HIGH PERFORMANCE coach Don MacNaughton believes a new-found appreciation for mental health will ensure Scotland’s footballers are able to navigate an unprecedented period of isolation.
The enforced shut-down of the domestic game due to the coronavirus outbreak has left a swathe of elite athletes without the structure of daily training and adrenaline rush of competitive fixtures to complete their week.
Allied with the ongoing uncertainty regarding when this time of flux will end, it has left players facing an onerous emotional challenge.
MacNaughton is one of the nation’s most respected experts in sports psychology and personal development, having worked with a host of top-flight clubs, and the Scottish and Irish football associations. He has also published several books which address the topic.
And that experience tells him that modern athletes are capable of looking after their emotional and physical well-being.
“Players now are more aware of how important it is to stay mentally and emotionally healthy, as well as physically, and how connected those things are,” explained MacNaughton.
“Clubs know this too and will have staff in place to focus on the psychological well-being of their players and staff during this period without football.
“There will be advice and guidance available and I would expect a strong focus to be placed on setting targets, giving them a purpose – trying to mitigate the feeling of uncertainty which, if not addressed, can be difficult.
“Modern footballers have a very high level of emotional literacy, they know their strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. They are increasingly thoughtful and consider the game very carefully, thinking about their own well-being an awful lot more than in the past.
“It is a test of self-discipline but, more and more, players now have that in abundance.”
Nevertheless, MacNaughton is loath to underestimate the difficulty of being cooped up in their homes for athletes whose careers are defined by high-level competition and remaining fit and active.
‘Controlling the controllables’, setting achievable goals and watching old footage to encourage positive thinking are among his top tips as he seeks to troubleshoot some of the major issues he foresees for frustrated players.
“The brain likes to have a beginning, middle and end,” MacNaughton continued. “Uncertainty won’t help anyone, particularly high-level athletes who crave structure and training.
“There will be thinkers who quietly ruminate on the situation, there will be extroverts who miss the social aspect of the game – and everything in between – but the stoic philosophy of only tackling what is right in front of you is the way forward.
“You CAN control your own behaviour, so set yourself targets, try to complete training drills and take a sense of achievement from that.
“Focus on your diet, sleep patterns; little things like that. Watch clips of yourself playing for positive visualisation and that bit of adrenaline that comes from reliving that.
“And if you catch yourself worrying about your career or future, catch that thought and think: ‘Is there a phone-call I could make? Is there some advice out there?’ Take control and manage your mind.”
And MacNaughton insists the prevalence of technology will be a game-changer as clubs seek to keep their players active, engaged and valued during this spell of isolation.
He continued: “This would be far more challenging if not for some of the tools the teams are now able to call upon.
“Whether it’s FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp or some of the data monitoring technology that bigger clubs have, there is a connectivity between the coaches and players.
“Technology gets a hard time in football sometimes – some folk will rail against the iPad and the likes – but in this area, it is absolutely invaluable to ensure players in isolation don’t feel isolated.”