Not many people have the chance to interact with professional athletes. Even if we feel like we know them personally because we follow their social media accounts and watch every match they play, we do not always know what is going on in their heads. As a consultant who works with a large network of professional athletes across various team and individual sports, I have learned a great deal about how professional athletes operate.
During a recent presentation on the subject, so much of the Q&A time was taken up by questions about how athletes in different sports have dealt with COVID. People know what is going on from the outside, but few have the degree and type of contact to know the exact issues they are facing. Before diving into the specifics, it bears emphasising that athletes are people, too. Many have suffered from COVID itself, many have experienced deaths in their families due to the disease, and the pandemic has been an unbelievable source of stress. In addition to these factors, many athletes have had to face unique challenges that have made their jobs harder.
Esports have become increasingly popular, and there are no signs of the trend slowing anytime soon. One interesting aspect of esports is that the mental factor is arguably more important in esports than traditional athletic sports. Two main factors limit a person’s success in traditional sports: physical gifts and training opportunities. If someone is tremendously gifted and coordinated, but they are short, the likelihood of playing in the NBA is low. Likewise, if a person who otherwise has the physical gifts and work ethic is born into a country without a strong basketball tradition, it can be hard for them to find the competition, resources, and coaching to improve in time. Thus, they can end up years behind their peers from other nations. Esports are different: traditional physical gifts are not a factor. Moreover, the internet allows for the cream to rise to the top and encounter elite competition from pretty much anywhere.
One factor that has severely affected many esports over the last year has been the move from in-person tournaments to tournaments with people competing from home. While the impact of this shift has been felt in other sports—everybody has had to get used to playing without fans— particular wrinkles impact esports even more. That is because at in-person tournaments, they use LAN connections, which creates the ideal data transfer for gameplay. In contrast, from home-based tournaments, the connection speeds are not nearly as ideal, and therefore impact gameplay. Now, this change in gameplay does affect everyone equally, but according to the elite players, the very best players are hit hardest. That is because their superior reactions—which brought them to the top of their sport in the first place—are muted by internet lag. Therefore, the top players have had to accept that the playing field has been artificially altered, at least temporarily. Do you think Lebron James would be happy if he suddenly had to play with a smaller basketball for a season?
Not many people know this, but due to restrictions made by the Olympic organisers, coaches across many sports need to show up to Tokyo with significantly smaller squads than they had planned. For example, one particular team sport allowed 16 players and 2 alternates to travel to the games. But due to COVID, coaches from every nation are now limited to squads of 13 players and 1 alternate. So, coaches are faced with the unenviable task of crushing the dreams of 4 athletes. Maybe they are young athletes who need experience on the world’s biggest stages to develop. Maybe they are athletes who were waiting to retire after one final shot at Olympic Glory. Maybe they are the most-liked player on the team. No matter what, these cuts will be deeper and more painful for coaches and athletes alike. No matter what, it will be painful.
Travelling without family members
Depending on how you frame things, many athletes had either the privilege or the burden to continue working throughout the pandemic. Elite athletics, by its nature, requires a large amount of travel. For athletes that were used to travelling with their loved ones, they have had to face tough choices. In some sports, players no longer had the option of bringing their family members along for safety reasons. In the case of international travel, sometimes visa issues got in the way. Others who had the option also faced a tough choice: do I risk my family member’s health just so I can feel better that they are by my side? Won’t they be safer if they are socially distanced at home? Each athlete faced extremely personal, difficult choices with complicated risk-reward calculations.
Overall, some athletes are happy they still have a job. Others are content that their work can distract them from the pain and the boredom of the pandemic. And almost all athletes are extremely grateful that they are lucky enough to be facing these tough, yet beatable problems.