Covid-19 : How to mentally deal with the situation as an athlete
The current situation is unprecedented in modern history. If the global situation and the health crisis are of course the priority, the impacts in the sport arena are immense and of a level never seen before: suspension of most of all leagues and championships in most of sports, some of them completely cancelled, the soccer European championship and the Olympic Games postponed to next year, cancellation of certain major tournaments like Wimbledon and so on…And in addition, the lock down or shelter in place in many countries prevent the athletes to practice and breaks their routine.
All this tends to create a significant anxiety and uncertainty. The goal of this article is to offer a few tips in order to move forward in a constructive way during this troubled period.
Recognize your emotions
It is important to recognize and hold space for your emotions, including the emotions often presented as negative like sadness, frustration, anger, anxiety, fear, boredom, etc.
We usually tend to react in one of the following two ways:
- We let these “negative” emotions overwhelm us and take control and we become their victim. For instance, we see everything in dark, we feel powerless and find all the reasons why we can’t reach our objectives.
- Or we pretend they are not here, avoid them thinking that they are “bad” and we jump into excessive positivism right away. In this case, the unaddressed emotions stay in the back of our mind, in the background, and prevent us from moving forward in a liberated, constructive and healthy way. A saying resumes it brilliantly, which says that “we can’t leave a place we haven’t been to”.
The goal is therefore first to recognize your emotions, to name them in order to better understand them and accept them, not as a fatality, but just as an observation, without judgment.
Hold space to feel them, of course ensuring that you don’t harm anyone (oneself or others). This doesn’t mean you are passively accepting a situation that you don’t like or agree with, just that you accept your humanity and how you feel in the moment in a compassionate way. Only then is it possible to move forward in a positive and constructive way.
Breath slower and deeper to better release stress
In a future article, I’ll share more details about some stress management techniques. For now, I am inviting you to use a very simple way to reduce the anxiety generated by the situation: focus your attention on your breath, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual (without exaggerating or hyperventilating), imagining the air coming in and out of your chest area.
You can repeat internally: “I inhale calm (or serenity, or any word that feels good to you), I exhale tensions (or stress, anxiety, or any word that represent the negative impact you are undergoing)” and feel more and more relaxed after each breath. After a little while, your thoughts will go somewhere else, whether on what you did previously in the day, or what you have to do after, or on a physical sensation or some sounds.
That’s OK. When you catch yourself, don’t judge yourself, just bring your attention back on your breathing and start again, breathing slower and deeper than usual. Do this for 1, 5, 10, 15min depending on your needs and your constraints in the moment, when you feel stressed out, but also when you don’t, in order to build your resilience capacity in the face of stress.
Focus on what you CAN control
In this crisis, the most difficult to manage may be, in addition to the fear that the virus harms us or our closed ones, the associated uncertainty of the period:
- How long will the lock down last?
- When will the competition start again?
- What will be the impact on the physical fitness?
- What will be the mental or psychological impacts?
- How to adapt one’s objectives accordingly?
An efficient way to deal with this uncertainty and anxiety it generates is to constantly ask yourself the question of what you can or can not control. If something is in our control, then you can focus on it, if you can not control something, then it is useless to spend mental and physical energy on it.
Constantly asking oneself this question enables to simplify and choose more easily how to respond to our thoughts and emotions and where to focus our attention and energy.
We can’t control all that is happening to us, but we can control the way we respond to it
For instance, the lock-down is not in your control. It is therefore useless to ruminate about it (even if we can certainly feel frustrated about it at times). Keeping in physical and mental shape is on the other hand in your control (see next paragraph).
Keep in physical and mental shape in order to be in a better place when all will start again
For those who might get back to competition, it is important to maintain as much as possible a physical, mental and technical fitness. Everyone will have been impacted and those who will be able to regain their best level the fastest will have an advantage.
- The first thing is to analyze your motivation and to commit to do all that you can to keep in shape. This might be obvious for professional athletes but it is not for others who don’t have any obligation and have to find a personal strong motivation. Find a purpose, and commit in order to overcome the down times. It’s also OK to decide to let go and not push through this season. It’s a personal decision.
- Set up a routine. Athletes usually have structured days with specific habits. If these have been broken down with the situation, it is possible to set up new routines and to hold on to them during the crisis, in order to take back control and not be a victim.
- Keep in Physical Shape (important: the intensity should be seen with the coach and doctor as it is apparently possible to have one’s respiratory capacity impacted if being infected by the Covid-19, even without clear symptoms), with some fitness or core strength exercises (many available online), going for a run when possible, going up and down the stair multiple times, etc… When motivated, we can accomplish incredible things, like a guy who ran a marathon and then a 50K on his 7m balcony. Without going to extremes like this, you can get creative to find fun ways to keep in shape.
- Practice your technique when you can (technical gesture, drills, precision, reaction time, etc.)
- Do some Mental Training. For instance, you can practice visualization (of work-outs or competition) to strengthen your neural pathways and keep a competitive mindset (see my previous article in this topic here).
- Review some strategic or tactical aspects of your sport by watching some videos, games, races, etc.
- Make the most of it to do what you usually don’t have time to do.
See the bigger picture and adapt your goals
Just like in a race, an objective of victory or Personal Best can transform into limiting the setback and doing one’s best when the body doesn’t respond as expected, the objectives of this season will have to be reviewed and adapted. There is nothing dramatic about adapting one’s goals although it can feel like it. And the situation is the same for everyone.
Projecting yourself in the future (at least next season) and building new objectives and plans will help to not stay imprisoned in the gloominess of the present. By doing so, you will build a bridge from an uncertain frustrating and stressing present to an exciting and motivating future.
Look for the opportunities
It may sound like a cliché and if we haven’t acknowledged how we feel and allowed ourselves to feel frustrated, angry, sad, or whatever, we may resist this idea, but in any crisis, difficult period, failure, some opportunities are hiding.
Looking for them helps to switch from being a victim of the circumstances to being the creator of one’s future. For instance, the current situation may be an opportunity to:
- Develop your resilience. In general, it is healthier to not compete against others but to use adversity as a way to surpass yourself and become better. This period is definitely an example of adversity and can be used to develop your resilience, your ability to adapt, bounce back and find energy in encountering obstacles rather than being demoralized. This resilience, when developed, enables to stay mentally focused and competitive even when being down in a game, to believe in one’s chance even with a disturbed preparation, to fight and move on no matter what. This is a crucial skill for any athlete who wants to go far and high.
- Develop your self-awareness. Many champions share that what has been most important in their career is not their medals but their journey of self-discovery, the fact that they grew through their sport and became a better version of themselves. What does the current situation teach you about yourself? How can it help you improve?
- Realize that what you may usually take for granted is not, realize that sport is eventually only one piece of your life, be grateful to be able to practice a sport you love. And, when everything starts again, when the new normal is there, keep this in mind as a way to put things in perspective, to lower the absolute stakes of a competition, to reduce the pressure and the stress and increase the fun of it.
All the best in this difficult period, stay safe and healthy, take great care of yourself, and prepare for the recovery that will be even more appreciable.