Author: Christopher Streeter
College of Doctoral Studies, Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Department of Social Sciences, Goodwin University, East Hartford, CT, USA
Academy Coach, New England Revolution, Major League Soccer (MLS)
College of Doctoral Studies
Grand Canyon University
Phoenix, AZ 85017
Christopher Streeter is a doctoral candidate at Grand Canyon University, an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Goodwin University, and an Academy Coach for the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer. His research interests include sport psychology, coaching methodologies, motivating language theory, sociology of sport, cognitive psychology, and behavioral psychology.
COVID-19: Social Isolation and Optimism in Sport
The purpose of this discussion is to explore communicative strategies that sport practitioners can implement during this unprecedented time of social isolation as a result of COVID-19. The goal of this discussion is to frame COVID-19 social isolation mandates as opportunities for coaches and sport practitioners to maintain mental health by revisiting their commitment to their players, to their teams, and to the industry of sport. Social isolation is a fundamental safety step that can limit the spread of COVID-19. However, research links prolonged social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, and increased levels of anxiety. The social isolation that COVID-19 has thrust upon the world, including the sport industry, presents a paradox: Can social isolation manifest optimism in sport? Recommendations for coaches and sport practitioners include communicative behaviors intended to deafen the social isolation created by COVID-19. Communicative approaches discussed include empathetic language, articulation of meaning and purpose, connectedness, and strategies to overcome social isolation.
Keywords: coaching, psychology, communication, language, connectedness
COVID-19: Social Isolation and Optimism in Sport
COVID-19 has thrust destruction and chaos upon the world, including the sport industry. The communicative challenges that lie ahead for sport organizations at every level are substantial. The purpose of this discussion is to investigate communication strategies that sport practitioners can implement during this unprecedented time of social disconnectedness and social isolation as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Social isolation and social distancing are two fundamental safety steps that can limit the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing, also called physical distancing, is defined by the CDC (2020) as keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home. Although burdensome, social distancing permits face to face human connection. Conversely, loneliness, the subjective feeling of being socially isolated or completely removed from others, can increase risk factors for mental health difficulties including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and suicidality (2, 38). Research links extended periods of social isolation with adverse health consequences including poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, and accelerated cognitive decline (2, 5, and 38). Social isolation has been found to increase vigilance for threats and heighten feelings of vulnerability (5, 16). Additionally, there is mounting evidence that the subjective absence of social connection contributes to mortality from cardiovascular events, cerebrovascular events, cancer, and all-cause mortality (2, 15, 19, 20, and 36).
In sport, health and wellness mandates as consequences of COVID-19 exist in abundance throughout the globe. Massachusetts Youth Soccer, in conjunction with the CDC and Massachusetts Department of Public Health (2020), have developed a tiered “return to play” protocol that ranges from “no playing allowed” to “non-contact activities” to a “return to a new normal” status. Frequent health checks, equipment sanitization, and removal of all spectators are also included in the MA Youth Soccer guidelines. The Chinese Professional Baseball League, Korea Baseball Organization, and professional soccer leagues around the world have imposed strict mandates that leagues play to empty stadiums due to prohibitions against large gatherings as a means of combating the spread of the novel coronavirus. And within the government of South Australia, the Office of Recreation and Sport has mandated that indoor and outdoor sport training be non-contact and limited the number of people who can participate in sport activities at any given time.
The circumstances of COVID-19, however, have created opportunities to explore how social isolation can manifest positive and meaningful interaction, through sport, amongst players, families, teams, and sport practitioners. Despite the chaos, upheaval, and social disconnectedness created by COVID-19, social isolation has been found to arouse our desire to connect, our need to interact, and our hunger to thrive (16). In these challenging times, is it possible to invoke renewed feelings of passion and purpose in sport? Can social isolation promote healthy relationship building and inspire fellowship through sport? Framed properly, addressing these questions can yield surprisingly positive results and surging optimism. Thoughtful reflection and deliberate communication from sport leaders during these uncertain times present opportunities to refine coaching methodology, enhance relationships, contribute to sport, and promote overall well-being. Maximizing human connection and establishing healthy communication through sport, despite the ravages of COVID-19, are the foundations upon which this exploration rests.
Leader Empathy in Sport
In social isolation, frequent and empathetic connection with team members as both human beings and athletes is a worthwhile consideration. Despite its simplicity and logic, empathetic behavior is often neglected in sport under normal circumstances. Being exposed to low-intensity but consistent leader incivility was found to be associated with a deterioration in physical health, low overall task satisfaction, poor performance, and low creativity among targeted followers (7). Further, leader indifference and leader incivility has been shown to damage follower attitudes and have an overall negative impact on relationships (28). Thus, attention to the simple behavior of deliberate, frequent, and empathetic communication becomes particularly critical in these uncertain times. Pre-COVID-19, coaches and sport leaders had the ability to communicate with players face-to-face on a regular basis. As social distancing and social isolation continue, sport practitioners must now navigate a variety of communicative options to connect with players, families, and fans. How this communication is articulated, particularly during this pandemic, is important to consider. Assertive, tactful, and empathetic sport leaders are able to effectively express their thoughts and feelings; they do so without demeaning others, and in the process, they feel better about themselves (30). Regardless of a sport practitioners experience, implementing empathetic language is a noble and worthwhile quest that can deeply enrich leaders, followers, and organizational well-being (27).
Empathy. Empathy is defined as genuinely caring about others and manifesting these sentiments (27). Empathy conveys caring (18) by valuing followers as fellow human beings; not merely as objects, employees, assets or players. A recent study by Schull and Kihl (33) found that coaches who exemplify empathy were cited by players as ideal leaders and praised for their ability to relate, signaling positive player perceptions associated with empathy, leadership, connectedness and coaching efficacy. Conversely, Schull and Kihl (33) found that coaches who did not display empathy were perceived by players less favorably as leaders.
Empathy emphasizes concern and consideration, reinforces trust and influences effort through encouragement and praise (17). Its emotional core is an investment in the feelings of others and is a main attribute of leader emotional intelligence (27). Empathy places people in the shoes of others and can be measured by the degree to which someone shows sensitivity to others’ feelings. Notably, by communicating empathy, leaders can lower the power differential within the leader-follow dynamic resulting in greater rapport and connection (27). Empathy is a skill that can be acquired through training and translate into positive organizational energy (14). Specific to sport, practitioners can reassure team members that experiencing anxiety is acceptable and normal, further enhancing personal rapport. As another example of empathetic language, sport practitioners can give verbal support and authentic attention to athletes who may be experiencing personal struggles. By acknowledging problems, leaders can develop greater rapport and in the long-term, enhance organizational energy (14). Finally, in order to authentically articulate empathy, sport leaders must be able to effectively manage their own emotions through personal reflection, reappraisal, and emotional acceptance (4).
Compassion. Suffering in the world is rampant and at one time or another is a universal human condition. COVID-19 has presented a multitude of opportunities for sport practitioners to practice compassion. Compassionate language has the ability to ease follower suffering by articulating genuine concern while simultaneously recognizing that suffering is occurring. Dutton (4) found that followers express more connectedness and engagement with leaders through compassion. The author describes that followers often feel moderate levels of relief from personal suffering upon receiving leader compassion and develop a greater connection with the leader (4). Kee (24) concluded that by creating a team environment centered on compassion, supported by selflessness and mindfulness, Phil Jackson and his Chicago Bulls teams became more attuned with each other, and that in turn benefited the quality of play as evidenced by multiple NBA championships. Last, compassion has direct benefits for sport leaders. Research conducted by Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize (3) highlight that compassionate leaders physiologically handled stress more effectively and expressed feeling happier upon helping others.
Personal experiences of followers. Empathetic language dictates that leaders acknowledge, appreciate, and recognize the personal experiences of followers (27). If emotional bonding is to occur, this component of empathetic language is paramount. Leader communication recognizing the personal experiences of followers include sincere congratulations for accomplishments or positive life events, such as the birth of a child or completion of a college degree. Conversely, this component of empathetic language also recognizes negative life events, such as the death of a family member, health issues, or family problems. Duan, Li, Xu, and Wu (13) highlight that leaders can encourage followers to share their personal experiences through inquiry and modeling. Specifically, the authors posit that by displaying their own personal experiences, leaders can often solicit the sharing of personal experiences from followers, helping to create the emotional bond frequently sought between coaches and athletes.
Recognition of effort. Empathetic language also includes leader speech that applauds follower initiative and effort. The first aspect of effort recognition is to actually see, identify or realize an opportunity to praise someone. If leaders are not in a receptive mindset, it becomes easy to miss opportunities. Importantly, recognition of effort is apart from goal attainment or producing a “win.” A sport leader using strong empathetic language commends athletes for their persistence and diligence, regardless of whether the task was accomplished or completed. These communicative messages are particularly important for long-term aspirations where celebrating small wins helps to sustain follower motivation (27).
Meaning and Purpose in Sport
Meaning-making and purposive language occur when leaders articulate norms, organizational vision, genuine appreciation for follower talents, guidance, transparency, and metaphorical storytelling. Meaning-making language is a progressive communication skill that can be learned and practiced. According to Mayfield and Mayfield (27), excelling at meaning-making language is both an art and a science. In the current era of social isolation and social disconnectedness, the articulation of meaning and purpose from sport practitioner to athlete is a worthwhile consideration because the verbiage combines appreciation, sincerity, authenticity, and lightheartedness.
Collective value and higher purpose. Meaning-making language that articulates collective value and higher purpose should paint an inspirational portrait from leader to follower that transcends financial interests, productivity goals, or “winning” (27). Higher purpose language explains why a task is important outside the scope of the specificities of the group itself. This involves linking the organization’s mission to listeners’ goals. Collective value and higher purpose language include the use of stories about people who have worked hard or succeeded in the group, or about how a follower(s) has made a difference in the community (29). In a sporting context, practitioners can share stories with athletes from the perspectives of community, fandom, and love of team. He/she can reflect on community service work past teams have performed or the power of athletes as role models for local youth. Leaders can create organizational vision, collective purpose, and fandom by articulating meaning through language (27). In their discussion on the psychology of meaning as it correlates with fandom, Wann and James (41) explain sport identity and connectedness through the Psychological Continuum Model: awareness, attraction, attachment, and allegiance. The authors posit these four components can create meaning for all fans of sport and are constructs of how people identify with a common purpose or vision. Kalman-Lamb (23) succinctly describe the power of meaning, stating “The local franchise (team) is not just another bank, department store, or amusement park; rather, it is experienced as a public trust that engenders a powerful sense of identification and identity.”
Metaphorical storytelling. “You have an awesome responsibility on your shoulders. This is your Everest, boys. Very few ever get a chance in rugby to get to the top of Everest. You have the chance today” (Coach Jim Telfer, South Africa tour, 1997). Metaphorical storytelling in meaning-making language is a sense-making speech act that highlights an important point without directly stating the point. There are times in every organization in which sense-making needs to take place amongst all parties involved. As described by Luhman (26), stories “flow through time, allowing for the interpretation, reinterpretation, and negotiation of memories and anticipations of future events; as time moves forward, a new collectively constructed organizational reality appears” (p. 164). The author states that the language of sense-making and storytelling are often obscured by the simple language of nouns, verbs, and structure. Further, Luhman (26) posits that to ignore the nature of a sense-making utterance weakens the link between language and life. Storytelling equates to narratives in the form of stories, phrases, metaphors and analogies. It provides leaders a strategy in which to help make sense of things during times of change, uncertainty, or inconsistency (27). Meaning-making analogies and metaphors are universally used throughout workplaces, social gatherings and sport often without recognition that they are indeed a form of healthy dialog between sport leaders and athletes.
Transparency. Highly transparent leaders readily share facts, important news, and relevant information with honesty and efficiency. Within meaning-making language, the characteristic of transparency also includes worst case scenarios or admissions of what is not known. This type of language also connects outcomes or specific consequences (positive or negative) that organizational change may have for an individual follower.
Communicative timing. Timing is the immediacy with which a leader informs a follower of major changes that could impact them (27). In a qualitative study of 12 Division I volleyball players, Cranmer and Brann (10) found that communicative timing was a significant source of coach confirmation (i.e., feeling of recognition, endorsement, and acknowledgment) from coach to athlete. The results of the Cranmer and Brann (10) study provide sport communication scholars with a framework to better understand athlete–coach communication, and illustrate that various phenomena, to include communicative timing, can influence the dynamic between sport leaders and athletes.
Connectedness in Sport
Research suggests that across a variety of sports, coaches’ remarks matter: 90% of players say they enjoy listening, and 65% say language from coaches affects them (39, 40). Further, communication with players accounts for up to 80% of coaches’ time (39). Given the research, how sport practitioners connect with athletes warrants further discussion. The following exploration will highlight a variety of modalities sport personnel can consider to maximize well-being and levels of connectedness during the COVID-19 era.
Language. Exploring language in sport, van Kleef et al. (37) examined whether and how coaches’ emotional expressions influence players. According to the authors, anecdotal observations suggest that sport coaches frequently express emotions towards their players to influence them. The authors suggest that it seems plausible that such emotional expressions have an impact on players. To examine this phenomenon, van Kleef et al. (37) conducted two multi-level, multi-source field studies of sports coaches and players engaged in competitive team sports. Study 1 utilized a qualitative cross-sectional research design, and study 2 utilized a quantitative cross-lagged panel design examining three measurement points (before competition, during competition, and post-competition). van Kleef et al. (37) concluded that sport settings provide a real-life context in which the interpersonal effects of a coach’s emotional expressions can be linked to important outcomes, such as team performance and, specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, the overall well-being of athletes.
In a separate study, a mixed methods examination of coach communication sought to determine how the leader of a sport organization (coach) communicates with a team (34). To measure this, footage of professional rugby coaches giving pre-game speeches was shown to a group of professional athletes (n=20) to determine which of the footage motivated or inspired them. Athletes watched this footage and identified which aspects of the communication inspired them. Follow-up interviews were conducted to explore what the participants were inspired by and why. Thematic analyses revealed six main dimensions of what was inspiring within the content of the speech, including showing how the team can be successful, embracing and reinforcing the underdog status, and creating pride and unity within the team. In addition, a number of features of effective delivery were identified, including the tone of voice, fluency of speech, and the way key ideas were emphasized. Smith et al. (34) further our understanding of leader communication in a sporting context by highlighting the nuances of language within a context and how the delivery of words should be an important consideration for sport practitioners, particularly during this time of unease and uncertainty. Interestingly, Smith et al. (34) suggest it should be the person(s) who have the most inspirational quality who address athletes, regardless of their formal leadership role, potentially extending the examination of coach communication within the literature.
Sport engagement. Engagement in sport is rooted in an organization’s philosophical worldview. A sport philosophy is a general attitude regarding the dynamic intersection of multiple variables: fan engagement, coaching tactics, approach to administrative tasks, on-field planning, organizational culture, off-field planning, player development, overall competitive approach, and communicative style (9). COVID-19 has presented the sport community with opportunities to facilitate innovative ways to engage players, teams, fans, and families. Capitalizing on social isolation as a platform to productively communicate with team members, the following suggestions are applicable to all organizational philosophies and coaching methodologies.
Team newsletters. Create a team newsletter and distribute it to team members daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. Newsletter templates are free to download, easy to use, and can be found via a simple Internet search. Newsletters can feature upcoming team plans, future competitions, training curriculum, accomplishments, team statistics, stories about professional athletes, college recruiting information, sport history, or training suggestions. Consider asking team members to contribute to the newsletter; this can foster ownership and unify the team during these challenging times. Creating a team newsletter is an inclusive, effective, and creative way for practitioners and athletes to stay connected through sport.
Player profiles. Highlight team members utilizing a player profile template. Giving players individual attention is a valuable communication strategy that can increase player self-esteem (21), keep players connected to the team, and demonstrate a coach’s investment in the team. Through player profiles, coaches can recognize individual players on and off the field, build rapport, and collectively enhance team culture. Content could include facts about players, humorous pictures, player aspirations, college commitments, training milestones, family members, or academic interests. In the current COVID-19 era, this form of coach communication is critical because it articulates aspects of life players need now more than ever: Altruism, empathy, compassion, love, caring, and communication. Further, player profiles can be easily distributed through email, text messages, team apps, or team webpages. Importantly, recognition of effort, performance praise, and recognition of achievement have been shown to promote several desirable outcomes in both leaders and followers, to include better physical health, increased mental health, and overall resilience (14). Last, communicative messages can be particularly important for long-term aspirations where celebrating small wins helps to sustain motivation and optimism for sport practitioners and athletes alike (27).
Hand-written personalized notes. Whether a sport practitioner has 20 years of elite-level international experience or one year of volunteer experience, taking the time to prepare a hand-written personalized message is an excellent way to communicate and connect with athletes. In our time of uncertainty and disconnectedness marked by COVID-19, personal attention serves several purposes. First, it is a personal communicative strategy from sport leader to athlete that shows a level of care and interest in the person and his or her overall development. Next, hand-written notes are meaningful and personal; players will appreciate the time spent writing a note to them. Personalized notes can be focused on psychological, tactical, technical, or physical components of an athlete’s game; conversely, a personalized note need not address anything to do with sport. Whether the personalized note addresses one component of sport or no components of sport, the act of personally communicating with the athlete is the noteworthy behavior. Utilizing hand-written personalized notes as a medium for communication has psychological benefits for both athletes and coaches. Coaches have an opportunity to think about the team, the players, and their overall well-being. Further, a coach has an opportunity to self-reflect on his/her coaching methodology and how he or she interacts with his/her players (11). In addition, receiving a hand-written personalized note from a valued coach feels good; this simple communicative act from coach to athlete can promote hope and optimism through sport. In this time of uncertainty, athletes and sport practitioners can collectively benefit from hand-written personalized notes because they are participating in a social, non-isolating communicative process critical to team culture, overall health, and overall well-being (14).
Overcoming Social Isolation
How can sport practitioners overcome social isolation as a direct result of the novel coronavirus? With our “new normal” still unknown, the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic seemingly changes our way of life on a daily basis. Forced to isolate and distance ourselves from others, we can only speculate on how to overcome the grip of this pandemic. This discussion offers a few suggestions to consider during these challenging and uncertain times.
Becoming active in a professional association during the COVID-19 shutdown can connect sport personnel to their sport, to one another, and indirectly, to their players. Psychologically, membership in a professional organization connects people to one another through mutual interests and can promote well-being and social connectedness (25). Association membership shapes the professional values, identity, and attitudes of the association and its members, including beliefs on what is appropriate and which strategies are the most effective (25). Joining a professional association and becoming active is a communicative behavior that can benefit any sport practitioner immediately. Further, membership in a professional affiliation will serve sport practitioners well upon conclusion of the COVID-19 crisis. Importantly, official associations have the potential to positively influence the attitudes of their members toward the nature of their work, and their beliefs regarding appropriate conduct (35). Specific to the COVID-19 crisis, participation in a professional association can create a variety of collaborative and non-isolating communicative opportunities: email campaigns, phone calls to other members, fundraising efforts, organization of future events, distribution of membership literature, development of membership content, webpage management, social media posts, and attending video conferences relevant to the membership.
Additionally, conducting research is a communicative behavior that can keep sport personnel psychologically connected and professionally motivated. Engaging in research provides sport practitioners opportunities to explore sport-related content, collaborate with professionals in the field, and gain insight into their area of specialization. While quantitative research assuredly has its place in sport research, qualitative research is of particular importance because much of what coaches and sport practitioners do is grounded in the social and behavioral sciences. Qualitative methodology is an approach that focuses on discovery, deep inquiry, and the importance of context regarding a phenomenon (8). Research studies that use qualitative methods seek to explore a human condition, process, or phenomenon in depth in order to explain or describe it (12). Thus, a qualitative approach may yield a number of meaningful opportunities to interact with the world and may help mediate any psychological symptoms associated with the COVID-19 mandates of social distancing, social isolation, quarantines, furloughs, and layoffs. Examples of qualitative data collection while socially isolated could include online interviews with research participants, online surveys, telephone interviews, exploration of online archival data, historical research, or systematic observation of archived sporting matches. While completing a scientific study during the COVID-19 crisis may not be fully attainable, the process of collaborating with others and/or conducting sport industry research is a worthwhile, healthy, and productive way to stay connected to one’s sport specialization.
The human race requires social connectedness in order to thrive. The COVID-19 crisis has depleted resources, damaged the global economy, caused immeasurable amounts of grief and pain, and socially isolated hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. There is an aura of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and isolation that lingers across the globe.
In the last two decades, research exploring optimism, praise, altruism, and connectedness have produced desirable outcomes in both leaders and followers to include better physical health, increased mental health, and overall resilience (14, 18). Specific to the sport industry, several communicative behaviors can help deafen the negative impacts of social isolation as a result of COVID-19. Connecting with players frequently and consistently through the conscious utilization of positive and optimistic language is one strategy. Because sport practitioners are influential figures that foster learning and relationship building on and off the field (6, 10), consistent and positive language use can reduce anxiety in athletes (14), increase levels of self-esteem (18), and create pride and unity within a team (22). Personalized messages, conducting research, and professional membership work also offer avenues sport personnel can consider to overcome the suffocation of social isolation and stay connected to the sport industry as a whole.
In communication there is connectedness. In connectedness, there is hope and optimism. Future research could explore the constructs of hope and optimism collectively as they relate to sport, social isolation, and connectedness during a crisis. Findings could provide important insight for coaches, sociologists, physicians, psychologists, and sport psychology practitioners. While quantitative studies would be significant contributions to the literature, future research exploring social isolation and optimism in sport qualitatively may also provide important insight and contribute to the literature in valuable and applicable ways. Finally, the communicative behaviors discussed, while not definitive and exhaustive solutions to social isolation, are viable strategies for sport practitioners to consider when dealing with the paradox of social isolation and optimism in sport during the COVID-19 era.
Application in Sport
In its purest form, to coach is to communicate. Whether verbal or nonverbal, passive or aggressive, technical or tactical, communication is a vital part of what coaches do (31). Effective coaches recognize the important role they play in influencing behavior, boosting confidence, inciting passion, modeling fair play, and maximizing the performance of their athletes (32). The way in which a sport practitioner communicates with athletes, teaches a skill, reinforces a behavior, highlights an error, sends an email, or delivers a halftime speech plays an important role in the efficacy and esteem of the athletes under his or her watch. Coaches are key figures in every sport regardless of the level of competition. Millions of coaches practice the profession throughout the world and have the means to positively, or negatively, impact athletes’ physical, social-emotional, and psychological well-being (1). Thoughtful reflection combined with deliberate communicative acts from coaches and sport leaders during these uncertain times present opportunities to refine coaching methodology, enhance relationships with players and families, contribute to sport, maintain mental health, and promote optimism through sport.
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