Behind closed doors: the unseen pressures on elite sportspeople
Behind closed doors: the unseen pressures on elite sportspeople

It’s less than 200 days until the re-arranged Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics and yet we are no clearer to knowing if they will take place. For the fan, that’s a mild inconvenience, for the athlete and support staff involved the uncertainty can be mentally and physically exhausting. Olympic gold medalist Hannah Mills told the BBC "It's just mentally draining - the constant changing and uncertainty.”

As we think about elite sportspeople, it could be easy to begrudge them their opportunity to train and play thinking their life is back to normal. However, in the midst of unprecedented circumstances, we are seeing and hearing of increased pressure those competing are facing, in both individual and team sports due to the pandemic and the real emotional, mental and financial impact it is having.

Constant uncertainty in team sports

Graham Daniels, General Director of Christians in Sport, has experienced first hand this new pressure sportspeople are facing as one of the team who support many elite athletes around the world, day to day.

“Without doubt the last five to six weeks is really taking its toll on the physical and psychological capacity of football players,” he said of the professional game in England’s lower leagues, especially.

For many in both football and rugby, Christmas was especially hard, as bubble rules meant extended time away from family and increased isolation. This is something that continues now as clubs work hard to keep games on, and sponsors and broadcasters happy.

Increased insecurity and uncertainty in a number of areas is causing additional tension. Financial issues at a number of professional clubs has led to doubts about if payments will be made. For others coming to the end of their contracts, the situation doesn’t lend itself well to finding a new club, with a significant number of players out of contract due to the financial uncertainty facing professional sport. For those outside the top few percent of professionals, that is a real long term financial concern.

On top of this, delays to the differing sporting seasons and the need to fulfil fixtures has led to the feeling of being on a constant treadmill with no time to rest as games are crammed in more than ever before.

Carrying uncertainty on your own

Team sports that are able to still compete like football and rugby are one thing but for many their sport has struggled to continue due to Covid restrictions. Individual sports are then another matter entirely and it is athletes in these pursuits that Daniels feels are finding it harder.

“I’ve seen more stress in the track and field world than I have in elite football, because so often these athletes have to carry the weight of the uncertainty on their own,” he said. “This may be destabilising for them, with the added isolation being an individual athlete brings.”

We see the Bible teach that God has always been in relationship within the trinity. That community and need for it, is reflected in us as people made in his image. The isolation and loneliness of lockdowns and individual training is thus heightened at this time.

When it comes to the Olympics, their potential cancellation could also lead to athletes training for 4 years for their peak only to have it tabled once again. For some this could be their last major event as an elite athlete and all they’ve worked and dreamt of for the past four years could be lost.

The exhausting nature of the uncertainty of when the next competition will be, and if these major events will even take place, are some of the challenges we may not always have considered when watching on.

Working with track and field athletes from around the world we know of one person who’s been away from their home country since February 2020. They have barely been able to train in the lockdown but need to be in the country where their coach is based.

Daniels also speaks of tennis coaches whom Christians in Sport support who are in Melbourne trying to help players prepare for the Australian Open.

We know players and coaches with positive Covid test results having to stay in their hotel room 24-7 for two weeks solid, dealing with the anxiety of the diagnosis, the pressure of trying to be ready for a Grand Slam, and being thousands of miles from home.

Helping sportspeople to see the bigger picture of life in these unprecedented times

Christians in Sport elite work has always sought to serve the elite athlete as they compete in a unique environment with the pressures their sport brings. With increased anxiety, uncertainty around contracts and the isolation of being away from family and friends (especially for those competing overseas), our work has taken on a new focus.

You may have heard of the increase in athletes attending our Bible studies during earlier lockdowns when training was cancelled. Christians in Sport staff involved in supporting elite sportspeople want to be able to respond appropriately to those athletes reaching out, and respond with a sincere care and hope, whilst always pointing to the solid hope of Jesus found in the Bible. Many of those working to support over 500 elite athletes, young and old, have been there themselves and are able to draw on experience to help sportspeople dealing with unprecedented circumstances at this time.

The pandemic has led to the increase in group bible-studies as people from the same or similar sports, from all over the world, gather together once a week to talk, pray and read the Bible together.

“The offer of spending time together with other athletes over Zoom is important. Once a week for 30 minutes with fellow sportspeople - thrilled to see each other and think about the bigger picture of life as we look at the Bible and pray with each other.”

Whilst the whole world deals with the impact of Covid-19, and the very real physical, emotional, mental and financial impacts it is having, the world of top-level sport is not immune to these pressures.

As part of our support, throughout the month of February, Christians in Sport is encouraging people to pray for elite sportspeople through our ‘Behind Closed Doors’ campaign. Sign up now to receive our prayer diary at

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