Johannesburg — At the end of another tough year, elite athletes have certainly not been immune to the general challenges and frustrations caused by the ongoing Covid-19 uncertainty and a global playing field in flux.
Whether it’s been tennis star Naomi Osaka speaking openly about her mental health battles, or the Vodacom Bulls and Orlando Pirates having to shift training and match schedules at a moment’s notice as competition dates change overnight, mental health has now been in the spotlight of professional sport far more than in recent history.
Leading sports psychologist Dr Henning Gericke – who has been guiding the Vodacom Bulls through the current uncertainty in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship – believes that the individuals and teams who embrace their mental health journey and make it a priority are going to be the ones that succeed in 2022 and beyond.
“Mental health for sportsmen and women is perhaps now more important than ever. The degree in which we move away from just a pure performance focus and look after each other a bit more in that process is key. The current times are forcing this change in sport, and the sportsmen and teams that get it right now will be the winners,” says Dr Gericke, who has long worked with professional teams and athletes and who recently also had a session with another of Vodacom’s teams, Orlando Pirates, to help them find an edge in a challenging environment.
“The challenges for elite athletes at the moment is that they cannot have long-term goals because everything is so changeable. That’s a difficult thing for a highly driven individual to process. You have games and competitions being called off, so the situation is out of their control. It becomes a question of adaptability.”
But within this challenging environment, Dr Gericke says he’s noticed a paradox of performance that is highlighting the way forward for professional athletes.
“The paradox is that all of this uncertainty has made professional athletes more self-aware. They’ve done some introspection and realised they are more than just their training and match-day performances. They’re more than just their sport. I think they appreciate their health and their careers a bit more. That is valuable growth, and with that growth comes greater depth and meaning to what they do.
That brings with it a new level of creativity, and creativity is a powerful tool for a professional athlete to have in terms of finding new ways to excel. I noticed it at the Olympic Games this year. Suddenly we were seeing incredible performances despite limited training and competitive opportunities, and no fans in stadiums and so on. I think athletes have become more self-aware in these times, and the ones that have embraced this are the ones getting better.”
When it comes to the rugby and soccer players he works with, Dr Gericke advises them to do the one thing they all struggle with. “Let go. Become more flexible. The rigid athlete is the one who will struggle the most at the moment. It’s a process of self-awareness that needs to follow a pattern of focus, let go, focus, let go. The key here is controlling your energy with cycles of hard work and focus balanced by cycles of recovery and letting go. That’s how they will thrive in a changeable environment when suddenly venues changes, matches are taken away and so on. That’s the key to being able to perform in an uncertain world.
“I also advise them to find time in their day to just be still and meditate. There is so much noise out there at the moment, and professional athletes are not immune to this. I find they are under tremendous stress as they – like all of us – also worry about performance and finances and being able to support their families. I advise them to find space in their day to be still and reflect. It’s realising that you can’t change this situation, but you can change in this situation.”
Dr Gericke says he’s also noticing far more sportsmen and women speaking up about mental health, which he believes is a good thing that should be encouraged in team environments.
“People are not as connected as we used to be, so the ways in which we can stay connected with each other emotionally are vital. An athlete that is connected to the whole – mind, body and spirit – will be successful. In team environments, this comes down to the team culture. I’ve encouraged teams to develop a buddy system where players know they have another player to talk to. The senior players in a team are key in this process. If they talk about themes they are feeling, suddenly the younger players realise they’re not alone in feeling what they’re feeling. This process is so much more powerful when it comes from within and from the players themselves rather than from an outside source telling them. For this reason I’d really encourage teams to dedicate half an hour a week at least to mental health.”
As difficult as the past few years have been, Dr Gericke believes the situation could be moulding an entirely new professional athlete capable of far more than he or she believed.
“The self-awareness that’s coming out of this situation is very powerful for those who realise it. Realising that you’re not just a player who performs, you’re not just doing, but you’re also being. Being connected to that whole rather than just the parts is the key for elite athletes.
“The world is neurotic at the moment. These are tough and unnatural times. People are trying to find so many ways to understand life and find their meaning. Athletes are no different. But if you don’t start thinking differently, you’re going to suffer. In disrupting times, they need to disrupt themselves in order to move forward. Their careers cannot just be about planning and performance anymore, because this changes on a whim. Now more than ever, elite athletes must look within themselves and understand the why of what they’re doing.
“I believe implicitly that the athletes and teams that get this right will be the winners in the next few years.”