2021 has begun, and after a rather unconventional year, sporting life is slowly starting to recover. The biggest sports tragedy of 2020 was the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, and fans are now beginning to recover from this shock. It seems certain that Tokyo will host the Games this year, and it is also certain that preparations in this area have reached their final stage.
After the shock
It was definitely a shocking experience for the athletes to realise that their years of preparation had been wasted. At least that is how it felt for athletes who timed their physical and training peaks with the Games’ schedule. Then, after the first period of the crisis, many were forced to make serious decisions. Initially, people expected that the vast majority of athletes nearing the end of their careers would choose to retire instead of spending another year to prepare; this wave of announcements never came to fruition. Moreover, towards the end of last summer, there were more and more statements that many people would spend this period very productively because there was no competitive pressure. In fact, almost all competitions stopped for a while, and people finally had time to work on their weaknesses. They were better able to improve themselves physically and sort things out mentally. Many have re-evaluated their careers, contracts, and clubs, and they seem to be more conscious of their futures. They didn’t have many opportunities to do so before, as they could only miss practices and competitions due to injuries. Since they were under a lot of pressure to return to play as quickly as possible, there was no real time for proper physical nor mental rebuilding. Thus, overall, we avoided the significant downtimes that everyone was afraid of, and the athletes, faithful to their reputations, have gained new momentum for 2021.
Many sports experts have held back from giving their usual predictions, but change is a given. And since the COVID crisis will continue to have deep impacts both on and off the field, what can we expect this year in terms of sports trends? Big trends, like when we can start travelling freely and moving without masks, but related to sport. How will this reopening happen across the major sports? And what will the post-COVID reality look like? As a mental preparation professional, I have to say that I definitely expect a significant rearrangement in the balance of power. The most spectacular change can occur in individual sports, as it is immediately apparent in an athlete whether they could rebuild themselves mentally because, in a team sport, the attention is divided among the players. Especially in the case of more proactive athletes, as strange as it may be, the return will be a serious issue. The suggestion is unexpected, as this type of athlete can’t wait to compete again, meaning in principle, this should be their time to shine. The issue is that they were mostly alone during the pandemic. They are the ones who have suffered most mentally because competition has disappeared from their lives. They are the ones who don’t particularly like training and do it only because it’s necessary to compete. However, if there is no competition, there is no need to train. The conclusion is simple. In their case, their physical performance may have declined by a significant extent, and even if they turbocharge themselves mentally, in many cases, it can end in serious injury, as the brain wants and expects more serious exertion than the body can handle. Team sports already show the first warning signs in leagues and qualifiers. Where the team players are not in the majority, but instead the majority is made up of proactive players, who are often more driven by individual interests, the team will face serious challenges. The last decade has shown us that when it comes to talented athletes who have excellent skills but who are not team players, teams have pushed such athletes to the background in almost every sport. It was still possible in several team sports to win a world or a national championship with a team full of self-focussed players. But post-pandemic, I expect these teams to struggle and for there to be serious changes in the rankings.
Next comes the time to evaluate
It is imperative in this situation that the professionals who manage and train individual athletes and teams really know their athletes; they must understand the explanations for past success. And where they have concluded that a star athlete carried the team to victory, or that their individual athlete who never excelled during practice could arrive at the biggest competitions in a perfect mental state, they should be prepared for a significant change. It won’t work the same way in 2021. It doesn’t hurt to discuss this with the athletes themselves first and with complete honesty. Everyone knows themselves well enough that they can place their own nature into the right category. And in a team sport, coaches need to keep their eyes open, as now is the right time to discover new talent! There will be interesting world competitions this year. We will witness a lot of surprises when the results come out, I’m sure. Also, underperforming athletes will blame the circumstances, the virus, and everything else for their poor performance. 2021 will undoubtedly be the year of hard work for athletes. Of course, we could say that this was always the case, but that is by no means true. No one can convince me that every top athlete perfectly adhered to their training schedule even when there were no upcoming competitions. But the athletes who did their job reliably, without any supervision, I expect those athletes to get a lot more spotlight in the coming year.