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Triathlon Meets COVID-19: What to Think, What to Do

How to manage your emotions and respond positively to the global pandemic.

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We humans don’t like disruptions in our lives. We like to feel safe, secure, and comfortable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it means we’re, well, human. This need is hardwired into us through evolution with one purpose in mind: to ensure our survival.

Unfortunately, crises are, by their very nature, disruptive and cause reactions that are decidedly uncomfortable, not to mention a threat to our survival. Crises create unfamiliarity, unpredictability, uncertainty, ambiguity, discomfort, and, most difficult, a loss of control. And the recent meeting of triathlon with COVID-19 is one of those crises. The cancellation of many triathlons and uncertainty about whether there will be a race season at all this year is just one of the impacts COVID-19 is having on all of us.

These abrupt changes to the triathlon world have left all of us in a state of shock, disbelief, and distress. We are asking questions that, at this moment, have no answers: when will pools open, when can I begin to train with my “tri-peeps” again, and when will races be allowed to happen? The even-bigger question that can completely fill up our minds and crush our spirits is: WHY, WHY, WHY???

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. Depending on your sensibilities, you could answer the “why” question with: bad luck, an act of God, or S&%# happens! But, ultimately, any answer that you come up with will be largely unsatisfying and may even cause more consternation and frustration.

For anyone whose self-identity is heavily invested in triathlon and who devotes significant time and energy to our sport, the sudden pause caused by COVID-19 is an existential threat to our self-esteem, psychic equilibrium, and peace of mind. For triathlon coaches and race directors, the costs include the pain of not being able to ply the trade that is their passion, professional identity, and livelihood.

Perhaps the only people who benefit from this unfortunate turn of events are injured triathletes who will lose less ground in terms of development, with their peers limited in their training and racing opportunities.

With this massive disruption and the widespread “suffering” (in the first-world sense) that it has inflicted on our triathlon community, I thought I would share some thoughts on how we can all cope as effectively as possible with the crisis and respond to it in the most positive and constructive way. As the noted psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, observed, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Emotions

The emotions we are all feeling are the most powerful and immediate discomfort we feel in reaction to the loss we are experiencing. Sadness, disappointment, grief, devastation, despair, stress, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, frustration, and anger are just a few of the emotions we feel in response to this disruption in our triathlon (and broader) world. I have heard from many triathletes who have shed many tears in seeing their season so suddenly pulled out from under them.

Advice

  1. Don’t try to assuage, placate, or distract your feelings.
  2. Don’t minimize (“Oh, it’s no big deal”), rationalize, or blame.
  3. Allow yourself to feel bad (an essential part of developing emotional mastery involves feeling bad, identifying and understanding the emotions, and learning to express those unpleasant emotions in healthy ways).
  4. Be empathetic: listen to and reflect back the feelings of other triathletes who are also struggling.
  5. Don’t try to solve the problem. (There is no solution!)
  6. Allow yourself to go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).
  7. Over time, as the negative emotions begin to fade, refocus on the positives of the past season and the opportunities for the next season.

Perspective

It’s easy to focus only on the present and the immediate future. This short-term perspective can lead us to see a crisis like what we are currently experiencing as much larger than it really is. (Naturally, when you look at something close up, it appears much bigger than if viewed from a distance.) And this enormity can turn the volume up on how we think and feel about and react to the impact of COVID-19 on our triathlon lives.

One of the most valuable things we can do for ourselves and others is to offer a perspective that is wider and longer than the perspective that may be currently held. This view of the crisis puts it in a context that is easier for us to wrap our arms around and that will soften the emotional impact of the COVID-19 crisis on us.

Advice

  1. Acknowledge, rather than devalue, the short-term and narrow perspective you may hold. (It may be your view and it should be respected.)
  2. Think long-term—race cancellations may seem like a big deal now, but in a short time, it won’t seem so big or overwhelming.
  3. Think big picture—COVID-19 is causing much bigger problems all over the world than having to cancel some triathlons.
  4. Think of examples from your life and the world at large to bring #2 and #3 to life.
Woman jogging wearing face mask.
Photo: Getty Images

Resilience

Resilience has become a buzzword in our achievement vocabulary, yet its deep meaning and value to the quality of our lives and how we react to a crisis is important and powerful. Resilience can be characterized as the capacity to cope effectively with setbacks, obstacles, failures, and disappointment.

One thing I love about triathlon is that our resilience is tested every day in training and at races, and that resilience can be applied to the COVID-19 crisis as well. Like a muscle that isn’t strengthened, without these opportunities to experience life’s challenges, resilience can’t be fortified.

Advice

  1. View the crisis and its effects as a challenge to embrace rather than a threat to avoid.
  2. Remind yourself about the value of resilience in a crisis, what it means, and what it is composed of.
  3. Provide support and guidance to other triathletes through the crisis.
  4. Remember that you are, by definition as a triathlete, resilient.
  5. Highlight your strengths.
  6. Focus on things over which you have control.
  7. Collect tools you can use to be more resilient (e.g., relaxation, positive thinking, goal setting).
  8. Make life as normal as possible (e.g., family dinners, continuing to train the best you can).

Opportunity

As President John F. Kennedy noted, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters—one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” Whether a crisis is viewed as, well, a crisis, or an opportunity depends on whether the focus is on what is lost or what can be gained. Your ability to respond positively to a crisis will be dictated by whether you can let go of the costs and focus on the potential benefits of the crisis.

Advice

  1. Adjust your dreams and goals to work within the “new normal” of this crisis.
  2. Look at the missed races as an extended prep period for upcoming races.
  3. Identify areas you need to work on in your triathlon development and focus on strengthening those areas.
  4. Use this time away from our sport to seek balance in your life and pursue aspects of your life that you didn’t have time for before the crisis (e.g., focus on school, enjoy a hobby that has been neglected, try something new and different).
  5. See your response to the crisis as an opportunity to become mentally stronger, which will benefit you in the future.
  6. Create new structure and routines in your life around triathlon training that accommodate the disruptions of the COVID-19 crisis.
  7. Take action (decreases feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and victimhood; increases sense of competence, feelings of control, and optimism).

Support

The natural tendency during a crisis is to go into protective mode and isolate ourselves from the threats the crisis presents. Unfortunately, this strategy is the worst thing that we can do. When a crisis strikes, it’s important to seek out support from others—while, in the case of COVID-19, being sure to maintain appropriate “physical distancing” to help minimize the spread of the virus. The fact is that everyone is suffering in some way, everyone is stuck, and everyone is frustrated. As the saying goes, misery loves company.

Advice

  1. Seek out others (e.g., triathletes, coaches) with whom you can commiserate.
  2. Ideally, find people who are optimistic and forward-thinking rather than pessimistic and backward-thinking.
  3. Express your emotions to family, friends, and coaches and encourage them to be open about their feelings with you (letting emotions out reduces their power over you).
  4. Share ideas and strategies on how to respond constructively to this crisis.
  5. Help each other be distracted from the crisis.
  6. Do activities with others that generate emotions that are counter to the unpleasant emotions most commonly experienced in a crisis (e.g., continue your triathlon training).
  7. Ordinarily, I would suggest that hugs and shoulders to cry on are great “medicine” in a crisis, but be careful with whom you are in contact, so you don’t inadvertently spread COVID-19!

As with most crises, COVID-19 will pass, and life in the triathlon world and beyond will return to normal. The expanded prep period of conditioning, sport training, and, of course, mental training forced on us by the pandemic can occupy your minds, lift our spirits, and actually make us better triathletes (and people) in the long run. And then, hopefully, upcoming races will happen or next season will arrive. And life in the triathlon world will once again return to its usual intense, inspiring, and fun pace. And we’ll look back on this crisis as a bump (admittedly, a pretty big bump) and then look forward to another great and fun and exciting season ahead.

To learn more about how to respond positively to the COVID-19 crisis, listen to my Crisis to Opportunity podcast or read my latest book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: Nine Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisis. To learn how to become more mentally prepared for whenever triathlon season begins, listen to my Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast or read The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training.


About Dr. Jim Taylor

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., psychology, is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of endurance sports. Jim has been a consultant to USA Triathlon and works with Olympic, professional, and age-group endurance athletes in triathlon, cycling, running, swimming, and Nordic skiing. A former alpine ski racer who competed internationally, Jim is a 2nd degree black belt in karate, sub-3-hour marathoner, Ironman, and USAT nationally ranked triathlete. Jim is the author of 17 books, including The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training (with Terri Schneider) and Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation for Achieving Your Sports Goals. Jim is also the host of the Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast. To learn more, visit his website.