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An Athlete's Guide for Mental Health: Bryce Lewis

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Team sports and individual sports around the world are taking a major hit in viewership and participation due to the health concerns from COVID-19. Of course, the types of large gatherings we love at major sports events are put on pause for good reason, but even athletic training spaces have been closed. This affects the fans, the athletes, the coaches, and even the livelihoods of teams and sporting federations who have had to adapt during difficult times. Many athletes have seen a wholesale transformation of the way they relate to their sport as a result of the global pandemic. They’ve had their locations of training temporarily taken away from them, their competitions removed, and their support circles diminished.

For athletes around the world, these gyms and training facilities aren’t just where they train for specific skills and competitions, it’s where their friends are, where they feel at home, and indeed much of their identity is wrapped into being an athlete. High-level athletes have large chunks of their identity wrapped into their sport: they met their friends through their sport, they watch the sport in their spare time, they obsess over nutrition, sleep, reserve time in their schedule for training, all in service of getting better and winning. When competitions are taken away, even large competitions, it’s easy to say, “okay, no big deal. There will be more competitions available and I’ll just keep chipping away and perfecting my craft for the next one.” To have this same loss happen for training environments as well with the closing of gyms, access to coaches or practices, or to one’s social support group….I can easily see why it would be difficult to maintain motivation.

In this article, I’d like to talk about motivation and what can be done from an athlete’s perspective to stay on track during difficult times, about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and how to weather the storm of the present moment.

Motivation can be broken into two large categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations are the reasons you perform sport that stem from your own desires. They might include the joy of training for its own sake, a pursuit of self-mastery, wanting to squat a specific number because it’s something you care about, training because it makes you feel healthy, training with friends because it makes you happy, or an internalized desire to achieve greatness. Extrinsic motivations encompass your environment. They include training for the goal of winning and achieving a certain objective level of performance. They include the desire to win competitions for prizes, sponsors, medals, money, records, or trophies.

It’s not to say that either one of these is “bad” in the sense of only wanting to be intrinsically motivated and shunning extrinsic motivators. All athletes have some blend of the two. But when most sources of extrinsic motivation are removed, as they have been in the present moment, those athletes who were highly motivated by records or the next competition are being left out to dry. If you were anticipating a big competitive season for any number of reasons, you might have felt how defeating it was to have those competitions rescheduled or canceled altogether.

For those athletes, a return to training for its own sake and an increased focus on mastery and the joy of practice might pay dividends down the road.

Intrinsic motivation (under the framework of Self-Determination Theory, SDT), is broken down further into three categories. When I talk to athletes and they’re not feeling as motivated as they usually are, I make sure to talk through these qualities and see if something recent might have happened to affect one of them. Those three qualities are:

Autonomy: the degree to which we feel we have control and agency over our actions in our sport. It’s the sense you feel you can control outcomes, that you have control over your training, over your ability to make progress, over the decisions about how to train, when to train, or which competitions to do. Understandably, when athlete suffer injuries or have overbearing coaches, the sense of autonomy is diminished and so, too, is the sense of feeling motivated.

Relatedness: The degree to which we’re able to share our sport with our social groups--our friends, fans, family, peers, coaches. and training partners. Part of performing sports is the social aspect of it. Very few athletes enjoy performing their sport in total isolation. Part of sport is sharing our triumphs and failures with others, strengthening our feelings of success and buffering the losses. It makes it easier to experience failure and makes the victories sweeter. Relating to others lets us share our training thoughts and to receive thoughts from others about their own training. It’s a large part of the sport.

Competence: The degree to which we’re able to experience progress in some measurable way. Sport is enjoyable, but without a sense of it being appropriately difficult, athletes can quickly lose motivation. Imagine if your own training practices were either too easy or too difficult for an extended period of time and you can imagine how short of a time that would be before you needed a change. Competence is about feeling good when you make progress, about setting new personal bests in ability at the right timeframes. If you train for a long time and don’t make progress, that has a deflating effect on motivation.

It takes some amount of each of these unique to the individual to motivate us to train hard and practice in our sport. And it’s the unfortunate reality that COVID-19 and the resulting safety measures have affected motivation for athletes around the world. Looking from the lens of Self-Determination Theory, we can easily see that competence is down because athletes aren’t able to train (or train effectively), relatedness is down as athletes aren’t sharing their training and there are limited to no competitions, and autonomy is also down as many athletes want to train but are unable to secure training facilities.

It’s one thing to understand the present circumstances and another thing to do something about it. Here are five tips that might help you survive as an athlete with your desire to do your sport preserved in the long run.

1) Reframe. If there’s any single unifying skill that athletes high in mental toughness have, it’s in reframing problems or setbacks into challenges to overcome, which has the tendency to increase motivation rather than decrease it. What might be a lack of ability to train the way you normally do becomes an opportunity to specialize in hypertrophy over the short term. What is a lack of competitions available becomes an extended offseason to perfect your craft. Every challenge is reframed as a chance for something better.

2) Focus on intrinsic motivations. Take the time to fall back in love with your sport for the reasons you started doing it, removing any distraction and focusing on the process of mastery. What does it feel like to practice? How does it make you feel? What are your favorite parts about training? For now, find ways to amplify those aspects. You can augment this by writing out three things that went well during each training session, or why writing about one thing that went well with an extra sentence or two. This process actually rewires your brain and strengthens the qualities you’re trying to amplify.

3) Consider forcing some of the aspects of motivation that used to come naturally. If you aren’t normally talking about your sport as much right now, schedule some time with teammates, peers, or your coach to share your training or your thoughts about training. Schedule a watch party for your favorite competition rerun with some friends. Fuel your competence by getting good at new things (for instance, I developed a newfound love for occluded Bulgarian split squats).

4) As much as your identity might be wholly defined by your sport and being the best athlete you can be, find ways to develop new identities. Picking up other hobbies or interests won’t take away from your sport. In fact, they might give you more outlets for your time and energy and help you put things in perspective. Many of the best athletes you know and follow are not just an athlete, but are also avid anime fans, movie buffs, hikers, or collectors of cast iron skillets. When something isn’t going perfectly in your sport, it doesn’t feel like the world is falling apart when you have a diversified set of interests to lean back on.

5) Come up with a list of goals you can work on today for your sport. Even if you don’t have access to your favored training facility, what are the things you can work on today to make you better? Is it mobility, work capacity, muscle mass, or master a specific movement? Be specific and give yourself the option for a reward once you achieve some measurable results. When extrinsic motivators that are usually around are out of the picture, you might have to create your own competitions with yourself to stay on track. Keep these somewhere visible and share them with friends, increasing your sense of relatedness at the same time.

With any luck, we’ll make it out of this into a time when sports still exist and you’re still able to train for that next competition. Imagine how good it’s going to feel getting back into that competitive sphere, or back with your own training facility again. The steps you take today determine what kind of person shows up when the competitions or training finally comes calling.

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