Author: Donato Fanelle, MA
Did you know… in 1665, all universities in England were closed and students were sent home in order to avoid contact with the bubonic plague. Although he was disappointed his studies were interrupted and he was worried about the future, a young student from Trinity College used his time in isolation to explore some of his passions. Later deemed his “wonder years,” this period is credited for some of his most important observations and discoveries… including calculus and the theory of gravity. Yes, even Sir Isaac Newtown had to practice “social distancing.”
Although the circumstances across Europe were dire, Newtown flourished in the uncertainty of the plague outbreak. Earlier this month, Dr. Aimee Kimball posted a blog (link) about how to thrive during times of uncertainty, and offered some tips to navigate the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus and how to use this time to productively better ourselves and the people around us. The overarching message of the article: remain as positive as you can right now and focus on the things you control.
“Control the controllables” is a popular sport psychology adage. It means to focus on the things that you can control, and to not dwell on the things that you cannot control. No matter how hard you try, you cannot control the refs, your opponent, bad bounces, or the weather. By focusing on those things, you do not gain anything except for unnecessary stress and frustration. So instead of worrying about the things that are out of your control, focus on the things that you can control, such as your actions, work ethic, and attitude.
Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s important to have the serenity to accept the things we cannot control, the courage to control the things that we can, and to have the wisdom to know the difference. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it may feel like we have no control. We cannot be with our friends, nor some of our loved ones. We have to stay inside and avoid social gatherings, and that means we cannot be with our teammates to play the sports that we love. The entire world is living in much uncertainty and we are largely at the mercy of the virus. A global pandemic is something that as individuals we cannot control, so it is natural for us to feel anxious, stress, frustrated, and worried about these circumstances. With that being said, you can take some comfort in knowing that there are still lots of things that you can still control. Here are just a few of them:
An attitude is a certain way of thinking or feeling about a situation, which is typically reflected in a person’s behaviors. The key here is the person’s behaviors. Having a positive attitude does not mean that everything has to be all sunshine and rainbows. Having a positive attitude does not mean you have to be saying things like “golly gee whiz, this global pandemic sure is great!” What having a positive attitude really means is keeping an optimistic and forward-thinking mindset, regardless of the circumstances. It means that you’re not ruminating on things that happened in the past, and not dwelling about things that may or may not happen in the future. Having a positive attitude means that you are in the present moment, focused on just the next (controllable) step ahead of you.
Frustrated, scared, anxious, annoyed, worried, or whatever other undesirable emotions you might be feeling right now – know that it is okay to feel those emotions. The uncertainty that we are living in is unsettling, and the situation is admittedly frightening. You are allowed to feel whatever you are feeling. But just because you are frustrated does not mean that you have to project your anger onto someone else. Just because you are worried does not mean you have to panic buy 144 rolls of toilet paper.
You can be frustrated, scared, anxious or annoyed, but still behave in an optimistic manner! If you are feeling frustrated, stop for a moment to take some deep breaths. If you are feeling worried, embrace the fact that communities are coming together to support one another.
It’s not about the glass being half-full or half-empty – it’s about knowing that we all have what it takes to fill that cup all the way to the top, so let’s focus on doing just that!
You may not be able to control the environment you are in, but you can control how you respond to it and the actions that you take. If you want to start taking more positive and effective action, begin using more positive self-talk. In a previous blog post, I wrote about how self-talk impacts one’s performance (link). Thoughts generate certain feelings, and those feelings influence behaviors. When you use negative self-talk, you will probably feel adverse and unhelpful feelings, which influences negative actions. However, when you use positive self-talk, you will likely feel constructive and helpful feelings, which influences positive actions.
The key to effective self-talk is to put it in terms of what you do want to do, not want you don’t want to do or are trying to avoid. For example, instead of saying “don’t get stressed out,” you could say “stay composed.” Take some time to raise your awareness about your internal dialogue. Are you saying negative things to yourself like “this is going to last forever,” “ I am so bored,” and “I’m scared that I am going to catch the virus,” or are you saying positive things like “this will pass with time,” “I have more flexibility in my schedule to explore my passions” and “I want to keep myself and my family safe.”
A helpful way to improve your self-talk is through reverse engineering: Since your self-talk determines your feelings, and your feelings influence your behaviors… think about doing that process backwards. Decide what behaviors you want to be taking right now, then determine what feelings and emotions will influence those behaviors, and finally figure out what self-talk will generate those feelings and emotions.
Athletes are creatures of habit. Although a short break from early-morning training sessions and conditioning after a hard practice can be enjoyable, it is very easy to develop some bad habits. A change in routine can be a difficult challenge for anyone to manage, and I am sure that every athlete wishes they could continue to practice, train, and compete with their teammates and coaches. Yes, it is a bummer that gyms and training facilities are closed for the foreseeable future. But you still control your training! Use this time to work on your own individual game. Sure, you might have limited resources — and that is probably something that is out of your control — but that is not an excuse to not work hard. If you are a basketball player without access to a hoop to shoot on, work on your ball handling and visualize yourself making clutch free throws. If you are an ice hockey player without a rink to skate on, work on your stickhandling and watch some old game films. And regardless of your sport or performance domain, now is a great time to focus on your mental training!
The circumstances based on the coronavirus are challenging, and the entire world is facing adversity. But in many ways, every athlete is now on an even playing field. You are not the only one facing this adversity – everyone in the entire world is facing this adversity. Some athletes will crumble in this challenge, while others will overcome it. Some will use the circumstances as an excuse to be lazy, while others will view it as an opportunity for personal growth.
Routines are an effective strategy to ensure consistent high performance. Write down a daily schedule to follow for the next few weeks. Effective routines should be consistent and structured, but also simple, flexible and adaptable. Give yourself enough time to get all your work done for the day, and block off a specific time for some exercise. It’s always important, but especially now, to spend some time with friends and family, and to relax. Schedule specific times in your day for quality time with your loved ones, even if it’s just for a phone call. It might be helpful to schedule times for quick breaks or meditation. At the end of each day, write down the tasks that you are going to complete tomorrow (or each morning write down the tasks you are going to complete that day).
It may be tempting to sleep until noon, stay in your pajamas and watch Netflix for 12 hours, while only taking breaks to get up for snacks. That’s probably not a very healthy routine, but it is important that we find some balance in our routines. What could be helpful is structuring a specific time in your daily schedule dedicated to lounging around, watching TV or scrolling through social media. By scheduling breaks and time for relaxation, you allow yourself to have the time to mentally decompress without procrastinating on what needs to get done.
With less activity and increased stress, it becomes far more likely that you will eat unhealthily. Show some self-compassion during this time and allow yourself to enjoy some of your favorite snacks, treats, or comfort foods. When I have a bad day, nothing hits the spot quite like a bag of peanut M&Ms (Pro Tip: “Share Size” is merely a recommendation). However, a chronically unhealthy diet has a negative impact on our emotions, whereas a consistently healthy diet has a positive impact on our emotions.
Plan out your meals ahead of time so that you can be sure to have a balanced diet with lots of healthy, nutritional foods while also having the flexibility to enjoy your favorite treats. Before you brave the chaos of the grocery store, plan out your meals for the week and decide when you want to have a cheat meal (or two!). Make a grocery list ahead of time so you get everything that you need without purchasing unnecessary items.
Also, now is a great opportunity to develop your culinary talents by trying out some new recipes. Step outside your comfort zone, get creative and have some fun in the kitchen!
Social distancing does NOT mean social isolation. As some of the experts have now said, “physical distancing” is probably the more accurate term. Yes, it’s a drag we cannot spend time out with our friends, and it is really hard being away from some family members. But we live in the 21st century! Social media, smart phones, and video-conference software allows us to connect with anyone, anytime, anywhere. Call an old friend that you haven’t spoken to in a while. Have a team dinner over Skype. Create a new Instagram challenge for you and your friends.
Doing the “Little Things” Right
In sports, much as in life, the big things don’t just suddenly happen. The big things are the culmination of a bunch of little things added up over a period of time. You don’t just walk out onto the field on game day and win the game. A win comes from doing all of the little things right – having a strong work ethic, concentrating during practice, coaches implementing a solid game-plan, everyone being in the right position, communicating with teammates, staying focus and composed, being sound in your fundamentals. Instead of stressing about the big things, break it down into small, manageable, and controllable chunks.
Although there is no “quick fix” for a global pandemic, there are still lots of little things we can do. It is going to take some time for us to work through this challenges that we are facing, but it all starts with taking care of ourselves and others. Staying home, frequently washing your hands, and avoiding touching your face are very simple things that you can do to help keep yourself and others safer. Having a positive attitude and a strong work ethic is good for your physical and mental well-being. Keep up good habits, likes sticking to a routine and eating healthy meals. Small acts of kindness for others, like checking in with your elderly or immunocompromised neighbors, volunteering or donating to charities, and telling someone that you love them will help put things in perspective and make you feel better about yourself. Instead of focusing on all the bad things you are worried about, reflect on some things that you are grateful to have.
Despite being away from the university for two years, a young Isaac Newtown did not let the uncontrollables stop him from continuing his studies. Instead of focusing on the negatives of the situation, he was able to use his time in isolation to his advantage. Rather than letting his circumstances dictate his behavior, he controlled what he could control, and turned the adversity into an opportunity for growth.
“You got a choice: You either come in and let your circumstances control your attitude, or you let your attitude control your circumstances.” -Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics