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The Serial Killer and the Athlete

Psychological challenges and solutions for elite athletes during the COVID-19 crisis.

COVID has opened a new chapter in sport. The last five months have revolved around preparing for this extraordinary crisis from a psychological perspective. An insidious enemy has attacked everybody’s lives. In this situation, it was tragic to read and listen to sports experts and psychologists, who said that elite athletes would, of course, move past this phase without any particular problems. “This is what they were born for” … “they have trained for this” … “it’s their livelihood”. Well, no, not quite! Like many times in the past, people forget that even multiple-time Olympic gold medallists are PEOPLE first. They are human, so they are affected by tragedies like any other person. Thus, they require special psychological assessment, preparation, and management!

Crisis?

Sport provides unforgettable moments: the decisive penalty kick, the three-pointer at the buzzer, or the four-meter shot for the gold medal. But such extreme moments are not required for someone to experience a crisis! Just think of an Olympic run, swim, or match — the excitement and fear are palpable from the very first moment. We know this is the essence of sport; this is what makes an elite athlete an elite athlete; they are prepared for this. Some handle it better than others; others handle it worse. But why do we talk about elite athletes in the collective? It is a huge mistake to think of them that way! Based on my experience providing personality analyses to thousands of elite athletes, I can state emphatically that if we approach the topic using the four main personality types, we can see huge differences in how different athletes experience and manage crises, even among the best athletes!

This is also the fundamental problem when experts talk about “winning recipes”; they think that just because a solution worked at some time, somewhere, it can be considered universal. Definitely not! The differences are apparent when approached from a system perspective. It can be seen, for example, that all personality types can be successful, they can be winners. Also, completely different paths can lead to success. The Ruler personality type can win with its dominance by coming up “clutch” in a given crisis. The Individual uses their creativity, the element of surprise, to win. A Supporter requires persistent work, and an Expert owes their ultimate success to their maximalism. Everyone can handle the stakes, only differently! How do these basic types behave in a crisis? First of all, let us clarify who is experiencing a crisis! One would think that the World Cup-deciding penalty kick would qualify as a crisis. No! If a Supporter player has made more than seven such shots in their career, this is no longer a crisis for them! They will handle the situation perfectly, even though the Supporter type usually does not handle crises very well. So, we can’t always assume that a situation qualifies as a crisis!

This is especially true in team sports, where the totality of the personalities of several players will produce the team’s final mental state. What are the basics for tense, stressful situations? The Ruler performs perfectly. Even if they are continually taking huge gambles during a big match, they will still pull themselves together in a decisive situation. An Individual’s performance is dependent on mood. This is true even during a crisis. If they have a good day, they will play well even in a crisis; if not, they will crumble. However, whatever day they have, they want to become a star, so they can be selfish during critical situations; they want to be the one to save the day. The Supporter is afraid of unfamiliar challenges. So, it is not the objective evaluation of the stakes that is important, but rather its impact on the particular Supporter player. If a Supporter finds themself in an intense situation where they haven’t found their rhythm yet, they will seriously underperform. Experts are constantly building themselves up and evolving. For them, the decisive situations are almost the same as the not-so-important situations. They want to give their maximum no matter what. So, they can play at a high level irrespective of a crisis. In summary, in a high-stakes situation, the athlete’s personality and crisis experience should be evaluated together. It is seen primarily in team sports that a Supporter – one who dominates when team play and team spirit are at a high level – cannot handle a crisis well. Shrewd sports professionals and coaches know this, so they purposefully put them into stressful situations from young ages so they can learn how to handle them. And during psychological preparation, they are treated at the system level, at the team level, and since it would be tough for them to go through a critical ordeal alone, they are taught to overcome adversity as a team!

Without sport, in a crisis, in the short term, in the long run

Let’s make one thing clear: there is no living sports professional with the perfect experience for the current situation! In other words, applying solutions based purely on experience is questionable. Personality type-based studies also clearly show that no athlete will overcome this situation on their own, with no change in performance when recovering from a crisis! It’s also a fact that just like in a traditional sports crisis, athletes with different personality types handle and manage this crisis completely! A crisis of this sort has short-term and long-term mental ramifications. During both phases, each personality type responds differently.

In the first phase, the Ruler was happy to have a break finally. Because they prefer being their own master, they can greatly appreciate being able to choose how to spend their time. Plus, one of the most important elements for them in elite sports is money, not the love of the sport itself. Thus, in this situation – if income did not change or decreased only slightly – then they experienced no negative impact. For the Individual, this first period was a new adventure. It was even more exciting because the world has never been like this before. They had a lot of ideas about how to get through this. But after a couple of weeks, a lifestyle without human contact and a stimulus-poor environment made their mark on the Individual’s psyche. So, they crashed very quickly. The Supporter is afraid of any new situations. So, they have been terrified. During this first phase, they were clueless and did not know how to start in any direction, so they retreated to the safety of the family “nest”. The life of an Expert did not change much in the short term, as they are a more introverted type that focuses on the essence and goals. On the other hand, Experts live in systems, and their well-structured processes were infiltrated with full force by the virus. So, their system needed to be rebuilt, which kept the Expert very busy during the first phase.

For now, world team competitions are unlikely to take place for months. That means that this crisis state will be semi-permanent. The mental state and reactions of the first few months will be replaced by a constantly intensifying mental state, which leaves increasingly deep impressions. The psyche of the Ruler will exchange the initial joy and energy for introversion and incompetence. They cannot control the situation, and now, although they would like to solve the situation themselves, they are incapable of doing so, as they are not persistent enough and fail during longer processes. They are characterised by laziness and helplessness. The Individual quickly discards their initial creativity, and since they are closed off and have little contact with others –it is not possible to have fun with friends – grave mental problems occur. Supporter athletes want to find new routines, but they won’t be able to do it alone. They are “locked out” of their teammates’ lives, and they deeply feel the absence of an athletic environment. The Expert is the only type that starts a new life by rebuilding their own system. They keep their performance consistently high, and there are no psychological challenges for them. Don’t get me wrong: no one is better, and no one is worse! We are all different! That’s it! And if someone tries to deal with this situation with “templates”, they are wrong! As an Expert-type Mentor, I feel this situation personally. I’m studying, I’ve invested serious energy into gaining relevant experience as quickly as possible. I’ve analysed hundreds of athletes, but that’s not enough, we need to keep moving forward!

COVID Mental Tools

Interpreting the processes and information discussed so far is a new professional challenge for everyone. There has been a period in which the lives of athletes have changed radically, and this, moreover, needs to be handled for the longer term. We now have to answer questions about them that have never been possible before, at least not to such a serious extent. It is important to measure and analyse the mental state using this period’s key milestones, and then chain those results together, because only then can the findings can only gain a real, distinct interpretation. It is necessary to examine several factors that have not been analysed so far when assessing the mental state of an athlete.

COVID-19 STRESS EFFECT (degree of personality change)

Initially, we respond to unusual, stressful situations by changing our behaviour. We tend to say that long-lasting behaviour can be incorporated into our personality, as we begin to “wear” personality traits that are foreign to us, and they can stick to us, to a greater or lesser extent, whether planned or not. Under normal circumstances, such a process – when the behaviour leaves an imprint on our personality – requires a minimum of one year, but often a longer period. But it’s different now! The rate of change is so intense, and it happened so fast that the behaviour can leave an immediate imprint on our personality. So, before we begin to explain the future, it is essential to examine what the personality of our particular athlete looks like today. Especially what modification they went through. The greater the degree of personality change, the more severe the stress present in the athlete’s life.

Home Training Intensity

The athlete’s personality determines the extent to which they can manage home training.
It shows how the intensity and quality of their workouts evolve by performing their tasks unsupervised: not in the usual training atmosphere, but at home. That is, the index points to the extent to which an athlete’s coach and other sports professionals can rely on the athlete to maintain their typical training quality at home and without special intervention.

RESTART (COMEBACK) INDEX

It points to the degree to which they can maintain their performance and effectiveness during the extended time off. The index also defines the extent to which an athlete’s coach and sports professionals around them can expect them to return to pre-break levels once they resume training/matches

SELF-ASSURANCE INDEX

The index shows the extent to which an athlete believes that they can handle the extended crisis and the resulting downtime on their own. It describes the extent to which they think they need external support — from coaches and other sports professionals — during a crisis so that their performance does not deteriorate significantly when training/matches resume.

HUMAN SUPPORT INDEX

The index shows the extent to which the athlete needs to retain a community and manage their relationships with fellow athletes, teammates, coaches, and other sports professionals. So, to what extent is it necessary for the athlete to maintain human relationships during a crisis by receiving personal mental support from their teammates and professionals.

Serial killers are not just in the West!

One film about the Soviet Union has been burned into my memory. The film is about a prolific serial killer who killed at least 52 people during the ’80s. The police were helpless against him, as the “party line” was “there were no serial killers in the Soviet Union! That is only a symptom of the diseased West!” Of course, they finally realised that, of course, this kind of crime could happen in the “Dark East”, too. Currently, this is a serious problem for elite athletes. Few people want to talk about the real issues athletes are facing; society pushes the idea that every athlete can manage this situation easily, but the diffierent personality types have wildly different reactions. Even the most successful athletes face challenges that require professional help. Likewise, there are those who manage it well! In team sports, for example, we can’t spoil the whole team with the same crisis management solution, as some would be happy, some wouldn’t care, and some would be especially irritated by a “universal solution”. Communication is now a priority.

Communication can save or ruin sports careers. But knowing how to communicate — and with whom to communicate, who simply needs a good training plan, who requires serious psychological support, and who needs all of the above — certainly depends on personality type. Sports life will change drastically. The balance of power is shifting. Those who have been world-best athletes can now be pushed back, and those who have served smaller roles can now rise up! All personality types are affected by this drastic change, but it is also clear that the Expert athletes deserve the least worry, and the biggest challenge will be for Supporter athletes, who are repeatedly relearning how to respond to this new crisis. Additionally, Individual athletes can suffer greatly and lose a level of motivation that they cannot regain for years. And then there’s the Ruler, who is very good at short-term crises, but can even give up a sport during an extended one. The stakes are huge for national teams, clubs, adults, and juniors alike. And there is little room for error, as we have an unprecedented Olympics, world championships, continental championships, and various other qualifiers that will start soon under the most unusual conditions!