The game must go on, says sport psychologist | News | DW | 12.04.2017
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The game must go on, says sport psychologist

A day after the Borussia Dortmund attack, players are back on the pitch. In a DW interview, sport psychologist Jens Kleinert explains why restoring a "business as usual" attitude is important.

Deutsche Welle: Shortly before the Champions League match against AS Monaco on Tuesday night, three explosive devices went off near Borussia Dortmund's team bus. One can only guess how the players feel at the moment. How does one help players psychologically?

Jens Kleinert: Ultimately, it varies greatly from player to player. Some people suppress their feelings; others want to talk about it. Team managers and support staff can offer sport psychological help if difficulties persist. It is obvious, for example, when a player seems confused, cannot concentrate or even asks for help. As far as I know, Dortmund has contacts and maybe even a sport psychologist who works with them.

Otherwise, is important that "business as usual" resumes.  It means the familiar routines and rituals before a match – even though it has been postponed – are followed and that the day the goes the same as always.

Why is that so important?

A sense of security is needed, especially in a situation like this. Security means that one has the usual experiences and can cling to a normal routine. In unusual situations, it helps restore a certain level of relaxation. If everything is suddenly different, it could add to the anxiety.

In this respect, one should try to  maintain rituals as much as possible. Nonetheless, images of yesterday's events will resurface for some players, especially if they have a moment to contemplate.

From the view of sport psychology, how can you get people back in shape for a match within 24 hours?

It is certain that the situation has not been completely processed within 24 hours. It doesn't work like that that. The players will start processing everything afterwards. One or two people may have difficulties sleeping in the coming days and weeks. Right now, one can only focus on important matters like what has to be done in the match. What tactics will we use? What is important to know about the opponent? The actual sport must be prioritized in the hope that the emotional stress fades far into the background.

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Subconsciously, these emotions and the insecurity will probably still be there. Today's match may well be less aggressive than other Champions League matches because there are inhibitions in the back of the players' minds.

Do you expect medium-term consequences for the players?

Normally, the mental healing powers of humans are very strong. By this I mean that after a bad event, people use techniques that they have become accustomed to, be it talking to others or finding distractions. Not everyone is capable of doing that. In the near future, these players need attention to see whether there are any who retreat for a long time or act differently in training sessions than they have in the past. It is important that these people are offered sport psychological or clinical psychological counseling.

It would definitely be a bad experience for anyone. But what is the difference between top athletes and other people with regard to processing these events?

There is no difference whatsoever with regard to psychological mechanisms. Professional athletes do not have great advantages or disadvantages when dealing with bad experiences. But there may be one thing that is better and that is the capacity to concentrate despite their personal problems. They are certainly better at that than your average Joe.

Can one say anything good about these terrible things?

Yes, one can. It is a type of coping strategy. People try to get the best out of it and they have put the situation into perspective. When you put the situation into perspective in this case, then you see that the two opposing teams and their fans have become closer and that the match is no longer about fighting each other but showing that the sport itself counts and that they are united. That, of course, is something positive, even if it sounds ironic in this situation. But when, for example, fans from the opposing team are offered accommodation, it is something wonderful.

Jens Kleinert is a professor at the Institute of Psychology at the the German Sport University in Cologne.

This interview was conducted by Stephanie Höppner.

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