Helping Athletes Cope with the COVID-19 Pandemic

Coping with Disrupted Seasons

The global pandemic of Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the athletic world. Professional, collegiate, amateur and youth athletes of all sports are all having to cope with disrupted seasons. Some will have to wait months to compete again, others may have had their collegiate careers end unexpectedly. For those athletes, parents of athletes, coaches or fans, here are some helpful tips to cope with recent cancellations:

Grieve the Loss

Allow yourself time to grieve the loss of this season. It’s important to recognize all the feelings that may arise from this unexpected situation. The faster you allow yourself to feel the emotions that occur, the faster you can process them and move forward. Some may feel anger, sadness, disappointment. Other athletes may experience feelings of relief, and then feel guilty about feeling that way – however you feel, give yourself permission to experience those emotions. Pushing them away or covering them up is not helpful and will only prolong this process. Grieving is different for everyone, be patient and understanding toward yourself and others during this time.

Gratitude for the "Little Things"

Elite athletes love competing, and they love winning. With competition and championships on hold or canceled for 2020, it’s easy to feel like the work leading up to this point was all for nothing. It’s not helpful to your mental health to look at it this way. Instead, look at your sport through a non-competitive lens. Consider the little things about your sport that truly make it meaningful; the life-long relationships you’ve made, the discipline you’ve developed from going to early morning workouts every day, the dedication you’ve given to your team and teammates. These are life skills and experiences your sport has given you that no person or virus can take away from you.

See the Big Picture

It’s easy to get wrapped up in YOU when something so important is taken away from you. Remember that this is more than you, your season, and your team. Recognize that the game you play is a GAME, not life and death. Protecting the public health and vulnerable populations from the spread of this virus – actually is.

You are Not Alone

This is impacting athletes AROUND THE GLOBE and is a historical event we are witnessing. Grieve with your teammates, reach out to opponents you compete against. It can be helpful to connect with others that are in the same boat as you. Thankfully, technology and social media have made this incredibly easy.

The Gift of Time: Use It!

A lot of athletes are having that “What am I supposed to do now?” moment. Now is the time to work on things you never had time to put serious time and effort into before. Maybe your core stability is a weakness of yours – get on it! Maybe there is a new pitch you want to master - start some spin work at home! Cross-train to stay in shape, give cycling a try, or trail running. We are always asking for more hours in the day – in a way, now you’ve got them. Find ways to use them in a positive and productive way.

Write it Down

Research suggests that the practice of journaling can help heal wounds faster. It’s an easy way to process your emotions. It can help the grieving process move along and can help you practice gratitude in a thoughtful and purposeful way. Not only that, but the ability to look back and see your thoughts and feelings in response to the Covid-19 pandemic is also a pretty invaluable opportunity. Carve out some time each day to put pen to paper and let it flow. No rules, no censorship, for your eyes only. You’ve got the time, and it can’t hurt…what’s your excuse at this point?

A Unique Story to Share

A season-ending GLOBAL PANDEMIC – is quite the story that only a handful of athletes will experience. Use this experience to help other athletes understand that every game truly could be the last. Play like there is no tomorrow, enjoy the little things, live in the moment, and take nothing for granted. Even though there may not be a championship to compete for, live life like the elite athlete that you are; use this unfortunate event to help others and RESPOND in the face of adversity.

Nicole Denes is a performance coach and licensed professional therapist in the state of Oklahoma where she works with professional, collegiate and amateur athletes to help them reach their highest potential. She is a former pitcher for the University of Oklahoma and has been providing professional pitching and softball instruction for 20 years. She founded Be Complete Athletics in Oklahoma City in 2018, a facility that provides elite-level softball instruction and mental skills training in confidence, leadership, and mental game strategies to young athletes.

Nicole Denes, LPC
Founder, Be Complete Athletics
FB: @becompleteathletics | IG: @becompleteathletics

The Mental Game: Training a Disciplined Brain

Welcome to the first article in our mental game series!  The goal of this series is to provide you with specific information on the mental game, along with easy tips and drills you can practice at home to develop the mental toughness and fortitude you need to be successful.

It’s important to understand that YOU have control over your brain, the center of everything we think, feel and do.  This means you have the ability to train it to think in ways that are helpful to you, control your emotions, and PERFORM on the field at your best.  Remember though, your brain is with you ALL THE TIME, not just when it’s game time. That means your brain is in training 24-7. The mentally tough athlete chooses to live a LIFESTYLE of personal accountability, discipline, and self-reflection.

Your Brain is Lazy

Ultimately, your brain is lazy.  It doesn’t want to work hard and it will do everything it can to keep you from feeling uncomfortable.  It is on a constant hunt for the quickest and easiest form of dopamine it can get. In the simplest explanation, dopamine is a chemical in your brain that makes you feel good! It is connected with pleasure, motivation, and reward.

There are hundreds of immediate dopamine sources around us on a regular basis.  The easiest forms of dopamine may feel good RIGHT NOW, but the effects are not long term.  The difficult paths to dopamine may take longer, it may be uncomfortable, but the reward is greater and the effects are much more impactful.

The Disciplined Brain

Below are some examples of choices you may come across as an athlete.  One option is the easier path that feels good right NOW. The other option takes work, effort, focus, and discipline; but leads to a bigger, longer-lasting reward.  

  • Keeping an easy pace on a timed mile vs. Pushing your pace to your limit
  • Watching Netflix vs. Getting your spin reps in
  • Ice cream, cookies, and sweets vs. Chicken, rice and broccoli
  • Sleeping in as long as possible before school vs. Getting up early, having a nutritious breakfast, and feeling fully awake and energized before school

Every time we make a disciplined choice, our brain learns to expect the disciplined choice a little better.  In other words, good habits are formed and the more disciplined an athlete you become. It’s important to know that training your brain is a process, just like training your body.  It’s not going to happen easily right away, it takes commitment and accountability to make the disciplined choice, day after day.

Train your Brain. Discipline.

Train at Home Challenge: Immediate Purposeful Rewards

Allowing yourself to experience small, immediate rewards (in moderation) is important to help maintain a balance in life.  Even the most disciplined athletes allow themselves a donut every now and then. The difference is, the disciplined athlete does it with PURPOSE.

Write down an immediate reward that tends to control you.  Maybe you always go for that soda when you know you should be drinking water, or maybe you allow yourself to be distracted by your phone while you are studying.  Whatever it is, write it down along with exactly when you will allow yourself to experience that reward and for how long. Be specific! Write down the date, time, and for how long.  When the time comes, set a timer and allow yourself to do NOTHING else but enjoy that moment. You will find that you will savor it more, and as a result, may not feel like you need or crave it as much throughout the week.

Good luck!

How to Generate Power and Explosiveness off the Mound

One of my favorite things about providing instruction is that there are always several different methods to get the same outcome. When trying to help a pitcher generate power and explosiveness off the mound, I like to focus on loading the hips, activating the glute, and driving forward with the hips and shoulders square off the mound.  

Rachel Garcia of UCLA and the 2020 U.S. Olympic softball team shows us a great example in this video:

What to Look For:

You can see that Garcia's hips and glute are loaded as she drives through the heel of her right foot (drive leg), and the hips move just behind the rubber before she begins her stride.  One easy way to help a young pitcher feel this is my “Heel, Toe, Go” weight shift drill.

Heel, Toe, Go - 1st Progression

Key Takeaways:

  • Starting “like a penguin” with arms to the side, helps the focus of the drill stay on the lower half and shifting weight appropriately.
  • Lifting the back/front leg respectively increases body awareness and helps the pitcher feel all of their weight shift.
  • Incorporating the use of a balance pod can help a pitcher feel their weight press through the heel, and thus, activating the glute.

As the pitcher gets the hang of this, move to the next progression, where we keep both feet on the mound while continuing to feel the weight shift, and incorporating their typical wind-up.

Heel, Toe, Go - 2nd Progression

Key Takeaways:

  • A pitcher’s weight should continue to shift completely to the front leg when the drive is initiated, no weight should be left on the backside or middle.
  • Watch for a “rogue toe” of the drive foot that opens up too early, this will open the hips too early and take away power.  Emphasize the shift from heel to toe to help hips and toe stay straight at the catcher off the mound.
  • Timing with the wind up is key, arm(s) should be moving forward when stride foot begins to move forward.
Nicole Denes, Be Complete Athletics

Nicole Denes is a performance coach and licensed professional therapist in the state of Oklahoma where she works with professional, collegiate and amateur athletes to help them reach their highest potential.  She is a former pitcher for the University of Oklahoma and has been providing professional pitching and softball instruction for 20 years. She founded Be Complete Athletics in Oklahoma City in 2018, a facility that provides elite-level softball instruction and mental skills training in confidence, leadership, and mental game strategies to young athletes.

Coaching Perfectionist Pitchers

Coaches have the power to influence their players in ways that parents just can’t.  I can’t tell you how many times parents tell me, “I tell her the same thing, but it means so much more coming from you.”  That means coaches can help change the negative thinking patterns and habits a perfectionist pitcher/athlete is likely experiencing.  Hopefully, Part I of this article will help you clearly identify your perfectionist pitcher/athlete on your team.  Part II will give you a few helpful tips to encourage and coach this particular athlete.

Three Helpful Coaching Tips

Points of Emphasis:

Use the Defense
  • Teach your pitcher how to use their defense, don’t assume that they already know what that means. 
    • Sit behind them when they are throwing live or practicing situations and walk through locations while explaining the type of pitch that would help set the defense up to hold a runner.
    • This creates teachable moments when your pitcher falls into the mode of “trying to strike everyone out.” 
    • Really praise the pitcher when they allow the defense to work versus giving up a walk.
    • Help them understand that a ball in play does not mean “bad” – and know that in the perfectionist’s brain, it likely does.
Controllable Culture
  • Create a team culture around the “little things” that make the game great; energy, hustle, picking up another teammate, etc.
    • Essentially these are processes within the game that the athlete has 100% control over. 
    • Be deliberate and clear when talking about the “little things”, so there is no question that the athlete knows what is in their control and what is not.
    • The perfectionist believes they can control things that in reality, they can’t. 
    • You may sound repetitive, but the perfectionist pitcher/athlete needs to be reminded of this over and over again.
Re-direct Negativity
  • Challenge “All or Nothing” and “Coulda-woulda-shoulda” statements IMMEDIATELY.
    • Help them redirect their frustration toward something they can control. Example:
      • Perfectionist Pitcher:  “If I would have struck her out, they never would have scored, and we could have won the game.”
      • Coach:  “Do you have 100% control over the ball once it leaves your hand?”
      • Perfectionist Pitcher: “No.”
      • Coach:  “No, but you do have control over how you prepare for the weekend.  And so do we, as a team. Let's focus on how we can prepare differently to have a different outcome next time.”

Take Advantage of Teachable Moments

One weekend, one practice, one game, will provide you with numerous teachable moments and opportunities to help a perfectionist pitcher.  You might be the best person to talk to parents about changes they can make in the home to further challenge the negative mindset and tendencies for this particular player.  As mentioned in Part I, pitchers, athletes, and non-athletes that severely struggle with perfectionism would most likely benefit from the help of a mental skills coach, and in some cases, an individual or family therapist.  When done in a sensitive way, a coach’s suggestion to seek professional help can be the catalyst a family, parent or player needs to make real changes.

5 Signs of a Perfectionist Pitcher

Perfectionism is rampant in today’s youth culture, especially among girls and women; research suggests that girls and women tend to show more perfectionistic behaviors and thought patterns than boys and men (Kay & Shipman, 2014).

In my 20 years of experience working with young athletes, it is even more rampant within athletes that fall into the “specialized sport” category, and even more so among young pitchers; a “specialized position” within a “specialized sport.” The perceived (and real) pressures young pitchers can put on themselves beginning at younger and younger ages can result in negative and overly critical responses to mistakes or outcomes.

Overthinking, people-pleasing, and the inability to let go of mistakes are classic perfectionism at it’s best.  Most likely, everyone has experienced these behaviors to some degree, and your child probably has too. Perfectionism is essentially untrue, false, thinking patterns that the perfectionist believes to be true.  If you TRULY expect a perfect outcome, you are setting yourself up to never feel good enough.

Below are five signs of a perfectionist pitcher, followed by some quick tips for parents to help your pitcher overcome these damaging thinking patterns.

Early Success

The Perfectionist Pitcher is often an athlete that experienced success early.  Pitching came naturally to them, they were throwing harder and more accurately than other players at a young age, which most likely resulted in a lot of strikeouts, a lot of wins, a lot of recognition, and a lot of awards.  Somewhere along the way, this athlete started to believe they are capable of striking out everyone, that they can win every game, that they should get every tournament MVP – anything less is unacceptable.  This pitcher strives for perfection, which according to Hamidi and Besharat (2010) is not a bad thing, it is when the athlete negatively responds to mistakes and imperfections that can become damaging.

Highly Critical and/or Easily Stressed Parents

The “easily stressed” parent:

  • The parent that “blows up” 
  • Tends to shut down emotionally
  • Rescues their child when they struggle

Kids with easily stressed parents do whatever they can to maintain peace.  

They recognize changes in your mood, your tone, your attitude more than you realize and when a parent is affected by a child’s performance, the child begins to believe,  “When I pitch well, dad is happy. When I pitch bad, dad is not happy.” 

The “highly critical parent” can be critical of:  

  • Themselves. “I can’t believe I got a parking ticket. I am so stupid.”
  • Others. “You would have thrown a better game if your coach knew how to call pitches.”
  • Their child.  “You played awful today. That’s what happens when you’re lazy.”

Fill in the blank however you want, the message the athlete internalizes is that "__________________is not good enough,” a mentality that creates rigid or stubborn thinking patterns, where mistakes in any form are absolutely unacceptable.

All or Nothing

All or nothing thinking patterns are dangerous.  They are inaccurate beliefs that set us up for failure.  Here are some examples from the perfectionist pitchers I have worked with over the years:

  • High pitch counts against strong hitting teams 
    • “If I don’t strike them out, they’ll get a hit.”
  • Self-esteem is significantly effected if they are not clearly the ace on the staff/team.
    • “If I’m not the best, I’m the worst.”
  • Over identifies with the role of “pitcher” or “softball player” 
    • “I’d be nothing if I didn’t play softball.”
  • Experiences shame and/or embarrassment over losses or mistakes
    • “I don’t deserve to spend time with my friends after the way I pitched.”
  • Fear of letting others down 
    • “My dad has put so much time and money into my pitching, if I don’t get a scholarship it will all be for nothing.”

Pre-game Warm-ups are TOO LONG

I see this quite a bit.  Young pitchers spending over 30 minutes throwing pitches, working every drill, every spin, every possible thing they might work on in a lesson or a bullpen session. They are hyper-focused on the outcome of each pitch. It needs to feel perfect, look perfect, BE PERFECT before they feel game ready.  My response to them is simple:

  • How many times have you warmed up PERFECTLY, and had a rough outing in the game?
  • How many times have you had a CRAPPY warm-up, and threw lights out in the game?

Every pitcher has experienced both situations before.  Why? The pace, the approach, the MENTALITY changed from the bullpen to the mound.  Pregame warm-up is about the mental game, NOT being perfect with mechanics.

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda...

These three words are classic signs that you are dealing with a perfectionist.

  • “I could have done better…”
  • “I should be able to strike out at least 10 hitters this game…”
  • “I would have got the MVP if I wouldn’t have lost the game for us…”

These words create ADDED and UNNECESSARY pressure on the athlete and are flat out toxic.  They are the breeding ground for perfectionism, all or nothing thinking, and are essentially the refusal to accept or learn from a mistake.

3 Helpful Tips for Parents of Perfectionist Pitchers

Key Takeaways:
  • Practice self-awareness in your day-to-day life, model appropriate ways to respond to mistakes and talk to yourself, especially in front of your child.
  • Watch softball together with your child in a mindful and conscious manner.  Use this time to talk through ways the players can recover or learn from mistakes in a healthy way. Retrain her brain to view mistakes as helpful learning tools, rather than detrimental and threatening.
  • Keep the game in perspective. Place less emphasis and value on outcomes, accolades, and accomplishments.  Help your daughter set process-oriented goals and focus on the things she has total control over.

Combating Perfectionism Together

Thank you for reading, and I hope these tips help you guide your softball player into a healthy, yet competitive environment. Coaches play an important part in maintaining that environment. If you know a coach who might enjoy a few of these tips, keep them on the lookout for Combating Perfectionism: Part two. Next week, I will share three tips for coaching perfectionist pitchers.


Appleton, P.R., Hall, H.K., & Hill, A.P. (2010). Family patterns of perfectionism: an examination of elite junior athletes and their parents. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, pp. 1-9. 

Hamidi, S. & Besharat, M.A. (2010). Perfectionism and competitive anxiety in athletes. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, volume 5, pp. 813- 817.

Kay, K. & Shimpan, C. (2014). The Confidence Code. Syndey, Austraila. HarperCollins Publishers.

Perfectionist Pitcher - Nicole Headshot
Nicole Denes Bio

Nicole Denes is a performance coach and licensed professional therapist in the state of Oklahoma where she works with professional, collegiate and amateur athletes to help them reach their highest potential.  She is a former pitcher for the University of Oklahoma and has been providing professional pitching and softball instruction for 20 years. She founded Be Complete Athletics in Oklahoma City in 2018, a facility that provides elite-level softball instruction and mental skills training in confidence, leadership, and mental game strategies to young athletes.