Column: Sports psychologist offers advice on life without sports

Dr. Andrew Yellen, 72, is in his 36th year as a Granada Hills-based sports psychologist after spending 10 years as football coach at Van Nuys Grant from 1974-84.

At a time when sports competitions have been halted at all levels because of the COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing policies are in place, the stress level is rising in many families. If anybody is in position to offer advice, it’s Yellen, who took time in a Zoom call from his office to answer some questions.

In this month of social distancing, closed schools and no sports competitions, what are your recommendations for teenage athletes and stressed-out parents to cope?

“Parents have to understand they’re not going to swoop in and tell their kids what to do. The athletes are going to push back. You have to give them some space. They have to understand it’s not their responsibility to be on their kids every moment of every day. Should there be a schedule? Yes. Any disruptions or difficulties in family dynamics get exacerbated. The families that didn’t have trouble before tend to run smoothly and the family that had problems before, oh boy.”

For parents worried about their children, is there a recommendation to find a new distraction other than sports?

“You have to have more than just one interest. It doesn’t make any difference what it is. It is an opportunity to either continue with some novel task they started or start something new. Who the heck knows how long we’re going to be together? What could you learn in 20, 30 hours? Play the guitar, play the piano. People are making funny movies. People have dressed up dogs. You have to get through this with some degree of humor.”

Usually sports is what we turn to when we want to be distracted in a positive way. Is there anything to which you can compare this sports suspension?

“I think this is unprecedented. I don’t think there’s anything anyone can point to. This is a defining moment. The question is what’s going to happen afterward.”

How should everyone prepare for the day sports return?

“Here’s what I told a couple of athletes. We’ll find out who’s really prepared. You’re going to see people who are self-disciplined. If you’re a coach you want to find out who takes this stuff seriously. There’s a ton of stuff you can do to stay in shape. You can call it a rehab because really that’s what’s going to happen. The further they let them slide, the longer it will take to come back and the harder. If you let yourself go, the starting point is lower and lower. What you’re going to see is a lot of kids don’t have the self discipline to push on their own, which is why they need a good coach to push them. Should they go overboard, doing three or four hours a day? No. They’ll burn out because we don’t know how long this is going to go.”

How do you stay emotionally healthy without sports?

“You can get as silly as you want. Invent a sport. Living room baseball. Come up with something. Do something new. The reality is if it’s on a court or field, it’s not going to be viable because of social distancing. It’s put us in a situation we really have to think. Two guys were practicing throwing 20 yards apart. But they were touching the baseball. Whether high-fiving each other or tackling each other, it’s what we do as an athlete. When you live and breathe sports, this makes it extremely difficult. There’s not an easy answer to any of this because we haven’t been through it.”

What’s your recommendation to coaches?

“Get everybody on your team on Zoom together and run through an exercise. Everybody has a smart phone or computer. Run through drills and do it together. The coach can see who’s on the call. That’s the beauty of team sports. What are the lessons learned? You get through stuff as a team. Connect as a team. Do it as a virtual team workout.”

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