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How The Emotions You’re Feeling From the Pandemic Can Help You Become A Better Athlete

If you frame the mental challenges you're feeling in a certain way, you'll come out the other end of this season as a better overall athlete.

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This a season of big feelings. The coronavirus has changed our daily life significantly. As a result of the pandemic, all of our emotions feel more pronounced. 

Fortunately, the practice of experiencing heavy emotions will make you a stronger athlete in the long run. As training schedules have changed, races are still close to non-existent, and social interactions have shifted, this is the time to navigate your inner training world—emotional endurance is the foundation of physical endurance.

Here are five emotions you may be experiencing right now and how to use them to make yourself a stronger athlete.

“Emotions can get in the way or get you on the way.” — Mavis Mazhura

Pandemic Emotion #1: Uncertainty

If you’re like most triathletes, you thought we would be back to racing by now—or at least have a clearer timeline on when racing would resume. The uncertainty you feel is not new, but it is heightened because of the collective uncertainty in the world.

The truth, though, is there is always uncertainty, in life and racing.

Think about your last race. Did you know exactly how the race would unfold from start to finish? You never do. You make your best predictions and handle what’s thrown at you.

Here’s how to deal with that uncertainty now to practice for race day. Ask yourself this question: “What is the best-case scenario?” Without direction, your brain will default to focusing on all the things that could go wrong—the worst-case scenario. By asking the question, “What’s the best-case scenario?,” you are reframing your perspective by considering other options.

What’s the best-case scenario for your future training and racing? What’s one step you can take today to bring you closer to that scenario?

On race day you may drop your nutrition on the bike and immediately panic, thinking your race is over. By asking yourself the best-case scenario question, you see the other, more useful options available to you. Practice now and be ready for any uncertain when we do get back to racing.

Pandemic Emotion #2: Helplessness

With training facilities closed or capacity drastically limited (not to mention the bigger public health and economic challenges going on), it’s easy to feel a sense of helplessness. Helplessness shows up when routines are uprooted and when it seems harder than ever to find your footing. 

Helplessness is an emotion that gives power to the external factors. In other words, you feel helpless because you feel out of control.

But what if feeling helpless is actually an opportunity to practice learning the creativity of problem solving? 

If on race day the temperatures soar to well above forecast, you might feel helpless and at the mercy of Mother Nature. That feeling could cause you to throw in the towel early because you have not practiced problem solving and taking back control. 

In these unprecedented times, practice problem solving by getting creative in your training sessions. For example, utilize trainings apps like Strava to create new and innovative challenges. Or if you can’t get in a gym, use hiking and home routines as a way to build strength.

Train your brain to become more resourceful now and watch that work to your advantage when things happen out of your control on race day.

Pandemic Emotion #3: Loneliness

Triathlon is an individual sport, but it provides a strong sense of community. With physical distancing ordinances in place, you may be struggling with not feeling connected to those tried and true training partners.

However, if we remember that we’re all going through the same situation, we might feel an increased sense of community. 

Use this time to connect with training partners in different ways—a Zoom group ride, happy hour, or bingo night. Group virtual challenges are also a great way to stay connected, motivated, and inspired by teammates. And you might get to know them in a new light and forge new bonds.

The invitation is to stay connected, while also trusting in your own capabilities. The mental fortitude you build training primarily solo right now will undoubtedly carry over to future racing when you’re solo but are able to remember everyone in your corner virtually.

Pandemic Emotion #4: Disappointment

The disappointment of this year may feel heavy. The expectations you had around racing or even trips, vacations, and job plans are left unfilled.

Don’t resist that feeling. If you’re disappointed, let yourself feel disappointed. Forcing yourself into a positive thought prison assumes that it’s wrong to feel a negative emotion.

Practice being OK with your feelings of disappointment. This will serve as useful the next time a race result does not meet your expectations. The more we can sit with and experience negative emotions, the more we see they have less control over us than we think. This shifts our relationship with the emotion.

Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, explains that, “Emotions are data, they are not directives…We own our emotions, they don’t own us.”

Choose your words intentionally. Avoid saying, “I am disappointed,” and instead say, “I am feeling disappointed” to remind yourself that you are not the emotion. Then give yourself permission to feel.

This simple exercise will allow you to bounce back from disappointment faster in the now and in the future.

Pandemic Emotion #5: Self-Doubt

You may be asking yourself, “Can I handle this?” Doubting whether you can handle your new version of normal, or even doubting if you can handle the uncertainty, helplessness, loneliness, and disappointment that are showing up in this 2020 none of us were prepared for.

Self-doubt is often present on start lines too—wondering if your training and preparation was enough. You may question your capabilities as an athlete at many points. It’s safe to say every athlete has experienced their own moments of self-doubt.

Self-doubt is not an isolated emotion. When you experience self-doubt, it is connected to what you value. If you doubt your expertise to homeschool your kids, it could be because you value your children’s education. If you doubt your ability to race at a certain level, it could be because you value being an example in your family or community and always want to perform at your best.

There is nothing wrong with self-doubt. Just don’t let it paralyze you. Be curious, recognize what value the self-doubt is connected to and practice showing up anyway. Doubt is not a detour, but an invitation.

Remember, we’re all human. We’re all imperfect. All of these emotions are completely normal to experience, and this can be a chance to learn from our emotions if we take the time. Even in the absence of racing, we can build our emotional endurance so we’re stronger mentally and ready for future races.  

Vanessa Foerster is a mentals skill coach who works with athletes, especially triathletes, on building their mental toolbox.