It has been a tough few months for athletes as the Covid-19 pandemic has forced them off the pitch and into isolation or restrictive lock-down, depending where in the Pan American region they are living.
It has been difficult both physically and mentally. For elite athletes, whether they are professional or not, a large amount of their daily routine involves training and match preparation. Without the incentive of matches or competitive training situations, it is difficult for many players to remain motivated to train to the same intensity as normal. With the Olympic Games, the Indoor World Cup, the Pan American Cup and the Junior Pan American Championships all on the horizon, there will be anxieties among players and coaches about preparing for these events.
It is all very well saying to athletes “get on with your own fitness at home”. Most athletes are used to being part of a larger training group, having access to equipment and guidance, and following a set routine. No matter how high your level of motivation, there comes a point when it is difficult to train effectively at home.
Mentally, the impact of Covid-19 has been felt among the athlete community. Many players have spoken about missing the interaction with team mates and the buzz of being part of something. This mirrors the feelings of isolation that many people across the wider population have been feeling as a result of prolonged lockdown. We are social animals and athletes, who are used to interacting with an extended group on a highly regular basis, are feeling the lack of contact very keenly.
Research carried out on behalf of the news and sporting website The Conversation revealed that athletes across all sports are likely to have experienced varying levels of stress and anxiety during lockdown. These range from low-level anxiety over loss of fitness, to depression and suicidal thoughts. A recent study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that one in six track and field athletes had reported suicidal thoughts in the past few months.
For hockey players, the anxieties range from concerns over selection and losing their place in the team, worry over funding, uncertainty about the future and the unease that accompanies such an upheaval to the daily routine. For the teams of Argentina men and women and Canada men, there has been the additional question of whether and when the Olympic Games will be going ahead. For some players, the plans for a swan song at the 2020 Olympics followed by retirement from the sport have had to be put on hold. For others, the pressures of selection loom ahead for another few months.
To find out how our athletes have been faring over lockdown we spoke to three stars of the game: Chile women’s captain Camila Caram, and Canadians Hannah Haughn and Scott Tupper.
“Coping with the mental challenges posed by lockdown has been the most difficult part,” says Camila Caram. “We want to be disciplined, and stay fit and healthy, but we have struggled mentally to stay sane. These are unprecedented times, some of us have not seen our families for months, those studying haven’t been able to go to university.
“So it has become a balancing act that we have to find ways to manage our lives, be disciplined, and train, and keep to the diet. On the other hand, it has been important to also give ourselves a break from being so disciplined, because that is yet another way to stay mentally healthy.”
The Chile squad, which has the Pan Am Cup in its sights, pulled together to overcome the challenges. The team bought some weightlifting material, which was shared around so the athletes could do meaningful training at home. The team’s physical training coach gave the players a plan, and the team would often train together online as a means of encouragement and togetherness.
Camila says sticking to a healthy diet also proved a challenge. Being stuck at home meant the kitchen was in easy reach. And, she explains, with less time spent training, there was a danger that the weight would creep up on the players.
Nothing replaces the work that the team does on a pitch together, but Camila says all the players dedicated a number of hours each day to stick skills and physical challenges to keep their hockey brains sharp. Camila says that many of the team also tried to get ahead with studies or work – something, she says with a smile, that does not usually get priority!
For Canada’s Hannah Haughn, a break from hockey came at a prescient moment, giving her a chance to deal with injuries as well as build up her core strength. “I've used the time away from hockey to focus on re-habilitating chronic injuries such as my plantar fasciitis, as well as working on my core stability, which always takes a back seat during busy training periods.”
For the 25-year-old, this is the first major break from the game in 18 years. She says she hasn’t picked up a stick since March, and although that has led to some low-level anxiety, generally she sees it as a positive.
“The last few years of Olympic qualifying preparation took a big toll on my physical and mental health. Thus, taking such a long break from hockey has had a silver lining as it has allowed me to take a step back from competitive sport and focus on other areas of my life, such as starting a Masters degree.”
While her battered body recovered from a tough year of competition, Hannah and her team mates made sure they kept their fitness levels well maintained. A daily training program, comprising aerobic and anaerobic exercise, helped the squad stay in shape. They also ran weight training sessions as a group via Zoom, which added a level of motivation and camaraderie to the training.
While much of the team is spread across Canada, in recent weeks Hannah and a few other teammates who also live in Vancouver, have been meeting up for long cycle rides. Hannah herself, has also discovered some new sports – kayaking, long distance running and mountain biking among them. It is, she says, the perfect way to reawaken her love for hockey and serves as reminder as to why the sport is so important.
“After playing for so long, hockey has become intertwined with my identity, so that has been a challenge to deal with. But I’ve come to realize there is so much in our lives right now that we can't control, so by practicing daily gratitude, by identifying positive things in my day, these have helped me stay positive during this period as well.
“I guess, what I miss most is the team and seeing everyone every day during trainings. We truly are a tight knit group, as we've been through so much. It has also been hard seeing other national teams start up training.
“Between restrictions and our current lack of a dedicated head coach, there hasn't been a whole lot of program updates for our group. However, I'm hopeful that we will be on the field in the coming weeks”
While both Chile and Canada women have the Pan American Cup as their first major international to look forward to, Canada men have a date in Tokyo.
When the world was first realizing the impact of the pandemic, it was the Canadian National Olympic Committee that took the courageous step of saying it would not send a team to the 2020 Games. Eventually, their decision was picked up by the IOC and the Games were moved to 2021, with Canada’s participation back on track. Although team selection is some way off, it would be a surprise if Scott Tupper were not on the Tokyo-bound plane.
The Canadian captain has represented his country more than 300 times and is renowned for his calm and unruffled approach to life. Like everything else that presents a challenge, Scott seems to be taking Covid-19 in his stride.
“I think for all of us, it’s just been about being flexible and, at times, creative. Whether it was putting together a workout in the yard or your living room, being able to adjust and get the most out of it has been important. It might not be lifting the typical weights we’re used to, but we’ve all been able to find ways to get value from training.
“For example, you can work on your ball control with just a few meters of space, so I, like a lot of players, have managed to maintain a touch on the ball at home. It’s not like being out on the field, but we are used to overcoming problems. Again, you make the best of it.”
For Scott, the secret lies in “not looking too far down the road”. He says the team will just refocus and make sure they are ready for the Olympic Games next year, but as he says, it could still all change because “life can change very fast these days.”