Offence or defense? How withdrawal fits into our footballer’s game plan

words by Luke Jankie, Wednesday 28 October 2020

Words by Tackle Your Feelings program psychologist Luke Jankie

Stress is a natural response to any immediate or perceived threat to a person’s wellbeing. Following a year of significant change and navigating of the unknown, people have been forced to manage their mental health within a different landscape, and with a significant shift in social connection.

Despite modern technology allowing us to connect virtually, we have still noticed an increasing trend in social withdrawal and isolation. There are lots of explanations for this, including caps on gathering sizes, entertainment venues operating for take-away only, and community sporting leagues closing down for the 2020 season.

However, there are also a range of psychological processes at play that explain these types of outcomes as well – and the team at Tackle Your Feelings is here to tackle the issue!

Given the challenging nature of life, humans have long strived to develop strategies to help relieve their distress. Some common approaches include reaching out to communicate with support networks (e.g. a comforting pat on the back from the coach after a loss), engaging with physical exercise (who doesn’t get an endorphin rush after putting in a big session on the track), or developing an organized routine (e.g. the comfort many players get from having a pre-match process to guide them).

From an evolutionary perspective, most coping strategies are typically designed with protection and survival in mind. They are deployed during times of distress, with the purpose of relieving or lessening the immediate impact of the discomfort.

 However despite any intrinsically positive intentions, not all coping strategies are actually helpful in in the long term. An example of this can be found in the classic sports scenario where a player yells at a teammate after a basic skill error. Despite intending to highlight the mistake and drive more successful efforts in the future, more often than not scolding other players tends to result in setting them off and lowering their confidence (which can ultimately lead to even poorer performance).

One commonly used coping strategy that is particularly sneaky in this regard is ‘avoidance’. The avoidance process occurs when the primitive part of the brain sends a distress alert, encouraging immediate evasion of the discomfort as the primary means of survival. Avoiding distress can take shape in many forms, including situational avoidance (procrastinating, disengaging with people, places, scenarios – avoiding a coach who usually criticizes me), distracting/suppressing (downplaying or ignoring discomfort – switching the subject when my teammate asks me why I missed training), or numbing (escaping distress through substances – drinking alcohol after a game to forget a poor performance).

In theory, all of these options can help reduce stress, as they literally involve the evasion of the stressor. However, the issue with this form of stress relief is that it largely focuses on short-term outcomes, failing to take into account the future or any longer-term goals. For example, as a player, avoiding a really difficult pre-season training session might save you from the sweat, however, it will also likely hold you back from achieving your fitness goals, keeping up to speed with other players, and building resilience against difficult training sessions.

In the face of COVID-19, and the restrictions that have come with it, psychologists have seen a rise in ‘social withdrawal/isolation’ as a form of avoidance coping. To again follow theory, there is some evolutionary merit in socially withdrawing at present. For starters, avoiding others will likely decrease your chance of catching the virus.

Moreover, it alleviates the discomfort of trying to navigate the unknown terrain of socializing with masks, in small groups and in outdoor spaces – something that has not previously been the norm. In addition to these factors, isolation in general can actually be quite a constructive process. It encourages independence, it removes distractions and external pressures, and also provides the opportunity for deep self-reflection.

However, there are also a range of negative consequences that come with isolation, which include; the removal of support networks, overthinking which can lead to inaction, and the exacerbation of challenges (build-up of difficult tasks).

Humans are inherently social beings, and social contact is not only something that can be pleasant, but is also really important for our mental health and general wellbeing. Therefore in order to fight our instinctive urge to socially withdraw and isolate in the face of distress, we must strive to avoid the avoiding! There are a number of things that we can do to better manage our discomfort, but we’ll start here with just a few for the coaches out there (even though this applies to everyone!):

  1. Build and share with your playing group both your short and long term goals – this will position the playing group to be more aware of the process they are undertaking, and likely be more resilient to discomfort as a result of understanding the context.
    1. E.G. Outlining and communicating pre-season training progressions and broader goals for the off-season to the playing group.
  2. Be kind and compassionate to yourselves and the ones around you – create an environment that is approachable and that people want to be a part of, as opposed to something they want to avoid.
    1. E.G. Working with a player to understand and improve punctuality, rather than immediately judging and punishing when they arrive late to a training session.
  3. Take small steps when trying to face new stressors – managing stress is a skill that comes with deliberate and consistent practice. So, be sure to work through challenges at an appropriate and realistic pace so you can establish some legitimate tolerance and resilience.
    1. E.G. Providing alternative training options when returning to face-to-face training for those not yet comfortable being around larger groups.

As an extension of avoidance coping, social withdrawal is a normal and common response to different stressors. Sometimes it can be constructive, but often it can be unhelpful and act as a barrier to effectively managing our stress or discomfort. If we can become better at recognizing risk factors and symptoms of withdrawal, we will be powerfully positioned to prepare, respond and support those who may be struggling. 

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