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How athletes (and the rest of us) can deal with uncertainty

‘We’re not going to be bouncing around the way we were when we thought the championship was only weeks away, but we can recalibrate.’

File photo from a Leinster Colleges League match.
File photo from a Leinster Colleges League match.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated Mar 21st 2020, 10:02 PM

LIMBO, AT LEAST in Dante’s Inferno, is the first circle of hell.

It may lack the violence of the deeper, more punishing rings of everlasting damnation. But it is dark, gloomy, full of sadness and without hope.

So, if through the past month we have described sport’s current state as one of Limbo, then it’s because hope is one thing that sport has always promised in heavenly abundance.

It is both a rich distraction from the grave matters of the world outside and also an invaluable outlet for spectators and participants alike. It is an industry like any other, an economical contributor supporting jobs for people in and around stadia, in advertising, in medical fields, in catering and – ahem – humble sportswriters.

Those of us among the latter category quickly turn thoughts to the athletes themselves who form the centre of a sporting spectacle.  We tend to think of sportspeople as finely-tuned machines with their strict diets, scientific approaches to training and tight schedules with clear demarcation of where there ought to be rigorous effort and where there must be feet-up time.

The old ‘one game at a time’ mantra doesn’t seem to apply when nobody can tell when even one game might happen.

All humans detest uncertainty. There is a reason faith has forever been attached to speculative leaps toward the unknown. A 2016 University of London study found participants to display less stress when they knew a bad outcome – in this case an electric shock – was on the way than if they were left uncertain whether the shock would come or not.

Hope is a core trait of humanity that keeps us on an even keel and willing to struggle on through uncertain times like these.  But sportspeople are humans too, and through them we can see an innate reservoir of hope that can help even the most weekend of warriors to ride out this doldrum of inactivity.

“It’s not just optimism, we can plan to get there,” says Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, course director of the University of Limerick’s Masters in Sports Psychology.

Where The42 sees a difficulty for athletes to adapt, he argues that there are few groups of people better equipped for a time when we all must adapt.

Sporting cancellations bring inherent disappointment and deflation. Athletes who were ramping up to a challenge have found their target suddenly taken away. Now it is off in the distance and unclear.

Dr MacIntyre is among a six-strong group who, through Mental Health Ireland, have set out guidelines for athletes during the Covid-19 period. And while he is quick to point out that guidelines are just that, he highlights the ready-made resilience that has brought athletes to their current standing.

“You don’t go into elite sport, if you can’t take losing. Losing is, by definition, a part of the game. It may depend on how good you are, but generally you have to have acceptance around it.”

kilkenny-dejected-after-the-game Kilkenny players console one another after the All-Ireland senior camogie final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Dr MacIntrye calls it ‘mobilising your resources’, taking the skills that have helped form the athlete, the character, and using them to stave off the deflation of a lost fixture list. First tool out of the box is a dose of positivity.

“You might have something that makes you feel good, it might be something we call savouring, reviewing photographs or highlights of your last best game, the highlights of your career. Or yourself simply in nature, having a good time being out there, being active. Because that evokes the same and helps to recall the same emotions from where you were at the time.”

We can cue positive emotions to help us recalibrate. We’re not going to be bouncing around the way we were when we thought the championship was only weeks away, but we can recalibrate, have long-term hope, have a shared resilience; which is that skill of connecting with others, thinking positively about the future and constructing a solution for ourselves.”

The depiction of that future can become a new driving force in itself.

Damian Browne, a former rugby player-turned adventurer had set himself the biggest target possible for this spring. And so, last week was was left with the biggest void. Everest itself.

His planned ascent to the world’s highest peak was to be the crowning moment of a bid to scale the highest summit on all seven continents. Now, with climbing windows narrow and funding a complicated beast to re-arrange, he is a long way from any clarity over when he will get to turn his thoughts to back to the top of the world.

“The mountain will still be there,” says Browne philosophically.

“I think I’ve just, from experience – a life of rugby and adventures… I process things so rapidly. It’s like the steps of grieving, but I just seem to plough through them really quickly.

“I don’t dwell on stuff that’s out of my control, I suppose. If I’ve prepared – like for Everest, I knew I did everything I could to try and make that come together. Not just the funding, but all the work; I wanted to be 105 kilos going there and three weeks out I was 106. So, I would have been a nice bit under.

“If something out of my control takes it away, I don’t really dwell or fret or feel sorry for myself because I know I did everything I can do to get in the best position.”

So, while the shadow of Everest may have touched every single aspect of Browne’s life for the best part of six months, the reason he planed his 6’5” frame down to 106 kilos, walked around with constant hunger and trained his mind and body to excruciating degrees. He has reset to a new target in the Southern Ocean.

“Athletes have to have hope that their window for being athletes and performing on that sporting stage will come back,” says MacIntyre.

And the better the athletes prove themselves so across a breadth of stages, not just the one big day out of a four-year cycle.

“Some Olympians I’ve worked with become so five-ring focused they forget that their job is just to be a better performer, be a better athlete.

“It’s interesting because, that narrow focus on one day in 1600 doesn’t benefit them. It’s very hard to taper for one day. And we know from studies that the super elites, the top people who make finals, they tend to have done a couple of major championships – at least in their second Olympic cycle – and they are pretty damn good all of the time.”

High performance athletes, or just highly-driven people often set clear goals in front of them and then work back to form a pathway. This extended break from sport, frustrating as it may first appear, can bring a worthwhile window for setting such goals, taking the strain of competition away and providing space to work towards something bigger ahead.

There will always be silver linings to be mined out of unexpected match cancellations. Be it a rest window for the body, extra time with the family or, in Browne’s case, a satisfying meal and switch away from the arduous slog of training for Everest.

“I was quite glad to be off the diet,” says the former Leinster second row.

“It’s very challenging. The last time I was that sort of weight was when I came off the boat (after a solo trans-Atlantic row). And that was different circumstances altogether.

“It’s just a battle, I was constantly hungry… so when the news came, there was a bit of relief that I could go back to eating normally again.

“That type of training, the long slow endurance pieces, does kick the shit out of my body.”

The Galway man adds:

“I’ve another expedition planned for December/January, the other end of the year. So, I can switch straight into all the prep around that.  It’s another rowing expedition, so it’s a big difference physically. I was invited onto a team of people trying to do a world first.”

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That next step, next challenge and refocusing on another big target is vital.

A player thinks ahead in a duration,” says MacIntyre, “it might be one-year for a Gaelic player, or it could be a four even eight-year cycle. A lot of athletes might say they’re training for Tokyo, but then also have an eye on Paris in 2024.

“That long-term thinking is actually strategic at the moment.”

The very act of goal-setting for six months, a year or more down the tracks serves to line out a framework around which to inflate hope anew. When those targets are in place for a group as well as an individual, the compulsion to push towards them is all the greater. ‘Where do we want to be?’ translates to ‘what can I do to get us all there?

Team morale in the time of social distancing is more important than ever.

“Some athletes have an uber-athletic identity. Which means, if you take away the carrot of Olympics, championship football or golf tour events, or their career – depending on whether they’re pro or amateur – is hanging on tenter hooks because of the current scenario. Okay, they’re suffering from a level of distress, but the people around them will be able to support them.

“There may be a vulnerable cohort in sport, so we have to look out for those. And listen

the-ireland-team-huddle-after-the-game Metaphorically, teams can still huddle up and support one another. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Some of the recommendations we have is actually to connect at the normal training time. Keep your WhatsApp going at training time, everyone can log on and connect for at least 50% of the training sessions. So, if you were training seven times a week, connect three or four times a week log on and have a chat.”

General chatter, a bit of craic is important. But there is also ample opportunity to continue an extent of normality even in extremely abnormal times. Just as these tools and coping mechanisms are already in place in people, existing technology has already been allowing teams to liaise on tactics, analysis and training without them convening in the same room.

Gym work can be videoed and reviewed, tactical approaches of the team and opponents can be pored over and a new emphasis can be put on proper visualisation or, for that matter, any amount of personal growth.

“Athletes have these skills. They can now go and imagine a whole sequence, then look at the video in their home. Walk, talk or group-chat through how they’re doing different sequencing. They can do video review, analysis of games. There’s a lot of learning that can be done, both sport specific knowledge and general knowledge.

“They can learn about physiology, psychology through online course called MOOCs, there’s lots of opportunities. At the same time, the threat is so big is hard to have the head space around it.

“I think the issue is, if we all actually keep busy, keep to a routine…  I’m not using that in a simple way – the routine has to follow the logic of what we’re doing now. You might only have five training outputs and it might be in your kitchen, but after that you’re going to connect, review and feed the information to your strength and conditioning (department) or to your team-mate.

The social contract turns out to be one of the strongest motivators. Not just for general population to get off the couch and move, it’s a really big part of team sport – and individual sport, because you might have a coach or training partner.

“We want to build on the social contract, say we’re going to check in’ – even if it’s not after a physical training- it’s ok to say, ‘how are we all doing?’

“Share stories, share some positive stories of the past and, what do we want to be doing this time next year.”

Because hope is the thing with feathers.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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