Clinton Gahwiler outside Chelsea FC, in pre-Corona times.

“IT’S JUST MESSED UP”

A psychologist at one of Africa’s leading sports institutes has warned of a looming mental health crisis that could effect sports professionals on the continent.

“While everybody is so focused on the immediate medical crisis… they’re not paying much attention to what is probably a looming psychological crisis following in the wake, not too far behind (the Corona crisis),” said Clinton Gahwiler, a psychologist at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, in an interview with SPNAfrica.

“The medical crisis…that’s what’s dominating the media,” he said.

This failure by government and the media to address mental health concerns in the face of an overwhelming medical emergency should not necessarily prescribe a negative outcome for the mental health of sports men and women, according to Gahwiler. Far from it.

Gahwiler is one of a number of sports-focused practictioners who work out of the Sports Science Institute in Newlands, Cape Town, a complex specially built with private funding to nurture high-calibre sports men and women in a sports-obsessed country. The institute is now shut and many of the private businesses and self-employed professionals based there are having to find alternatives – just like their compatriots across the continent – to sustain themselves financially.

Some of those alternatives are technological, centred around social media and the internet. While the internet has proven a helpful tool for of all kinds of responses – including psychological – to the Corona crisis, it is also a reminder of the deep digital divide that Africans across the continent face daily.

And yet, many of the inventive technological responses to the crisis are being applied in far less well-endowed suburbs than leafy Newlands.

“Social Media is a saviour in all of this,” Annerose Mandela said, speaking of the impact of Corona down a slightly crackly WhatsApp line from Nairobi.  “This Covid thing… its affected me financially… its crazy… it’s just messed up…” And yet Annerose remains positive. Nairobi’s almost ubiquitous fibre-to-the home is keeping her and her family alive – and sane – during these trying times. The Kenya women’s league basketball player and professional fitness coach is using social media to stay in touch with teammates and engage with clients, even though her regular income has all but dried up.

Gahwiler, too, has taken to social media to deliver useful responses to the psychological impact of Covid-19’s devastating impact. On his Performing Mind site he delivers a filmed lesson for each day of South Africa’s lockdown, aimed at sports professionals stuck at home.  The amateur videos filmed in his garden are nothing like the slick Peebee sports app also touted on his social media page but they do the trick – connecting him to an audience. And Gahwiler is hardly alone.

“I don’t know what we would have done without social media,” explains Mandela.  “Because for me actually I’m on camera with a fitness routine… so I have actually been able to work, to some degree… at least if you are not playing (baskeball), being able to promote it at least helps other than just sitting… so social media has really played a big part in breaking the chain of just sitting and isolating yourself,” said Mandela, who plays her national league basketball for the Equity Bank Hawks and often goes by her on-court name, Atis Ndella.

“I get to Zoom and do my class workouts without us meeting… at least we still stay connected.”

But for many top-tier athletes locked down at homes across Africa, cut off from their trainers, colleagues and from any way to maintain fitness levels, the loss of a regular training regime, nevermind life-long goals, can be crushing, Gahwiler warns.

“People are anxious about whether it’s their livelihood or their safety and that’s a huge thing that many people are dealing with on some other level. I mean potentially there’s loss… I don’t just mean loss in terms of people… but loss could be loss of a dream… you know, I had plans of joining the Olympics, for example and now suddenly, that dream seems to have gone up in smoke to some extent. And then of course there are other things like potentially there are a lot of people who psychologically at the best of times are quite vulnerable and struggle with things like OCD, etc. I think for all those people this kind of situation is going to be potentially making things more difficult for them.”

Gahwiler, whose work with sports men and women took him to the Olympics in 2004, also said that while novel responses to the crisis – including engaging online – were increasingly being employed, a crucial mental health response was to ensure an appropriate emotional reaction to the crisis – something sports men and women should actually be trained for, from an early age.

“We get taught, especially in sports, that we must think positive. But… the most helpful kind of thinking isn’t positive thinking, it’s accurate thinking. So you want to see things as they actually are…if my blind positive thinking doesn’t fit my current reality, that’s when my emotions get cranked up to inappropriate levels. So, mental health is not about always feeling happy. I mean, that’s weird. No one’s happy all the time. Mental health is about feeling emotions, which are appropriate to the situation.”

The gap between the actual situation and elevated dreams and goals is often what causes stress levels to impact mental health. Gahwiler advises finding ways to look at situations more accurately.

“ROLL WITH IT”

While focusing on ways to deal with anxiety and depression, Gahwiler pointed to sports men and women’s worries about income and about their personal safety and loss – not just of loved ones but also of their personal dreams – as a possible trigger for a  wave of mental problems.

Gahwiler said that until recently not enough was being done to prepare athletes – from a high school level and onwards – psychologically, for high level sporting performance. Sports men and women were being asked to perform at the highest international level, with psychological preparation something of an afterthought.

“One of the key principles in sport and preparation is to do everything as well as you can, talk about controlling the controllables. The final stage of preparation, in many ways is also being prepared to roll with unforeseen uncontrollables so the final phase of preparation would be to say, okay, we’ve prepared for everything to happen. But what could go wrong? And in each of those potential obstacles put a plan in place… How are we going to react? What if my luggage doesn’t arrive? What am I going to do? Or what if in the middle of our planning to peak at a certain point in the season, there’s a 21 day lockdown… what are we going to do?”

“The right mental preparation would allow for greater flexibility when things go wrong,” he said. Preparing for the “what-ifs” is crucial, he said, but beyond that, the final preparation was to ensure that sports people were armed with a “passive mental set”, a state of mind that allows one to “roll with things”.  Stress and panic comes from having a rigid idea of how things should be and how they actually are. Preparing for what might be helps reduce that gap.

“And so you prepare also, for whatever could go wrong. But then, as part of the final final phase, is to say, ‘well, there’s no way I can preempt everything,’… We would never have guessed that we were going to be in this case (the Corona crisis) just two months ago. So the very final stage of preparation to me has been developing almost a passive mental set of states of mind where you can just roll with things as they actually are.”

The lockdown period, or loss of training facilities, according to Gahwiler, could be utilised positively, while a wider recognition of the importance of psychological preparation in sport could actually lead to a positive outcome for sports science in Africa.

LIKE “A PITSTOP IN FORMULA ONE”

Initial responses to Corona in Africa varied widely – from complete lockdown in South Africa, to a curfew in Kenya, to Tanzania’s president encouraging church attendance – but has now developed into fuller responses involving financial, medical and logistical strategies. Yet financial aid has largely focused on medium and small enterprises, with the self-employed – Africa’s hundreds of thousands of sports professionals amongst them – largely being left out of the response.

However, despite the difficulties, Gahwiler pointed out that looking at Corona as a career-ending disaster was an example of rigid thinking.

The reality was that regaining fitness levels was possible. But professional sports people would need to remain active, create new routines and be prepare to “roll with” what they could not control.

Gahwiler has personally dealt with the challenges by using his Facebook page, Performing Mind, to host short videos on how to deal with the challenges.

Of course, not everyone has access to the internet or social media. That’s the other gap – the digital divide. For those stuck at home without internet and not even the distraction of Twitter, or an online fitness routine to follow, Gahwiler’s advice is to try to replace an old routine with a new one, practically adapted to new circumstances.

Gahwiler is having to follow his own advice. Unlike in Australia, where Gahwilelr trained as a sports psychologist (a nomenclature which – perhaps tellingly – does not officially exist in psychology practice in South Africa) and where government support for hi-end sports training is normal, in most parts of Africa, South Africa included, sports sciences have largely had to fend for themselves. Just like Mandela in Kenya,  Gahwiler is having to find new ways to reach an audience and keep his practice alive. Professional sports people, he argues, can look at the situation accurately, too.

“An inaccurate assumption would be, ‘this is all hopeless, I’ll never get back to my same levels of fitness,’ whatever. But that’s inaccurate in that there’s no proof of that,” he said.

“In fact, there’s lots of proof available that, you know, ‘I can regain my fitness’. I mean, people often… had that issue when they are injured and they’re out for a while. And they made these simplistic assumptions that, ‘ag, it’s all pointless now’ and they’ll ‘never get back’ and it actually just sets them off into this unhelpful, negative spiral, rather than just being truthful… and part of the truth might be that ‘Hey, virtually every athlete goes through this at some point, but like a pitstop in Formula One, and now how do I best respond to it so that I can come back as soon as possible?’ And that ‘the fact that I’m out for two weeks now is no reflection on my career next year’, for example. I mean, that’s truthful thinking.”

Whether its accurate thinking to deliver a better mental health outcome or finding new ways of making a living over the internet, the Corona crisis is forcing new ways of thinking upon all of us, new ways of doing things. It can be a “pitstop” rather than “all hopeless”.  As Gahwiler puts, it, “I do think if nothing else, if we can’t do the normal training, now’s an opportunity to look at some of the areas that one doesn’t normally pay enough attention to.”.  It really comes down to a case of “Mind the Gap”.

Catch Gahwiler’s videos here: https://www.facebook.com/PerformingMind/videos

Next in Series:  INTERNET SOLUTIONS

How the internet is providing sports professionals from Luanda to Nairobi with a lease of life during the Corona Crisis and in some instances pushing them to do things they might never have done without it. And the publisher of this series, SPNAfricaNews is a case in point!

From a garden in Cape Town to a Nairobi apartment and a next-generation studio in Luanda, African sports professionals of all sorts are taking to the internet like never before as the response to Covid-19’s impact on African shores highlights just how little government support there is for the sports sector. 

Catch the next installment of BEATING CORONA, an SPNAfrica series.