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Bouncing Back From Lockdown: A Guide For Athletes

There’s no denying that lockdown has been a challenging time for us all, including those of us involved in sport. Whilst there will have been some positives to emerge from the situation, it has undoubtedly been a difficult time for a number of reasons.

In this blog I’ll talk through some of the negative emotions you may have been experiencing and offer practical advice as to how best to deal with these and hit the ground running once you are allowed back to your sport. This advice comes from my own personal experience as well as knowledge and understanding I have gained in my role as a Sport Psychologist.

The positives

At the start of lockdown you might have quite enjoyed the time off, spending time at home with no suitcases or airports, and doing different types of training at whatever time of day you felt like doing it. Once you got over the initial disappointment of missing a competition you’d be training months for, you may have even felt relief as the pressure and expectation was lifted. Your body has had a chance to rest, your mind has focused on other things and has had a healthy break from thinking about your sport 24/7, and you may have even tried a new hobby that you didn’t know you loved.

But at what cost?

As the weeks have gone on and time away from your sport has continued, it’s become increasingly challenging to stay motivated as you usually are in pursuit of your goals. Because after all, what is your goal now given that we don’t know when the next competition will be? For many of you, this has also brought a loss of purpose and identity because you don’t know who you are without your sport. “I’m useless at anything else” and “I rely on my sport to feel good” are some of the things I have been hearing.

You may also be living with the daily fear of falling behind your competitors. “Will they be doing more than me?” a question at the front of a lot of your minds. This thought is contrasted with another that recognises it’s been a great opportunity to rest and offer your mind and body a chance to rejuvenate and come back stronger.

You’re left then with confusion of what is best for you and guilt that you are undoing all of the hard work you’ve previously put in. It’s a new situation that even any support staff or coaching teams you are lucky enough to have around you may not know how to deal with. Without these people around, and having to train by yourself, you may also be faced with loneliness and a lack of belonging.

We know that uncertainty leads to anxiety for many of us, and there has never been a time with so much global, societal and personal uncertainty. Therefore, feeling anxious and worried may have become a daily occurrence for you.

But most of all, you are frustrated at yourself for feeling all of these things. Frustrated that you are not more mentally strong, more positive, and more motivated – all things that you pride yourself on and define as your athletic character.

But what I want to say to you right here right now is that is all ok. It’s ok to feel all of those things. In fact, we all are. Whether it’s talked about or not, we are on an emotional rollercoaster pretty much all of the time. Perhaps during the Covid crisis the rollercoaster has been ramped up in speed and severity, but I think that gives us an opportunity to delve even deeper into who we are as a person and an athlete, and emerge on the other side even clearer about our purpose on this earth, more accepting of ourselves and our emotions and more motivated to go out there and achieve our goals.

We all have this capacity within us, but sometimes we just need help reaching it.

Here are 4 ways which might help you to do just that.

1. Recognise and accept your emotions.

Now, the scale of this task cannot be summed up by the 5 words I have written above. But the value of it also cannot be articulated in simple terms. All I can say is that the ability to recognise and accept my emotions has been transformative for me personally. Let me break this down a bit.

Firstly recognising. In any psychological intervention I work with my clients on, self-awareness and the ability to recognise what is going on for them is the first and most important step to increased happiness, fulfilment and performance. This is simple but also difficult. It’s simple because all it takes is for you to ask yourself the question ‘How am I feeling right now?’ Check-in with yourself, listen to your body and mind and what they’re telling you. This isn’t to say you have to do everything your mind says – in fact it would be very counterproductive to do that - but at least give it the opportunity to be heard.

This leads onto acceptance. Once you’ve recognised how you are feeling, being able to accept that feeling is the next key step to improving your wellbeing and performance. But what actually is acceptance? Acceptance doesn’t mean ignore, or push to the back of your mind, or distract yourself with something else. It means that you recognise the feelings are a normal part of life – things can’t be good all of the time and there will be peaks and troughs in the journey – but you don’t cling to them and neither do you wish them away. It doesn’t mean you want them or you’d chose to have them, but you actively decide to not place importance on them. You accept them, but chose to place your attention elsewhere as you know they aren’t helpful for you to have a good day or complete a task.

Personally, something that helps me to accept difficult thoughts or emotions is by literally thanking them for being there and then carrying on with whatever I was doing. Other things that help me to accept thoughts and emotions include taking some time out to put things in perspective. My favourite time to do this is on a walk by myself or chatting it through with a friend

2. Reconnect to your purpose

Two young fish were swimming along in a river when they came across an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish says politely to them, “Morning, youngsters. How’s the water?” The two young fish smiled back and continued swimming and after about a minute, one fish said to the other “What the heck is water?”

This short example highlights to me that some of us go through life aimlessly swimming along, allowing life to pass us by without being aware of what’s around us and how we fit into the world. This can happen without a purpose.

For anyone who has read Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ you will have head his view that the main concern of humans is to find meaning and purpose in life (if you haven’t yet read it, I’d highly recommend it!) Purpose is an amazing thing, because it gives us joy, vitality and hope. It gives us self-worth and a better ability to cope with stress. It helps us to build better relationships with others and encourages us to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviours. It quite literally gives us a reason for being.

In sport, purpose plays a critical role in helping to drive our motivation, achieve a greater focus in our endeavours, and reduces the likelihood of negativity seeping into our mindsets. It makes us feel a part of something bigger, which is powerful in itself, but also encourages us to focus less on our own worries and insecurities and more on the greater good.

The other interesting thing about purpose is that it is unique and can only be fulfilled by you. You’re the only one that can decide why you do what you do, why you give so much time to your sport, and why you have chosen it above other things. Other people can take a guess that Serena Williams is driven by winning Championship trophies, or that Raheem Stirling plays for God, but we can’t be sure. Only they know.

So without giving it some conscious thought, it’s easy to lose sight of your purpose, to forget why you started your sport in the first place or why you dedicate so much to performance improvements. I’d encourage you to take a moment to step back and re-connect to why you do your sport. Dig deeper than just winning medals. Ask yourself ‘Why’ and then ‘why’ again, until you have a meaningful answer that you connect to and feel inspired by.

3. Setting some thoughtful goals

Once you’ve reconnected to your purpose of why you are doing your sport, my next tip to help kickstart your motivation following lockdown is to set yourself some small, clear goals that you can work towards every single day.

Now, you’ll have heard about goal setting before as it’s a common framework used in sport. You may have reluctantly thought about some goals or even written some down. But chances are that piece of paper is now either in the bin or at the back of a drawer that you never go into.

But goals are enormously helpful. They help us keep connected to our purpose, become more focused in our development, and overall make important performance improvements that help us reach our potential.

So, I propose a goals revamp. This doesn’t need to be an arduous task that takes days or even hours. Set yourself 15-30 minutes to think about the following 6 questions:

  1. What’s the one thing I want to get better at before the end of the year?
  2. What will this give me?
  3. What are 2-3 things I can do that will help me achieve that? (Note these things need to be really specific and fully within your control – see example below).
  4. Who else do I need to help me achieve this?
  5. What might get in the way?
  6. How might I overcome these obstacles?

Make sure you write your answers down and keep it somewhere you can go back to regularly. If you get stuck, talk it through with a teammate, friend or family member who understands what you are trying to achieve. If you found this process beneficial, you can try it again with a different answer to question 1. But try to keep it to a maximum of 3 goals, otherwise the chances of you completing any of them will be reduced.

I’ve given you some examples below…it may be slightly exaggerated, but you can clearly see the difference between goal setting as a tick box exercise, and goal setting as a well-thought-through reflective practice to make a genuine difference to your performance.

4. Be wary of comparing yourself with others. Instead, be the best version of yourself.

It’s the height of spring and all the flowers are starting to bloom. When you walk through a park, field or woodland, you do not see one flower, separated by a few metres and then another flower. The flowers grow next to each other, side by side. The flowers are not competing against each other, they bloom of their own accord. This is in contrast to our society which continually encourages us to be better than others. You only have to open a magazine to see ‘who wore it best’ competitions or flick onto social media to see the relentless display of how amazing other people’s lives are that you can’t help but compare yours to. In fact, research now makes it clear – the social comparison theory states that we determine our personal self-worth based on how we compare to others around us. And sport is no different, if anything this pressure to compare becomes greater. Endurance challenges on Strava or Zwift, fitness tests in groups waiting for the weakest members to drop first, and direct selection – one person against another.

Now, I’m not saying that comparison is always a bad thing. A lot of the time it can motivate us to be better, give us a benchmark to aim for and help us to push ourselves to our limits. Healthy competition is a great thing in sport. Roger Federer wouldn’t be as amazing as he is now without Nadal and Djokovic to drive him to the highest heights. However, what I am saying is be careful. Notice when this is becoming unhealthy and when it’s having a negative impact on your mindset (and therefore most likely your actions.) By all means use others to help drive you on, but don’t use others to beat yourself up about not being as fast as one person or as motivated as another.

To help strike this balance, in addition to working on your development areas, spend time thinking about your strengths. Give yourself credit for what you are good at and what you can do really well. The clearer you are on these, the more likely you are to bring them into your performances. If you do this really well, what you are worse than others at won’t matter anyway.

The other thing you can do is to focus on yourself. Compare yourself against yourself. Where are you now and where do you want to be next week? Focus on making performance improvements that are realistic and motivating for you (go back to the goal setting section!). Seeing self-progression, however small, provides natural motivation and a confidence boost. This is much more likely to help you to beat others than the negative feelings of not being good enough when you are comparing yourself to them. Also, remember to take into account your current circumstances or lifestyle. For example, prior to lockdown you may have been in (or near) your peak physical shape for the year, so coming straight out and comparing yourself to your pre-lockdown-self will not be helpful.

So, I’ll leave it there. I hope this blog has provided you with some food for thought, as we emerge from isolation and aim to leapfrog back into our sports with vitality and motivation. There’s quite a few points in here, so I’d encourage you to consider what’s the one thing you’ve taken from this that will help you going forwards?

In summary:

- Start to increase your awareness of your thoughts and feelings and be more accepting of the negative ones that will inevitably arise.

- Reconnect to your purpose and why you do what you do. Being clear on your ‘why’ will make it easier to transition back into your sport again with high levels of motivation.

- Set yourself a couple of really specific, honest goals that will help you kick on this year and take you closer towards your full potential.

- Notice when comparing yourself against others is having a negative impact on you and bring your focus more towards yourself and your own personal improvements.

Good luck!