Less than two weeks after the U.S. came to terms with the global pandemic, the Harvard Business Review effectively summed up the nation’s collective mentality with an article headline: “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief.”
That might have seemed like somewhat of a drastic statement at the time, as we tend to think of grieving as something confined to graveyards and funeral homes. And there is very real grief around the devastation of this pandemic, which can make it hard to pause and see something like your race calendar being wiped out as an acceptable thing to mourn. But a leading expert defined the loss of normalcy and the unprecedented feeling of uncertainty we are all experiencing as “anticipatory grief.”
Psychologist and Trauma Specialist Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes explained that the widely-accepted stages of grief (as put forward in 1969 by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross) include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
“Whenever there is a major loss, there follows inevitable grief and mourning,” Dr. Binder-Brynes said. “During lockdown, we experienced sorrow for what was familiar, predictable, and normal in our daily existence.”
Dr. Binder-Brines added that athletes notably experienced anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and anger over the indefinite postponement and cancellation of their competitions. She outlined that these debilitating feelings deplete motivation and drive, which in turn hinders training.
“Athletes are used to having regimented lives, spending hours honing their bodies and minds to excel. The benchmarks are the trials and competitions they participate in,” she said of tying athletes and grief. “Sport has provided structure, goals, and many rewards. For an athlete whose whole sense of purpose and meaning was derailed overnight, that can be totally destabilizing. It can be the loss of a whole identity.”
Dr. Binder-Brynes pointed to Michael Phelps describing the feeling of “a carpet being pulled out from under you” when he was no longer training for the Olympics. Phelps, a mental health advocate, promoted the need to recalibrate one’s sense of meaning. This advice, she maintained, is pivotal for athletes feeling lost and off-kilter.
As athletes have traditionally been taught to bottle up their emotions and be mentally tough, Dr. Binder-Brynes urged anyone feeling depressed to seek professional guidance or to surround themselves with a community.
“When we are traumatized we can develop a sense of isolation,” she said. “Staying connected to our communities can mitigate this loneliness and provide support and encouragement. There is no shame in seeking comfort, support, and guidance especially during these unprecedented times.”
While the tendency may be for athletes to just “push through” and use exercise as a coping mechanism, Sports Psychologist Alan O’Mara, author of ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ and founder of Real Talks, agreed that communication should be the first port of call.
“Exercise can greatly help a person get through a tough time by interrupting cycles of negative thoughts, but as most athletes will know, exercise is just one of a range of tools,” O’Mara said. “As a performance coach, I help athletes to use exercise in a way that supports the grieving process and avoids the difficulties that trying to ‘out-train’ the emotional pain grief can cause.”
To help them deal with any form of grief, O’Mara supports athletes in their journey to embrace the vulnerabilities and challenges they are facing and to use them as an opportunity to build resilience “through reflection and solution-focused thinking.”
He added, “Grief impacts our thoughts, which can then impact our feelings but if we are aware of that relationship, we can learn to increase our self-awareness, grow our self-compassion and choose better actions.”
Beyond cathartic exercise, O’Mara outlined that a well-rounded plan to work through grief should simultaneously focus on quality sleep, nutrition, therapy, and social support networks.
Dr. Binder-Brynes also urged athletes to see the potential benefits in the downtime.
“For athletes, often away from family and friends for long periods of time, the lockdown may provide quality time with loved ones. For those with injuries, there may be more time for rehabilitation and strength building. This period may provide time for reflection and re-prioritizing life goals and needs too.”
And in the meantime, athletes can go about strategizing for the rest of the year.
“Routines need to be changed and new structures developed to maintain training and drive. Routines are crucial in creating a sense of control when things seem out of control,” Dr. Binder-Brynes advised.
“We are an incredibly resilient species,” she added. “Elite athletes, in particular, are used to the ups and downs of winning and losing, and have developed great inner resources for bouncing back mentally.
Dr. Binder-Brynes believes that the same positive mentality many athletes leaned on during lockdown will ultimately help them succeed in the long run.
“More than the average person, athletes know their bodies. Trust this self-knowledge in terms of when, how hard, and how long to push yourself when you get back to a new practice routine.
“Most important of all is to maintain faith and hope that the future will be better and that you will once again be competing and thriving in your sport,” she concluded.