Warren Wilson psychology professor Bob Swoap, Ph.D., has found a creative way to use his skills to make a difference during COVID-19— helping the U.S. Olympic table tennis team deal with coping in isolation.
USA Table Tennis has hired Swoap to serve as the sport psychologist for the U.S. National team. Swoap, who teaches psychology at Warren Wilson and is a table tennis player himself, said it is one way he can respond with compassion to what is happening in the world.
“These athletes, who are so driven, are like tigers in cages right now,” Swoap said. “I think it’s really important to support anyone and everyone who is struggling during this difficult situation. This is a chance for me to connect with athletes who have lofty aspirations, and to help them move toward their goals during this time.”
Swoap said the athletes are dealing with the added stress of having the Summer Olympics pushed back to next year, as well as how to keep up their training in isolation. USA Table Tennis held trials and announced its team in early March, and so, unlike some sports, the team has already been selected.
Swoap leads weekly remote meetings with the team to talk about various topics, including dealing with anxiety and other emotions during the time of COVID-19, training attention, learning how to handle challenging emotions and negative self-talk, building grit, playing with presence and joy, and dealing with adversity.
In their first week, Swoap used a mindfulness-based practice to help the athletes improve focus and cope with isolation.
“Table tennis is a sport that is highly demanding from a mental standpoint. It is fast-paced, and there are lots of mistakes that one makes,” Swoap said. “One of my main goals is to help the team members improve their responses to errors and other setbacks, so that they quickly refocus on the next point. Another major goal is to provide support and coping strategies as they experience this disruption (COVID-19) to their training routines and to their lives.”
Swoap first became involved with USA Table Tennis when he was in graduate school at the University of Florida and held a one-year internship with the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. It was there he met Sean O’Neill, now a two-time Olympic table tennis player who works as the high performance director for USA Table Tennis.
O’Neill recognized the importance of mental training to the Olympic team, especially now when athletes are isolated due to COVID-19. He said Swoap brings a unique perspective because he understands the sport and the challenges the players face.
“Table Tennis is a very mental and stressful sport, and the top players can control those factors the best. These are all trainable skills (that) we know that Bob will help us improve,” O’Neill said. “I am sure Bob will provide tools, to both the national team and those going to Tokyo next year, to play more relaxed and more focused.”
The experience will impact Swoap’s Warren Wilson College students too.
“I had Sean join us via Google Meet to talk about the psychology of coaching. It was a great class,” Swoap said. Since mid-March, Warren Wilson College has held all its classes online. “The students have been excited for me and happy to learn more about sport psychology implemented at an elite level.”
At Warren Wilson, Swoap teaches and conducts research in clinical and sport psychology. Swoap is also a licensed clinical psychologist utilizing evidence-based interventions with patients experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma and other forms of psychological distress.
“Supporting young people during this time is something I really care about,” Swoap said.