Managing Stress and Anxiety in a Changing Environment

By John Kmitta

Sports field managers are accustomed to stress. However, the areas of anxiety in 2020 have not been related to event loads and field usage, but rather areas of concern such as reduced access to fields, fewer work hours, crew and staff reductions, budget cuts, furloughs, layoffs and much more – all accompanied by the health and wellness concerns of life and work amid a global pandemic.

According to Tammy Jackson-Gill, M.S., M. Div., licensed psychologist, owner of Healing Grace Counseling Center in Lee’s Summit, Mo., and wife of STMA Past President Jody Gill, one of the biggest challenges for sports field managers is figuring out how to maintain fields during these challenging times and still feel good about the results, even if the fields may not be up to their typical standards. 

When dealing with pressures from others to make fields perfect while struggling to do that with limited staff, limited time, and limited resources, it’s important to know that you can’t be perfect all the time, and accept that you may have to work with a little less than you are used to, said Jackson-Gill. 

Another common stressor right now is worry and anxiety over the unknown, said Lisa Goatley, M.S., a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Blacksburg, Va., and wife of Dr. Mike Goatley, professor and extension turfgrass specialist at Virginia Tech.

“We have so many uncertainties in life currently, and human beings generally dislike uncertainty,” she said. “We have worry over the health and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. Will we be exposed to COVID-19? Will my loved ones get sick?  Will any of my family die from the virus?  We also have worry over our livelihoods and the state of the economy. Many of us have been furloughed or laid off, and members of our families have experienced the same. We worry about making our mortgages and monthly bills. We worry about our family’s financial health in the future.”

According to Goatley, in order to manage worry and anxiety, be mindful of your cognitive narrative – the ongoing commentary in your head about the world and what is happening. Be aware of what you are saying to yourself and focus on rational, here-and-now thoughts. 


“Turning to a trusted friend or mentor can help us remain calm and rational in times of stress,” said Goatley.

Jackson-Gill added that during this time of social distancing, it is extremely important to communicate with supervisors, crew members, other sports field managers, family and friends. 

“It would be easy to have a bootstraps-type of mentality and say, ‘I can take care of myself, I don’t need anybody else,’” she said. “But we do – even if it is just to check in and say, ‘I’ve had a hard day,’ or ‘I’ve had a great day.’” 

Added Goatley, “As humans, we are social beings. Even those of us who generally identify as loners were not made to live in isolation. Quarantine, and the loss of normal social interaction, has been extremely difficult.”

Goatley recommends reaching out in wise ways, especially via modern technology that makes it possible for us to communicate in real time and “gather” virtually.  “Some of us are heading back out into the world – some cautiously and some with abandon – and some of us are still living in full quarantine,” Goatley added. “Whatever your risk tolerance, remember to connect regularly to both seek out and provide support.”

Added Jackson-Gill, “Reach out. Connect. You’re not alone.”

Helping others, and helping yourself

Speaking of not being alone, throughout the pandemic we have heard from sports field managers who say that they are not worried about themselves, but that they are worried about crew members or staff who have been furloughed or who face other challenges during these times. Jackson-Gill said it is important to be compassionate and caring, but also to be careful not to feel compelled to carry the burden of others.

If you care about your employees, you are going to have some concern,” she said. “If you are a loving person, you are going to care. It’s a matter of knowing what the boundary is and what you can do for them.”

Jackson-Gill said part of that balance is believing in that other person and helping them realize that they have it within themselves to solve their problems. She recommends checking on others, offering help, letting them know you care, and sharing resources to support their needs, while at the same time realizing that you are limited in how much you can carry someone else’s emotion for them.

“Be a listening ear, but not to take it upon yourself that you are responsible for solving that other person’s problem,” she added.

COVID-19 messaging

During the past few months, it has also been a challenge for many when it comes to processing COVID-19 messaging, being aware of what is going on and how it is impacting the world, while at the same time not being overwhelmed, paralyzed or depressed by the information.

“It can be overload,” said Jackson-Gill. “You can get obsessed with it and want to read every article. But that doesn’t always help.”

According to Goatley, try to remain informed about what is going on in the world with COVID-19, but avoid consuming information 24 hours a day.

“Find a reputable source of information and get an update once a day,” she said. “There are plenty of news outlets that have been broadcasting 24 hours a day, and it has been tempting to keep this on in the background – but try to avoid doing so.”

Jackson-Gill said that it is important to stay focused on your tasks for the day. She added that everyone is different in how much news/information they can handle, so be aware if it interferes with your functioning, thinking, relationships, sleep or self care. If so, then you need to back off. Information overload can increase anxiety, so be tuned into your body and your mind, and take good care of yourself.

“Likewise, limit social media time and consumption of sensationalistic and alarmist postings,” said Goatley. “Be mindful of what is on TV and the conversations you have around children. They see and hear more than we think, and can easily become frightened. Answer their questions in a matter-of-fact manner based on reputable information and their stage of development.”

Mind and body

“Worry and anxiety can interfere with sleep,” said Goatley. “It can be difficult to shut off our mind in order to relax and fall asleep.” 

Goatley’s advice for good sleep hygiene includes keeping a regular sleep/wake schedule, avoiding caffeine after 2 p.m., avoiding screen time within several hours of sleep, avoiding the news just before bed, lowering the temperature in the room, avoiding sleeping during the day, and getting regular exercise.

“If you have difficulty turning off your mind, try using a progressive relaxation or guided imagery exercise,” she added.

Goatley added that general stress management practices are now more important than ever. “Remember the basics of taking care of your body and brain,” she said. “Get regular exercise, good nutrition, adequate rest, and stay hydrated. Limit your use of alcohol, caffeine and nicotine.”

Said Jackson-Gill, We teach managing anxiety and stress from a whole-person approach – the body, the mind, the spirit and the relational piece.” 

As for the body, According to Jackson-Gill, research shows how stress is stored in our bodies, so make sure you move, every day. Moving in mindful ways, such as yoga and other types of exercise, is important to managing stress and worry. Tuning into your body and letting yourself breathe deeply and relax will help release anxiety from the body. 

From the mind, take notice of your thinking habits – are you thinking rationally or do you have unrealistic or unlikely fears? Challenge those negative thoughts, and allow yourself to work through things using rational information. 

Then add the spiritual component as well, said Jackson-Gill. “Studies show that people who pray or even practice meditation are better equipped to deal with stress,” she said. “So, include that in your practice and take care of yourself in all ways.”

With regard to relationships, “Make sure that you have somebody who cares about you, and that you care about, with whom you are sharing your thoughts and feelings.”

New challenges meet the old

When play resumes, sports field managers will not only be faced with their traditional areas of stress such as event loads, pressure from administration or management, and the desire for perfection, but also new challenges such as social distancing and player and spectator health and safety – in many cases while dealing with reduced crews and/or reduced budgets. 

According to Jackson-Gill, it is important to be aware of those challenges ahead of time and not be afraid to ask for help.

“Let your supervisors or employers know that we are all limited in what we can do,” she said. “Be prepared to communicate, in a fair fashion, with your employer and supervisor about what is realistic.”

Jackson-Gill advises communicating timelines for when you can have specific tasks accomplished, and managing overall expectations. 

“Set good boundaries around work and communicate actively with your administration,” said Goatley. “Guidelines around COVID-19 are continuously evolving, and concerns around the pandemic create additional stress. Again, active communication across all domains with your administration, staff and colleagues can reduce misunderstandings and difficult feelings.”

Goatley added that it is vital to remember the importance of downtime and leisure activities in managing stress.

“Set boundaries around checking e-mail, text messages, and phone messages,” she said. “It can be tempting to respond at all hours of the day or night; but time away from the stressors of work is critically important. If you find that you are more irritable or quick to anger, feeling more down than usual, and feel that you are not coping well, reach out to your physician or a therapist for help.”  

Key takeaways

According to Jackson-Gill, there are some silver linings in all this that can serve as key takeaways moving forward. Many people have found joy in having family time during the past few months, having dinner together rather than on the run, slowing down and reconnecting, so it is important to be mindful of that in the future.

“Finding a work/life balance moving forward could be a very good thing we learn from this,” she said. “We are all human beings, and we all want to have a family life, too. So, how can we take aspects of this moving forward and have a more balanced life where we value the family life as much as the field’s perfection?

“I know how many hours people who do this job are away from family,” she added. “Finding the balance in that is so important. Don’t overdo it in getting the fields ready to the point that you have lost touch with your families and the relationships that matter.”

According to Goatley, it is important to remember that these are difficult times for everyone, and it is useful to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

“Look for the good,” she added. “While there are plenty of negative stories out there, we have also seen many examples of people caring, helping and sharing. Adjust your expectations. We are all trying to maintain a sterile home, educate children, telework, and live in close quarters under extremely stressful conditions. Try to move with compassion and grace through these difficult times.”

Jackson-Gill added that, moving forward, it will be important to find ways to be more calm and peaceful, and also grow in our awareness to care for one another.

“Let’s look out for one another a little more, be mindful of one another’s whole person,” she said. “We’re human beings. So to take that with us and have more compassion would be really good.”

John Kmitta is associate publisher and editorial brand director of SportsField Management magazine.