Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Staying Fit In A Pandemic -- Post #15 -- the Mental Side

This was shared to me by former Chabot coach, Ken Grace and worth reading. I interviewed Ken in 2011 and you can check out that interview at this LINK.
For my coaching friends ...from Vern Gambetta

Staying Fit In A Pandemic -- Post #15 -- the Mental Side

In 1985 I left college and became a teacher and a coach. My decision to do that was a combination of factors. The biggest was I loved to learn, I loved athletics and I wanted to share those passions with young people who I enjoyed being around. However, there was one part of my decision at that time that was made on a very poor assumption.

I also loved to run, had competed through college, and wanted to be an elite runner ... or at the very least make the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. During my freshman year in college I had run a marathon on a lark and until very late in the race was on a fast time finally stumbling into the Baltimore Civic Center disoriented but having finished in 2:38. I needed to get my time to 2:22 (16 minutes faster) to make the Trials in 1988. Now out of college with I thought more time on my hands how tough could that be?

Well, try getting to school at 7:30 in the morning, being basically on your feet till 3 in the afternoon, then coaching (usually physically demonstrating throughout a practice) until 5:30 if you don't have an event which would go into the evening, then head home to grade papers and prepare for the next day. I don't know what I was thinking? This was not a championship lifestyle by far. I had no idea what a teacher/coach schedule was like. But I was still hoping to make the Olympic Trials.

Philadelphia, where I moved in 1986, had a lot of post-collegiate runners who I regularly trained with who had similar hopes and dreams. A couple of them met a young sports psychologist who was trying to get her practice started and for $200 would give you 8 sessions. $200 seemed a near fortune for me, but as I headed into 1987 things had not been going well for me in racing.

Because I was so tired after a long day of teaching and coaching I was unable to do the training consistently enough it took to run fast. In fact, I would often get home from my school teams practice intending to get my training in and sit down on the couch and be unable to move off it again for the evening often falling asleep right there.

I decided to pay the money and meet with this sports psychologist. It was one of the best $200 I ever spent. I learned about relaxation skills and visualization and mental rehearsal -- all skills if you have ever been on the North Shore Country Day School track team we talk about and try to implement today with our athletes.

However, the most important principle she taught me for my training at that time I still call the 10-minute rule. I was struggling to get out the door after a long day of work. This is what she told me to do. When you get home get out the door as soon as you possibly can. Do not sit down. If you are feeling tired, say to yourself I am only going to run for 10 minutes. If you feel bad after 10 minutes, turn around and go home. If you feel better after 10 minutes keep going with your intended workout.

It worked! Every time I got home and felt exhausted from the day I would tell myself this and get out the door. More often than not after 10 minutes of running, I would feel invigorated and restored and keep going on my intended workout. The few times I felt poorly after 10 minutes and turned around usually there was good reason -- I was struggling with a cold coming on.

My issue was I was mostly mentally exhausted from the day. The 10-minute rule helped me get over that mental exhaustion and get back to training consistently.

I share this story because one aspect of interacting with athletes over the last two weeks -- not just our athletes at North Shore, but athletes elsewhere -- is how much some of them are struggling with strong feelings of grief, disappointment, and anxiety about the future.

The athletic world has uncertainties that we all accept. Can I hit the time? Am I good enough? Will I make the team?

But it also has certainties that we all accept too: when the season starts, when it ends, when the big days are, to name a few. All of a sudden now the uncertainties that we all accepted are complicated by the certainties that we organized our lives around and are gone.

So despite all the daily ideas for workouts, I have shared over the last two weeks, probably the most important thing to do right now is to focus on the feelings our athletes are struggling with and their spirit.

The USOC has posted two papers -- one for athletes, one for coaches, parents and support people -- on how to react to the changes in our lives this pandemic has created.

All our athletic plans (and lots of others) are on hold whether you were training for state competition or training for the Olympics. For some, they may be over -- and over in a very strange way -- having not known when your last competition was. This all leads to disappointment, grief, and anxious feelings.

Here are some of the key points that resonated with me in the USOC papers on managing the current pandemic psychologically.

For Athletes:
1) Take care of your body– Try to eat healthy well-balanced meals, train regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

2) Connect with others– Share your concerns and how you are feeling with a friend or family member.

3) Maintain healthy relationships, and build a strong support system.

4) Take breaks– Make time to unwind and remind yourself that strong feelings are temporary and will fade.

5) Try taking in deep breaths or doing activities you usually enjoy.

6) Stay informed– When you feel that you are missing information, you may become more stressed or nervous. Watch, listen to or read the news for updates from reliable sources of information.

7) At the same time all this information can be overwhelming, so... Avoid too much exposure to news– Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories. Try to do enjoyable activities and return to normal life as much as possible and check for updates between breaks.

8) Seek help when needed– If distress is interfering with your daily life, talk to a sport psychologist, or mental health provider.

For Coaches, Parents, Support Staff:
#1 Grief belongs to the griever. Many of the suggestions, advice, and “help” given to people facing losses suggest that they should be doing it differently, or feeling differently than they do. Grief is a very personal experience and belongs entirely to the person experiencing it. Follow his or her lead.

#2 Stay present and state the truth. It’s tempting to make statements about the past or the future when the athlete’s present life holds so much pain. You cannot know what the future will be, and it may or may not be “better later.” That the athlete’s life was good in the past is not a fair trade for the pain of now. Stay present with the athlete, even when the present is full of pain. It’s also tempting to make generalized statements about the situation in an attempt to soothe the athlete. You cannot know that the athlete will “bounce back” or “get past it.” These future-based, generalized platitudes aren’t helpful. Stick with the truth: This hurts. There are countless uncertainties. I’m here with you to listen.

#3 Do not try to fix the unfixable. The athlete’s loss cannot be fixed, repaired or solved. The pain itself cannot be made better. Please see #2. It is an unfathomable relief to have a friend who does not try to take the pain away

#4 Be willing to witness unbearable pain. To do #4 while also practicing #3 is very, very difficult. Become comfortable with the uncomfortable, and recognize it will be challenging for you.

#5 This is not about you. Being with someone in pain is not easy. You will have your own reactions — stresses, questions, fear, or guilt. Your feelings may be hurt. You may feel ignored and unappreciated. This is a onesided relationship so don’t take it personally. Find your own people to lean on so that you feel supported in supporting the athletes. When in doubt, refer to #1.

#6 Anticipate, don't ask. Do not say “Call or text me if you need anything,” because the athlete likely will not. Not because they don’t have the need, but because taking that initiative is beyond their energy levels, especially if they don’t know you well. Instead, make concrete offers: “I will stop by to say “hi” tomorrow morning” or “I am at my desk/this location each morning from 7-noon.” Be reliable.

#7 Do the small things. The actual, heavy, real work of grieving is not something you can do (see #1), but you can lessen the burden of some life requirements for the athlete. Perhaps they need to eat but don’t feel like going to the grocery store or dining hall and facing everyone. Offer to bring them a meal. Support the athlete in small, ordinary ways.

#8 Show you care. Above all, show you care. Show up. Say something. Do something. Realize it may not always be perfect but effort counts. Be willing to sit with the grief without flinching or turning away. Be willing to not have any answers. Listen. Be there. Be present. Be a friend.

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