Sport Resolutions board member and former Olympic swimmer Lizzie Simmonds writes about some of the challenges that athletes have faced over the past few months, particularly from the perspective of Olympic/Paralympic sportswomen and men.
Adapting to the Postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the world of elite sport, but it has been particularly challenging for athletes who compete in Olympic and Paralympic sports. Whilst events such as Wimbledon, the Tour de France and Champions League give competitors the opportunity to battle for victory every year, the Olympic and Paralympic Games sit in a quadrennial cycle. There are of course, other opportunities to participate at an international level—World, European and Commonwealth meets, but the Olympics is seen as the pinnacle for most qualifying sports. In essence, many of the athletes preparing for Tokyo 2020 had been training for four years to compete this summer.
By the time the pandemic really took hold here in the UK, athletes across the country were in the midst of selection season, fine tuning training and competition plans, ready to step up and perform for their place on Team GB. When the first rumour went around that Tokyo 2020 may be cancelled, the initial reaction was disbelief—it seemed wholly inconceivable for such a major Games to just disappear from the competition calendar. What followed for most athletes was a couple of weeks of significant stress—the nation appeared to be preparing for impending lockdown doom, whilst this summer’s hopefuls tried to carry on with their sporting preparation as best they could. Finally, after mounting pressure from the world of sport, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announced that both Games would be postponed by one year; a decision that was met with an audible sigh of relief from a plethora of athletes who were starting to panic at the thought of having to choose between their societal obligation to follow official guidance, and the pursuance of their Olympic dreams.
Although far from ideal to have such a major event postponed, it was quickly acknowledged that a global health crisis was of far greater importance than sport, and that everyone, athletes included, would be required to play their part in controlling the pandemic. Since March 23rd, the first day of official lockdown here in the UK, the nation’s athletes have been on an interesting journey. Below are some of the challenges that sportsmen and women have faced over the past few months, and the ways in which they’ve managed to adapt to what is turning into an extraordinary year.
Stroke of luck or stroke of misfortune?
For some, the decision to delay the Games this summer will have come as a relief. Those battling injury will no doubt find the extra time to rehab and recover a blessing, although not having access to physios and doctors will have presented their own challenges. Young athletes too, who weren’t quite ready to make their mark, now have an extra year to prepare for the big stage. For other athletes, the postponement will be more difficult to process. There is always a cohort who plan to retire after a major Games and an extra year could prove testing, both physically and mentally. I have no doubt that we’ll see athletes on the team next summer who wouldn’t have qualified this year, and there will be some for whom the additional 12 months will prove a step too far. Whatever the circumstances of an individual athlete, it’s safe to say that this is an unprecedented experience for all.
Mindset & motivation
In general, sportsmen and women have a reputation of being highly adept at preparing for and managing pressure; how to respond optimally when the dial is turned up to max. In fact, much of an athlete’s training is spent trying to replicate (physically and mentally) the conditions under which they’ll have to perform, so that their actions under pressure are practised and automated. Athletes spend their lives outside their comfort zone, so that dealing with whatever race day throws at them will be well within their capabilities.
Adversity is no stranger to an elite athlete. However, the preparations that athletes make are usually within a predictable context; injuries, game day changes, poor weather, a delay to the start of a race, a rip in your race suit or even forgetting your goggles. But I sincerely doubt that most athletes had a pandemic on their list of challenges to overcome this season.
For most people, the first few weeks of lockdown were a little surreal. I think this sentiment was shared by the athlete community, particularly those who were rested and ready to compete at the Olympic trials or other mid-season competitions. It’s hard to imagine the mental impact on competitors who, in the shape of their lives, became effectively housebound overnight (bar one permitted daily trip to the supermarket). No opportunity to realise their potential this season. No chance to see four years of hard training pay off. No possibility to contest for victory on the world stage. 2020—a year of great sporting feats that would never materialise.
Yet athletes across the nation (and across the world) responded to the circumstances and demonstrated just why they have a reputation for being resilient. Whilst I don’t doubt there was a significant amount of frustration at the anti-climactic turn of events, and grief at the loss of a year of dreams, it’s been inspirational to see athletes adapt mentally to the sudden shift in training and competition goals. Hashtags switched almost seamlessly from #Tokyo2020 to #Tokyo2021 and it seemed like many athletes followed suit with the reapplication of their goals.
The three-month lockdown brought a new set of challenges from a practical perspective. With facilities closed, and zero physical contact allowed with teammates or coaches, athletes, like the rest of the nation, were expected to work out at home. Whilst anyone with an existing home gym or Watt bike had an initial advantage, the others weren’t far behind. Over the course of this lockdown period we’ve seen an ingenious assortment of home training arrangements including gymnasts doing upper body strength worth using the beams of a horse stable, and swimmers having ‘endless’ pools (water tanks with a powered jet to swim against) craned into their gardens. With gyms closed across the country, lifting equipment was suddenly at a premium—for those that couldn’t access the real deal, sandbags, tractor tyres and rudimentary weights fashioned from metal bars and buckets of cement made do.
This creative approach to training had a knock-on effect too—inspiring the nation to work out and get fit at home. During ‘normal’ times, it’s easy to see elite athletes as supreme beings, training in unattainable ways in high-tech institutes, with the latest equipment and a team of support around them. COVID-19 has acted as a bit of a leveller and seeing athletes working out in their gardens and living rooms has made them seem more human and perhaps more accessible to the general public.
Communication & support
As in most industries, communication between sports teams has had to migrate to a virtual space. Many athletes have been training ‘together’ through video conferencing, with coaches and performance staff leading sessions, adjusting technique and giving encouragement behind respective screens. This is certainly no replacement for in-person training, but it’s gone a long way to maintain the important sense of team purpose and direction. I know that many training groups have also been investing time into social connections with team quizzes, cook-alongs and gaming nights. Whilst athletes are familiar with demanding excellence from themselves and others, there is currently a recognition that a pandemic is unchartered territory and there remains a need to check in on each other both in formal training capacity, and from a mental wellbeing perspective.
This has been echoed by the support provided by key stakeholders and national governing bodies. The support network within elite sport is extensive and comprehensive, but it is geared around performance first and foremost. It’s been great to see this infrastructure also adapt to the challenges of COVID-19 and provide athletes with extra space and assistance as they attempt to process the unusual journey that this year has taken them on. Whilst many athletes are managing to navigate the shift in events, some will have struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation over the last few months, or concerns about their own health or the wellbeing of loved ones. The priority for sports going forwards is to ensure their athletes are supported both physically and mentally throughout the reintroduction to the season.
One of the few upsides of the pandemic is that it has given athletes time to take a step back from their fast-paced commitments, to reflect on past achievements, and think forwards to pastures new. I know a number of athletes have used this time proactively, to consider their futures and develop other skillsets alongside sport. Whilst the passion to achieve greatness is still there, I hope that COVID-19 has also offered some perspective and given athletes a little nudge towards developing and nurturing an identity that extends beyond their sporting capabilities.
Most elite athletes have returned to some form of official training, albeit under strict social distancing rules and restrictions. Over the next few months this looks set to be relaxed further as the UK continues to control and contain the pandemic. Ten weeks is a long time away from training, particularly for sports like swimming and diving, which are difficult to replicate if you’re locked down without a pool! For some, ten weeks will be the longest they have ever spent away from their sport.
Whilst I’m sure the reintroduction of training was welcomed by the athlete community, there are still challenges ahead. Understandably impatient to get back into shape, athletes will need to be cautious to avoid injury in bodies that have deconditioned slightly over the last few months. The competition season ahead is still largely at the whim of an unpredictable virus, leading to extra pressure on sports and selectors who are expected to give athletes clarity on how and when they can qualify for the Games. There will also be mental challenges for many athletes who, expecting to compete on the greatest stage this season, are now faced with the prospect of a long summer followed by another block of gruelling winter training. The end, which was so firmly in sight, now seems a little blurry. Those considering retirement have a big decision to make—push on for another year, or stick with the original plan and call it quits this summer.
And all this, of course, hinges on the fact that there isn’t 100% certainty that the Games will go ahead in its planned guise next year either. The ability to ensure the safety and security of thousands of multi-national athletes and spectators is largely dependent on the manifestation of the virus over time and, hopefully, the arrival of a vaccine that is accessible to all. There are a lot of unknowns ahead for athletes and sport in general. What is certain, is that if the Olympics and Paralympics do go ahead next year, they will be one of the greatest shows of unity and humanity seen in recent times.
Lizzie SimmondsFormer Olympic Swimmer
Lizzie’s background is in elite sport, where she enjoyed a long career as an international swimmer, securing medals at Commonwealth, European and World Championship level. Lizzie also competed for Team GB at two Olympic Games, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, where she finished sixth and fourth respectively.
Lizzie retired from professional competition in 2018, but still holds influence within the sporting sphere, and is passionate about supporting fellow athletes throughout and beyond their sporting careers. She is current Vice Chair of the British Olympic Association’s Athletes’ Commission, and a Non-Executive Director on the board of the British Athletes Commission. Both roles include bringing athlete perspective and expertise to the core of British sport.
Lizzie also occupies a number of roles within the business world and has found natural synergy transferring the systems and habits of elite sports performers to the corporate arena. Alongside consulting on performance focuses, Lizzie takes an additional interest in health and wellbeing, and enjoys challenging audiences to find ways of prioritising their own physical and mental health.
Lizzie has a particular passion for writing and runs a blog sharing her experiences of transitioning out of sport into the 'real world’.
Lizzie Simmonds represents the British Athletes Commission on the Sport Resolutions Board.