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Returning to play: Post Covid-19

As you're all aware during the first half of 2020 Covid-19 has changed the landscape of not just sport but the whole world, life is unlikely to go back to normal for a long-time, but what does this mean for the world of sport? We have already seen in Germany top-level football fixtures being played behind closed doors, players and staff socially distancing on the bench, socially distant celebrations, disenfecting of footballs, and wearing masks in the build-up to the game and on the bench, but what are these players thinking before, during, and after matches?

One possible emotion many sportsmen and women may be feeling on the return to play is anxiety. This anxiety may stem around when they will return to sport, returning to normal life, financial worries or the possibility of contracting Covid-19 once sport has returned. Within the UK football has been subject to much debate since the lockdown, lower leagues have been cancelled and voided, whereas the top leagues have been trying to restart to 'lift the nation', with 'Project restart' now confirmed to begin top-flight matches on the 17th June. Many top-level footballers have spoken out at how they were feeling uncomfortable returning to football with a number of managers suggesting they would not pressurise their players to return.

Sergio Aguero, Manchester City and Argentina striker said "The majority of players are scared because they have family, they have children, they have babies... When we go back, I imagine we will be very tense, we will be very careful and the moment someone feels ill, you will think, ‘What’s gone on there?’" (5).

Other player such as Glenn Murray and Antonio Rudiger have echoed similar feelings towards returning to football. Whilst, other senior footballers like Troy Deeney and N'Golo Kante requested not to return to training following the premier league's 'Project Restart' on 19th May due to concerns over the health and well-being of themselves and their families (1). But what is anxiety and how do we deal with it?


What is anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as a negative emotional state characterized by nervousness, worry, and apprehension and associated with activation or arousal of the body (4, 7). Across the psychological world there are many types of anxiety, some of the more common ones within the sporting field are:

  • Arousal: is a blend of physiological and psychological activity in a person, it refers to the intensity dimensions of motivation at a particular moment

  • Trait anxiety: is part of our personality, an acquired behavioural tendency or disposition that influences behaviour

  • State anxiety: refers to the ever-changing mood component

  • Cognitive state anxiety: the degree to which one worries or thinks negatively

  • Somatic state anxiety: moment-to-moment changes in physiological activation e.g. heart beating faster.

Despite these being common forms of anxiety (3, 7), Covid-19 is not a common virus and not something many sportsmen and women will have had to deal with before, if ever. So how do you prepare for something that you have no experience of dealing with before and thus generating a whole array of new emotions? One possible way is relating it to something else and comparing notes, but how can we do this?

One of the major worries of athletes returning to play is fear over the health and well-being of themselves and those around them and whether it is physically safe to play. Based on this is it possible one could very loosely relate returning to play following Covid-19 to returning to play following an injury, where ones anxiety may appear in regards to health risks of returning and whether they are capable of playing yet (8), similar worries in the current climate (I make this link very loosely and I am not directly comparing the current pandemic's importance to that of returning from an injury).


So how do we deal with it?

There are a number of ways we can deal with anxiety and the fear's associated with returning to play following Covid-19. It is important to note that this is not an extensive list with many people coping with anxieties in many different ways that may be more effective for them, but here are some ways you could possibly reduce your own or your athletes anxieties:

  • Develop confidence and perceptions of control: athletes with greater confidence in their performance ability and ability to cope with stress will likely experience less anxiety.

  • Foster a positive training environment: be positive, encouraging and sensitive towards the current situation. Enable your athletes to believe they are capable to meeting the situational demands through a positive environment.

  • Education about the return to play process: ensure everyone from the top-to-bottom is educated sufficiently about the specific return to play processes so they are confident in the systematic processes at play.

  • Foster social support: being connected and having a strong network of peers can improve mental well-being and reduce stress. What are you doing in the 'off-period' with your friends, teammates, and athletes to keep positive and connected?

  • Learn psychological coping skills: some important methods to consider are:

  • Goal-setting: Setting goals you want to achieve through this time can help improve confidence and motivation, ensure they are SMARTER (,6,7).

  • Imagery: Recreate previous positive events or create new ones to mentally prepare for performance, try the PETTLEP model shown below (2).

  • Positive self-talk: Using positive self-talk can help prevent negative thoughts as well as enhance performance. Try using the 6 steps below to help you improve your self-talk

  • Relaxation training: Using relaxation is a common way to reduce anxiety and stress. A key and regularly used technique is breathing control, try the technique below.

  • Pre-performance routines: Routines can be used prior to performance to enhance confidence and reduce anxiety, and may incorporate the above 4 techniques (for more info on all please see infographic below).

  • Think rationally: take into consideration the relevant viewpoints and information you have access to and arrive at a consistent conclusion on your feelings of returning to play.

The above bullet points and below infographic is by no means an extensive list of the ways to deal with anxiety but we hope it may offer some support and advice to those with struggling with the mental side of returning to playing post Covid-19.

Remember to speak out and seek advice if you are struggling as there is always someone who will want to listen and help!

Stay safe and take care!




  1. BBC Sport. (20th May, 2020). Watford's Adrian Mariappa confirms coronavirus; N’Golo Kante misses training.

  2. Ramsey, R., Cumming, J., Edwards, M. G., Williams, S., & Brunning, C. (2010). Examining the emotion aspect of PETTLEP-based imagery with penalty taking in soccer. Journal of Sport Behavior, 33(3), 295-314.

  3. Smith, R. E., Smoll, F. L., & Cumming, S. P. (2007). Effects of a motivational climate intervention for coaches on young athletes’ sport performance anxiety. Journal of sport and exercise psychology, 29(1), 39-59.

  4. Smith, R. E., Smoll, F. L., Cumming, S. P., & Grossbard, J. R. (2006). Measurement of multidimensional sport performance anxiety in children and adults: The Sport Anxiety Scale-2. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 28(4), 479-501.

  5. Telegraph Sport. (30th April. 2020). Sergio Aguero says players are 'scared' of playing football during coronavirus crisis.

  6. Wade, D. T. (2009). Goal setting in rehabilitation: an overview of what, why and how.

  7. Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. S. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Human Kinetics.

  8. Weiss, W., M. (N.D.) Mentally Preparing Athletes For Returning to Play Following Injury. Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

Image Credit

  • Shalke Players on the bench at Borussia Dortmund: Sky Sports

  • Sergio Aguero: Telegraph Sports

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