On the Sidelines: Athletes and Mental Health During COVID

Athlete's Mental Health | GoodTherapy | BlogThe COVID-19 crisis has sidelined millions of athletes, from professionals to high school students to weekend warriors. Athletes have lost their primary source of mental wellness, their sport. As a therapist who works with athletes, I know how important sports and exercise are for mental health. So far 2020 has been a brutal year for sports, but with some creative strategies, athletes can get back in the game.


In March, college basketball was halted in its tracks. Next, the Boston Marathon was called off for the first time in its 124 year history. Then the Olympics was postponed until 2021. Like falling dominoes, the event after the event was canceled. At first, athletes were disappointed, but hopeful. Maybe their seasons would resume later in the year, they thought. But the precedent had already been set: 2020 was to be the year of canceled sports. Reality hit, and with it came a profound sense of loss.


Sports connects people in deep and personal ways, and for many athletes, sports is their identity. When something this powerful is taken away, it’s traumatic, almost like a death. Grief can be caused by any kind of loss. In her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross breaks down grief into stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Athletes right now may be experiencing any one of these stages of grief. Left unaddressed, these feelings can lead to more serious mental health problems.


Mental health professionals are noticing increased anxiety and depression among athletes. Referrals for counseling have increased, and athletes are reporting overall declines in measures related to the quality of life.

Coaches are concerned about their athletes too, especially children and teens. Lack of routine and isolation from peers can be devastating for a young person who hasn’t yet developed the coping abilities of an adult.

Even superstar athletes are not immune to the psychological effects of COVID. Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who has struggled with depression, said in a recent interview that the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for him emotionally.

Another concerning trend is substance use. Since March of this year, alcohol use and drug overdoses have increased at alarming rates in the overall U.S. population. Athletes, absent their normal routines, could turn to substances to ease their stress.


While prospects look dim for sports returning anytime soon, athletes can adapt and make the best of a bad situation.

The great Michael Jordan can serve as an example. In his second season in the NBA, Jordan missed 64 games due to a foot injury. He desperately wanted to play, but his coaches said no. Instead of sulking, Jordan hit the weight room. He adapted and came back stronger than ever.

Athletes can adapt, and so can sports franchises and teams. Major League Baseball adapted. Instead of scrapping the entire season, they instituted a modified schedule with no fans. Not ideal, but better than nothing.

The New York City Marathon also adapted. This year it’s a virtual race. In the fall runners will complete the 26.2 miles alone in their local area and submit their official times. For athletes and teams, 2020 is the year to pivot and get creative. A positive, can-do approach is what’s needed.


Even with a positive attitude, athletes can get discouraged. Here are some strategies for athletes (and non-athletes) to boost their mental game during this unprecedented time.

  • Have a routine.
    Athletes accustomed to showing up for regular practice now have to create their own structure. Working out at the same time every day is key. This creates a sense of control, which can ease anxiety.
  • Mix it up.
    Now is a great opportunity to explore different sports. Football players might try yoga, or swimmers might try cycling. Variety keeps things fresh and reduces burnout.
  • Create connections.
    Human contact feels good. Schedule regular activities with family, friends, or teammates. Of course, use common sense and refer to your local social distancing rules. Even virtual meetings help maintain a sense of connection.
  • Adjust your standards.
    Athletes set high standards for themselves, and are often disappointed when they fall short of their goals. There isn’t much that athletes can do right now except train. Accepting this fact will temper unrealistic expectations.
  • Get help if you need it.
    A good coach helps injured players by referring them to a sports doctor. Likewise, athletes need to ask for help if they’re feeling off emotionally. This could mean calling a friend or reaching out to a mental health professional.


The world of sports, and the world at large, is going through unprecedented times. It’s normal to feel anxious, depressed, even defeated. It’s also okay to mourn the loss of your sport. But it’s important not to give up. Keep training. Sports will be back. For now, be creative, adapt, and reach out for help if you need it.



  1. Bremner, J. (2020). U.S. Alcohol Sales Increase 55 Percent in One Week Amid Coronavirus Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/us-alcohol-sales-increase-55-percent-one-week-amid-coronavirus-pandemic-1495510
  2. Drehs, W. (2020). Michael Phelps: This is the most overwhelmed I’ve ever felt Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/olympics/story/_/id/29186389/michael-phelps-most-overwhelmed-ever-felt
  3. Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families. New York: Macmillan.
  4. Hossien Mehrsafar, A., Gazerani, P., Moghadam Zadeh, A., & Jaenes Sánchez, José C. (2020). Addressing the potential impact of COVID-19 pandemic on physical and mental health of elite athletes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7201218
  5. McGuine, Timothy A., et al., (2020). The Impact of School Closures and Sport Cancellations on the Health of Wisconsin Adolescent Athletes. University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.wiaawi.org/Portals/0/PDF/Health/Covid/SchoolClosureImpact_McGuine.pdf

Wan, W., & Long, H. (2020). Cries for help: Drug Overdoses Are Soaring During the Coronavirus Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/07/01/coronavirus-drug-overdose

© Copyright 2020 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michael Ceely, LMFT

  • Leave a Comment
  • Nadia

    August 31st, 2020 at 1:40 PM

    Being a highly active person, workout lover, and a tennis player, my world was completely upside down when this global lockdown started. It was the most terrible thing I have ever heard and like many people, my mental health was equally compromised and I was stressed and gaining weight at the same time. I believe in patience and endurance whenever we are going through a hard time, eventually that time passed. After I was sure that the cases have gone down and there are fewer people outside, I started working out and playing in the nearest ground where very few people were spotted. It was such a great relief and I finally starting feeling happy and elt energetic too. It was a trying phase but we all need to remember after every darkness, a bright light always follows! :) Just hang in there!

  • Cora

    October 20th, 2020 at 6:17 AM

    Athletes had the strongest mental condition for this is their main strength especially in their training. They must be monitored always to keep their focus. It is really a must that during this pandemic, they shall not be distracted and instead boost more their fitness both physically and mentally.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.