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How Triathletes Can Use This Time to Improve Their Relationships

A silver lining of canceled races and disrupted training schedules? The opportunity for athletes to strengthen and nurture personal relationships during the downtime.

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The tri lifestyle undoubtedly involves major time and energy commitments, which can unfortunately impact life at home. 

Leading sports psychologists recognize that recent stay-at-home measures have been a rare chance for busy athletes to pause, take stock of their relationships, and use the enforced downtime to invest in their personal connections. 

Shari Foos, a Marriage and Family Therapist, professor and founder of The Narrative Method, said that when evaluating any relationship at any stage of your life, start by checking in with yourself. 

“Before you can evaluate any relationship, try to get clarity about what’s going on with you. Ask yourself, ‘How am I?’ We can’t be our best partner when we are not taking care of ourselves or feeling that we are in a good, positive place,” she said.

Speaking about the current struggles related to the pandemic, Foos agreed that many triathletes are experiencing feelings of loss, helplessness, and hopelessness. 

“Athletes, specifically, get a good deal of their mental and physical wellbeing from discipline, and encouragement and comfort from their training routines, teammates, or coaches,” Foos said.  

“Understanding this [time] as a ‘loss’ and what that loss does to one’s self is something very real and important when dealing with being our best self and being able to give to a partner,” she explained. “At the same time you are dealing with your own issues and losses, partners are experiencing their own version of insecurities and losses, and already feeling closed off from the world. But it can certainly be a good time to reconnect.” 

To navigate this unprecedented time, Foos advised being open and vulnerable, both with yourself and with the people in your life. 

She urged, “Ask yourself things like: How am I dealing with this? How is this loss manifesting itself in my life? How am I replacing the need for those actions and feelings [accomplishment, discipline, courage, strength goals]? Am I being open about these fears, feelings, and dealing effectively with this change? Am I able to talk to my partner about how I am feeling? And generally, am I able to listen to his or her issues with focus and without judgment?” 

“When you come together to talk, make sure there is enough private time and invite your partner using concepts of relational mindfulness to communicate,” Foos added. “You need to use your empathy to appreciate your spouse’s struggles which are very different from your own.”

Foos explained that ultimately, all relationships are “living things” and so they too must shift and change. 

“Challenge yourself to ask important and even difficult questions. Am I being a good partner, friend, parent? Do I feel appreciated and understood by the people I love? What can I do to improve my life, my relationships, and the greater world?” 

“Easy is not the goal. Truth, integrity, and trying your best is everything,” she said. “When both of you need to be soothed and neither has the capacity to get past your own specific worries, no one gets what they need. Having a tendency to keep it in closes off the ability to see or hear what a relationship needs.”

As for when races return, Foos advised honoring the lessons learned in lockdown. One way to approach this? “Transferring the same dedication, commitment, and discipline necessary for triathlon training” in order to keep your relationships strong. 

“It’s possible to be a committed athlete and fulfill the personal responsibilities of a spouse or parent, as long as you avoid defining right and wrong by others’ standards. No two families have the same circumstances, needs, or resources. It is your job as a couple to determine how things will work best for your family,” she said.

“Being away frequently can be a disappointment for a spouse or children, but it doesn’t have to feel like abandonment when the athlete lives up to the expectations set by their ‘home team’ and modifying it at different stages. The athlete needs to stay in close touch by electronic means when agreed to, be present at home when possible, make ‘athlete free’ zones or times, and do what is necessary to hold up their end of the bargain.”

“Even if both people once agreed in some way or another—verbally or not—that one person’s career or athletic activity would take precedence over the other’s, it’s only natural that there can still be resentments or adjustments required to recalibrate over time,” Foos warned. 

“Address and reassess often. Check in and be open to listening. Often the athlete needs to do more of the heavy lifting to see how their partner is doing and offer consideration and appreciation for their perspective on their frustration with travel, time, lifestyle, and even intimacy. It is an easier pill to swallow long term when you feel that there is a real understanding from their perspective and how it might feel that they are not considered as a priority,” she outlines. 

“Staying committed to both sport and relationship, family and other shared visions means being mindful of sacrifices made and shifting some schedules and priorities as you go through different stages of life and taking the effort to appreciate both your own work and sacrifices as well as theirs. Rather than assuming it can’t work, couples should come together with open hearts and the intention to listen to each other without judgment. Try to let go of what you believed was essential to make room for new ideas and creative compromises that help push you through difficult times to new goals and finish lines together.”

Foos said that the most important technique is to “put yourself aside so that you can imagine what it feels like to be that other person.” 

“Given what you know about them, their challenges and insecurities, their strengths and convictions, allow yourself to empathize with the way they see the world. Doing so helps you disentangle and understand that their feelings and behaviors reflect their core beliefs and the experiences that shaped them. When we stop and actually move the direction so the story can be seen and heard from another’s perspective, we are more likely to understand them separate from ourselves, and thus feel more compassionate and receptive to really hearing them and understanding their feelings.”

“I also use a rocket ship analogy for doing the little things: that if you move a flight plan in a rocket ship even one degree, it will take you to a totally different location. Think about things you can do differently, even making small changes that will help take your relationship to better places.

Foos also outlined best practices for connecting with your nearest and dearest going forward.

“Schedule your time to be a good listener and really dial in; only asking questions to allow your partner to go deeper in conversation. Keep the kitchen the hub: using dinner at home as a time to prep and make a meal together, plus keep the dinner table tech-free.”

“Don’t be alone together, be in the same room for connecting: only go to separate rooms when you are looking to disconnect. Book time for a weekly talk with those you trust to find ways to live a more purposeful and meaningful life. Try old school activities like board games, bike riding, or a home book club! Have a stay-at-home dance party or karaoke night: low tech solutions that bring connections and togetherness.”

“The best advice going forward is to practice clear and open-minded communication in all of your relationships. As to having the perfect relationship? Give me a call when you figure that one out!” she laughed.

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