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ATHLETE DEVELOPMENT

A Professional Athlete's Experience Returning to Sports During COVID-19

The National Women’s Soccer League was the first professional sports team league to successfully return to play in the US in 2020 after the COIVD-19 pandemic halted the sports world back in March. When I heard that the NWSL was moving forward with the Challenge Cup this June (a "bubble" style, month long tournament held in Utah), I was ecstatic. After 3 long months without sports, they were finally coming back and I was even more excited that it was women’s soccer! Before the tournament began, I found out a former teammate of mine, Nicole Baxter, had signed with New Jersey’s team, Sky Blue FC, and I knew I had to tune in for every game.

In June, I was not yet used to the new normal of sports, and it was weird to watch the games with no fans in the stadium and fan noise edited into the background. If I found it odd, I wondered how the players felt being there. What was it like to play in an empty stadium? Then, I began to think about the player’s experience at the tournament in general. This bubble style tournament was unlike anything any of them had ever played in before. What was it like? How were they doing? Could they really not see anyone other than their team and other teams for a whole month?! Thankfully, Nicole was able to shine some light on what it was like returning to the field during these unprecedented times.


Nicole shared a little about her experience in the NWSL bubble below.


What was your experience at the NWSL Challenge Cup in the bubble?

Being in the bubble at the Challenge Cup was a really interesting experience for me. There were days where I felt incredibly lucky to be there and there were days where I felt emotional and trapped. On one hand, I was in awe that I got to be a part of a tournament that marked the first American sports league to return during the COVID-19 pandemic. I got to play soccer every day in amazing weather; I got to live in a nice hotel with every meal catered; I got to spend a ton of time with my good friends. On the other hand, I felt extremely stressed and anxious about the lack of freedom that came with living in a bubble. The days were monotonous and there wasn’t a whole lot to do to mentally or physically escape for the stressors of a high-pressure, competitive soccer environment. Overall though, I am incredibly grateful for the experience and the memories that are associated with it. It’s already been pretty special to look back on and talk about with my teammates.

How did playing in a “bubble” affect you mentally? Physically? How did you deal with it?

I would say that the challenges that I faced during the Challenge Cup were entirely mental. It felt easy to physically take care of myself given that I wasn’t getting a ton of playing time and had so many recovery resources at my fingertips. Mentally, though, it was really challenging for me because I am so used to having an off switch. When I get really hung up on soccer, whether it be thoughts on how I am performing, frustrations about playing time, or even a mistake that I made that I can’t seem to get over, I like to take a step back by turning off the soccer brain and just having fun doing something else. On a regular day, I “turn off” from soccer by catching up with friends from home, going to the beach, playing tennis, etc. In the bubble, it felt like it was just soccer ALL the time, so I wasn’t able to really stop thinking about soccer or take a break from it.

I ended up being able to deal with it by creating my own escape. I upped my social media game and I tried to connect with people while sharing some of our experiences in the bubble. I wouldn’t normally use social media as a go-to escape, but I had to get creative given the situation. I knew I needed something to take my mind off of soccer and because of how many people were following the tournament on social media, it ended up being incredibly fun for me to share a lot my journey through Twitter and Instagram. In a sense, it was a way for me to talk out loud to people who weren’t my teammates about what was going on in the bubble, and that was really cathartic.


Sky Blue FC at the Challenge Cup

What were your thoughts about being the first pro sport to play in this kind of environment?


It felt pretty surreal that we were able to be the first pro sports league to resume play in the U.S. after the coronavirus outbreak. At first, it was actually quite scary because there was so much that was unknown. A lot of states in the U.S. were still experiencing so many deaths due to COVID-19 and because no league had resumed yet, we didn’t have a good example of anyone pulling off the return of sport. We just had to trust the people in charge and really commit to the game plan. Once we got into the bubble and we realized how safe it was and how well the league and players association did in planning and executing the tournament, it became that much cooler that we were able to do it. We weren’t just the first league to resume, we were the first league to resume without anyone testing positive for the virus. The fact that we were able to do it AND maintain everyone’s health and safety is what I am most proud of, and I still don’t think anyone gives women’s soccer enough credit for having done that!


What advice would you give to an athlete who is dealing with balancing sports, life, and new changes due to COVID?

Balancing sports, life, and new changes due to COVID-19 is stressful! Life changed really quickly and I know for me, the new reality we are living in has made me super anxious. It has made me wary of any decision I make or action that I take. Should I be getting coffee? Are we sure it is safe for me to be playing a contact sport? Do I follow the state regulations and let myself eat inside a restaurant or do I just play it safe and stay at home?

@nicolebaxter12

For everyone just trying their best to balance these things, I think it is important to know that all of your worries are valid and it is okay to ask for help if you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious. There is no perfect way to deal with the situation we’re in, but I am trying my best to take it one day and one decision at a time.




Check out my class on Balancing Sports and School During COVID-19 to learn more about how you can deal with returning to sports during these times.

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