“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior” – Viktor Frankl
It then stands to reason that a normal reaction would be abnormal, so what am I getting at? With this post I wanted the dip away from our common themes on Premier Endurance and talk about processing emotions, thoughts and feelings specifically in and around the Covid-19 area and the cancellation of endurance events for all athletes. Events that were closely held goals and focal points of the season that we put a lot of time and effort into achieving inevitably wrapping up our identity within the sport itself. While we can accept that this is bigger than sport it does not diminish the fact that you have experienced a loss, a trauma.
While this trauma is a small one in the bigger scheme of things, we need to respect it as athletes and the reactions that go with it. What are some of these reactions? Immersion in news cycles, avoidance of the fact entirely, tunnel vision, the feeling of not catching a break, anxiety, sadness and a host of other reactions all unique and specific to everyone under a common threat.
I’ll interject here, this is not preaching I’ll be going through the same reactions as all those reading this blog. My sporting social circle at least in a physical presence has disappeared along with a threat to my business and livelihood, again like many of those mentioned ready. These are uncertain times. What I want to do with this post, and what I feel is my duty of care to athletes I work with and those who are reading this, is to highlight that while this is only sport some very really consequences can happen as a result of how you think, feel and behave around this “trauma”.
We need to recognize unhelpful thinking patterns, examples of which include all or nothing thinking, catastrophizing and jumping to conclusions among many other avenues. An applied example would go like this: your priority race is now cancelled, you put in the training and hit all your process goals until this point and now you’re left wondering when you can race again – sound familiar? You may then begin to say well if this is called off then the secondary goal I had in 3 months will be off and if I stop racing now I’ll loose fitness and then I wont be able to race once we do get back racing so I may as well stop now, this was a waste of time. Jumping to conclusions, all or nothing thinking and catastrophizing. We are aware that this is an unhelpful thinking process, but the trauma has evoked this response and we need to respect that.
Now we have brought awareness to the fact that this thought process is unhelpful we can simply note that it’s happening and not input too much, for the time being. This is the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychological tool that has far reaching uses.
Once you progress through an initial period of noting the thought, maybe even journaling it and how this thought process is making you feel you may then decide to take action or you may continue with the process until the feelings you’re experience become less intense. Both are OK.
By taking action I am referring to sitting down with your coach or being objective about things with yourself and looking at where we can make improvements in this time period of no racing, how does my training look for the next month, can we focus on process goals and enjoyment while maintaining fitness before we get a clear picture on when racing will return. These are all productive reactions, but they take some work to build to. Respect the process.
Without acknowledging these unhelpful thinking patterns there are two dangers from a coach’s viewpoint for their athletes, overtraining and anxiety progressing into possible depression.
I believe there is a real threat of overtraining in this period. Those who react by simply not acknowledging what has happened are at greatest risk. It is imperative that training is now adjusted, intensity dialed back and you action on those points mentioned earlier. This may be extremely difficult for those athletes who have an extremely high athletic identity. By this I mean your social circle and self-worth is centered around riding a bike or running the marathon, it’s not part of who you are it is who you are. Research has shown that athletes whom exhibit this behavior are at higher risk of emotional burnout1.
If unchecked these unhelpful thinking patterns along with the athletic identity aspects can worsen anxiety and cause real physical and psychological health issues for the athlete. It has been documented that athletes experience negative emotions when facing injury or time out from sport, depression has been shown to be one of the most common reactions to injury2. If you feel this is starting to become the case for you seek professional help.
Coaches also please do not underplay the psychological effect this can have on you! You are at the forefront of athlete emotions daily. The same processes ring true in combating this along with this post on coach burnout in sport.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post, I’m aware its very topical and maybe not what you come to this blog post for but I also believe it’s an important message to get across to people and hopefully have articulated that in the above. Keep in touch with your friends from racing and your training partners. You have no excuse with technology now! Let’s get through this in one piece and hopefully be racing and training again come summer.
- Chang, W. H., Wu, C. H., Kuo, C. C., & Chen, L. H. (2018). The role of athletic identity in the development of athlete burnout: The moderating role of psychological flexibility. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 39, 45-51.
- Brewer, B.W. (2001). Psychology of sport injury rehabilitation. In R. Singer, H. Hausenblas & C. Janelle’s (Eds.), Handbook of research on sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 787–804). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.