The internet is chock-full of great information about how to stay mentally fit during the Covid-19 crisis. CRNZ’s men’s kayak sports psychologist Dom Vettise takes this a step further by offering his take on how we can help others who may be struggling during these turbulent times.
Sometimes it is impossible for me to speak to every athlete individually across all sports I work in. So I thought it would be useful to pass on to others (e.g. coaches, leaders, and the community) who could potentially help anxious, worried or upset people. Much of this information was originally given to the men’s kayak team but it can be just as relevant to the wider CRNZ community.
How to speak to someone that presents as anxious, worried or upset.
We don’t all need to be a psychologist to look out for another person or help them. Sometimes we just need to listen to others, be there for them and acknowledge them. It is important to validate their emotions, be honest with them and allow them to feel heard.
*Validate their emotions – especially at the beginning of a conversation. It’s okay for people to feel how they feel – whether this be anxiety, anger or being upset.
*People remember how you made them feel, rather than what you say. Allow them to feel heard. Validation helps with this.
*Be honest – don’t tell them everything will work out and that everything will be okay. We don’t know this for sure…
-Instead… acknowledge this is a difficult time, but it is absolutely normal to feel anxious or worried. You are here to support them, and there and people here to help if it does get worse.
*See if you can move them into some solution focus thinking once they feel heard (i.e. “what do you think you could begin to do to feel like you are moving forward or getting yourself through this”?)
*Acknowledge if you are stuck as well. You’re not a psychologist, you’re not expected to know how to help. Even I get stuck sometimes. Acknowledge it, but again you can help them by suggesting other supports or just being a listening ear.
*I would also move ourselves away from thinking this is only going to go on for four weeks. We could be here for longer and this is serious! People who can stay more present, focused on the now and seize every opportunity will be the ones who come out of this better off at the end of the lockdown.
– Small goals will help (i.e. what is the one thing you could do today that could help; what’s one thing you could do in the next hour that could move you forward).
– Make suggestions if they are really stuck.
*Be clear on what they may need from you. We can often go into giving advice right away – we want to help, but that’s not always what people want. Ask them, “do you need support from me, advice, or just someone to listen to you”.
What to Watch Out For in Your Chats
What people should be watching out for are large changes in behaviour – and whether those changes persist over a long period of time. Many people will be de-motivated at times, and that’s okay, but does that pattern remain over several days or a week or more? Are people overly tearful are they overly problem focused rather than solution focused?
*Athletes talking about changes in their behaviour:
– Dieting, isolating (from people in their bubble), not doing much activity at all, excuses for not exercising or linking up with support people, especially when you believe it may be useful for them to do so.
*Overly focused on the things they can’t control – hypervigilant to threat.
*Talking about spending the majority of their time watching the news or reading about Covid-19.
*Always talking about problems they are faced with, without being able to come up with a solution.
*Having to repeat yourself multiple time, them not hearing what you are saying (e.g. they always say “yes” but not actually paying attention to the question).
– This can indicate unhelpful anxiety where a person struggles to process what advice you may be giving, or questions you may be asking.
*Pay attention to how YOU feel while talking to them – trust your gut
– If you are finding them frustrating to talk to, or you come away feeling overly sorry for them, or you are really confused by the conversation; this is probably a good indication of how they are feeling too! Name it for them!
*If they comment on feeling not listened to, unsupported, or say “there is actually very little support out there”.
*Teammates who have vulnerable relatives
– We often worry very little about ourselves, but are overly concerned about others. I suspect that a lot of people’s wellbeing will be tied up in how they feel their vulnerable relatives are. So please ask about this.
What to do if you suspect someone isn’t doing so well
It is important to validate and say, “I’m worried about you and how you are coping. Do you need me to get in touch with someone who can really help or do you want to get in touch directly?” You might also then say, “I’m worried about you, and if you don’t want professional help, is it okay if I check in with you in a couple of days”? If you then check in after a few day and the person is still not in the right space it might be best to say, “Hey, I care about you, I don’t think you’ve been doing so well. It’s because I care about you so much that I am going to take the time to get some advice from a psychologist (or someone trained to help). So perhaps expect a call.”
*Firstly, you cannot help everyone. Furthermore, you cannot help others if you are not looking after yourself. YOU always remain a priority.
*Know you level of competence – be clear what you can and cannot help with. This is not about you, but about putting safety of others first.
*Encourage them to speak to a professional who can help (e.g. psychologists, GP, counsellor). This is their job and expertise.
*Encourage them to access external support. Text or call 1737; this is the mental health helpline available 24/7 where you can get support or further advice.
*If they are really adamant they don’t want to speak to anyone…
– ….then suggest that you are worried and would like to check in on them again in a couple of days.
– If in a couple of days the athlete still feels the same then link a psychologist in regardless. Again, let the person know you are going to do this. In this way there are no surprises and they can understand it came from a place of love.
Dom Vettise is an experienced clinical psychologist who also works with the Black Ferns Sevens, NZ Football, Auckland Aces and the Bay of Plenty Magic netball.