the fans watching from home, the experience probably won’t change that much.

What are the moral questions when it comes to these athletes and support staff being asked to risk their health to play again?

The risk is still too great, as we are seeing multiple cases being reported at the professional level already before getting back to play; this is just with training facilities. If this can’t be contained even before playing games, then – from a moral and health standpoint – professional sports are not an essential service and should not continue until a vaccine is ready. Athletes should be able to refuse unsafe work, and if the environment can’t be contained and guaranteed COVID-19 free, then players should not be penalized for choosing their health, their families’ health and their communities’ health over playing this season.

How will the new circumstances around returning to play affect the mental performance of these athletes?

It will be different for each athlete and the supports they surround themselves with. Mentally strong athletes will see this as something they will adjust to and will thrive and work with what they have. I would imagine that players and coaches are excited to get back to performing. But with that said, some athletes may experience anxiety or confidence issues by placing rigid expectations on themselves to get back to their top level after being away from competition for so long. Being patient with the adjustment period will be crucial.

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