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How athletes can lead the community through the pandemic

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Roar Guru
24th April, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge the global community in the way we function and connect in this time of social distancing.

The impact of the virus has not only affected the physical health of individuals but also the mental state of a society, which finds itself forced to stay at home.

Sporting codes and the many athletes that have been forced to pause their seasons are not immune to the effects of mental health during this time.

The Professional Footballers Australia surveyed over 150 members since the suspension came into effect with 58 per cent of players reporting symptoms of anxiety while 45 per cent demonstrated symptoms of depression.

Athletes are now having to reshape their identity, which is coded through the ability to be able to stay fit and healthy in the pursuit of individual and team goals. This role has now been drastically changed, which can leave many athletes vulnerable.

“When you’re not doing what you are known for, not achieving the goals you set for yourself, what value do you have?” former England rugby player Jonny Wilkinson once said.

“My whole identity used to be through rugby, so as soon as you cut the rugby, you have no identity left.”

Jonny Wilkinson kicks the drop-goal which won the 2003 World Cup

(David Davies / PA via AP, FILE)


The commitment to become an elite athlete requires a single-mindedness and becoming role-engulfed. The ability to create a multidimensional being is sacrificed.

“Often there are players who have only football as a way of expressing themselves and never develop other interests,” noted French football legend Eric Cantona.

The importance of the team ethos, which connects many athletes each week, has now been lost through self-isolation where the team camaraderie no longer exists.

“Players are used to being surrounded by people on a daily basis and there really isn’t substitute for that,” the PFA’s Beau Busch said.

The physical and technical components of an athlete’s make-up usually exceed the work they are willing to put into their mental skills and interests outside of the sporting code they compete in.

What this pandemic has emphasised is the hollow make-up of many athletes, which is usually emphasised in retirement when sport no longer holds them up. Just look at Ben Cousins.

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The inability of many athletes to create a real meaning and purpose throughout their sporting career is something psychotherapist Viktor Frankl emphasised in Man’s Search For Meaning.

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself,” he wrote.

The ability to develop more rounded athletes to be able to cope with life after sport has been looked at by all codes where players are encouraged to involve themselves within community projects and plan for life after sport.

COVID-19 has accelerated this process, regardless of when codes decide to return to the field as athletes have found themselves in any empty space where they are having to spend time exploring their own self.

This sense of emptiness has been filled by athletes who have been willing to step outside their own cocooned existence. This has included former AFL players Tadhg Kennelly and Kieren Jack, who have been helping and volunteering down at Addison Road in Sydney’s inner west in support of the #playforlives campaign, which has been headed up by former Socceroo Craig Foster to help local communities and charities in these testing times.

Craig Foster addresses journalists in Thailand.

(AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)


The ability of athletes to step outside their sporting environment and contribute to society through other avenues at times differentiates the truly elite athletes and coaches.

The All Blacks, who are one of the most successful sporting teams in history, emphasise the importance of leaving the jersey in better state and creating a culture, which has the emotional power to shape behaviour well after players have left the All Blacks’ establishment.

This is a testing time and athletes like the rest of society have been affected financially as well as having to grasp the concept of a social-distance society.

A time like this though can create new opportunities where athletes have the ability to connect with individuals and communities that they may not commonly cross paths with. This in turn can cut through the social disconnection many athletes are feeling and help with many of the mental-health challenges society is facing at large.

The ability to help someone less fortunate and focusing on more than the self has the power to create better people, which in turn creates better leaders, which at a time like this is much needed.