Rolling with the punches: How to manage COVID-19 adversity in sport

By : on : July 5, 2020 comments : (Comments Off on Rolling with the punches: How to manage COVID-19 adversity in sport)

Zarina Giannone, MA, CCC Therapist (Supervised Practice)

In 1988, amateur boxer, Roy Jones Jr., represented the United States at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. He had trained his whole life to be a boxer. At only 19 years of age, he defeated all his opponents and never lost a single round as he progressed towards the final. Jones Jr. had finally earned his chance at the gold. 

In what many consider the most controversial decision in boxing history, Jones Jr. lost to South Korean fighter, Park Si-Hun, despite dominating Park for three rounds, landing 86 punches to Park’s 32. As the story goes, Si-Hun, who was shocked by the judge’s decision, whispered to Jones Jr. “I can’t believe they’re doing this to you.” 

This was a defining moment for Jones Jr. Instead of letting this loss consume him, he decided to “roll with the punches”. Jones Jr. went on to become a professional boxer and won 49 of his first 50 matches. He competed in boxing from 1989 to 2018 and held multiple world championships in four weight classes. Roy Jones Jr. is considered by many to be the most iconic boxer of his time.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a similar opportunity for athletes and parents to roll with the punches. The unimaginable has happened and sport has come to an abrupt halt, spurring feelings of shock, disbelief, powerlessness, and loss. These are all normal reactions to an abnormal situation.  However, in front of us lies a crucial decision: we can resist this new reality, or we can choose to roll with the punches just like Jones Jr. did when faced with extraordinary adversity. 

I have worked with numerous athletes, performers, and families to support their resilience during this time of difficulty. Sport and other performance settings present unique demands that can be challenging to manage such as missed opportunities and endings in sport and in life in general. Some athletes will lose scholarships and educational opportunities, while others will struggle with the sudden ending of their athletic career. Below I have identified five key insights that I have learned through my work in sport to help you process this loss and successfully move forward with your goals over the coming months.


  • Be kind to yourself.

The pandemic situation is really hard, and it is normal to feel stress, anger, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and many other emotions in between. It is important that you are kind, compassionate, and caring to yourself, just as you would be to a friend who is in need. Listen to what your emotions are telling you and respond empathetically. Being kind to oneself can take on many forms such as taking time for yourself to relax or to be mindful, or to do something you enjoy. Sometimes self-kindness means setting boundaries and saying no to things that may be too overwhelming right now. 

  • Control your controllables.

It is so easy to get pulled out of the present moment right now and fixate on the uncertainty that the future brings. When we get stuck thinking about the past or get caught up trying to control the future, we miss the only thing that we actually have some control over – the present moment. There are so many unknowns about the COVID-19 situation, most of which you cannot control in this moment. During times like this, it is helpful to refocus on what you can control such as your thoughts, your actions, and how you manage your emotions. In other words, “control your controllables”. 

  • Stay connected.

A significant aspect of being an athlete is the sense of community and belonging that it brings.  Given recent physical distancing measures, staying connected to one’s sports team or training community has become more challenging than ever before. But this does not mean that we should cut ourselves off from this critical source of meaning in our lives. One idea is to prioritize video-based forms of technology such as FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, and other video-conferencing platforms to stay connected with teammates and coaching staff. Remember that such meetings do not have to be sports-related and can be opportunities to create new team rituals and traditions like games night or virtual coffee dates. 

  • Schedule it up.

Athletes are used to following strict daily schedules. Time for practices, classes, meals, and sleep are usually carved out ahead of time, with little “free time” available for other things. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 situation has turned many of our schedules upside-down. Significant changes in how we typically spend our time can be detrimental to us. For example, if we do not have to be at the hockey rink at 5:45 AM, then we may be tempted to stay up late watching Netflix or playing video games, which can mess up our sleeping schedules.  One way to get back on track is to spend some time developing a detailed daily schedule to help us spend our time productively. Being “productive” in this sense is not limited to progressing towards our sport, work, or school goals; rather it involves attending to all of our needs as human beings including our psychological, social, and physical necessities. 

  • Keep competing.

Sport is competitive by nature and athletes must compete to become successful in this arena. While it may seem counterintuitive, this pandemic presents an opportunity for us to keep pushing our limits, both within and beyond the sport setting. Set new goals. Try new things. Keep fueling that inner competitor who thrives with mental and physical challenge. 

The reality of the COVID-19 situation is that no grit or mental toughness will change the fact that things have happened this way and that we do not have full control over the corresponding impact on our lives and sport careers. While your plans in sport may be disrupted and your dreams may be suspended, please know that your story is not over. Just like Roy Jones Jr., this is a defining moment. Remember to roll with the punches!


 For more information about what Zarina Giannone does at VPC, please click here.

VPC Team


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