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Learning to Adapt- Building Resiliency for an Athlete:

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

You are probably aware that physical training is critical for mental health, injury prevention, body composition, and athletic ability.

An athlete can't become a champion without it! An athlete will not achieve their full potential without a strong physical fitness program. Period.

Nevertheless, when an athlete goes to compete, their self- confidence, and trust to achieve success is entirely dependent upon their capacity to handle their unique fears, anxieties, self-doubt, and how they manage negative thinking and self-destructive distractions.

A lot of the time, how and what an athlete focuses on with what's important is the foundation of their enjoyment, fulfilment, and motivation to get better.

Mental Toughness is simply managing your emotions in the face of fear and uncertainty.

An athlete without these and other mental toughness skills will find that all of their physical training will be sabotaged and useless.

The world we are living in right now demands that you find innovative ways to manage your fears, the uncertainty, and the changes that you face as an athlete and individual.

How do you do that? The simple answer is

Adapt or Die.

"According to Darwin's Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives, but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself."

— Leon C. Megginson, Civilisation Past and Present, 1963

Scarcity, however, promotes creativity. The key is to adopt a mindset that is creative, robust, nimble, and ok with adaptation.

ATHLETE IQ and our team are committed to helping you navigate these testing times while you're at home and as you transition back into sports and training. Have guidance and learning mental skills is vital. Adopt the goal that when you are out of isolation, somehow, you have grown and become better. You intend that when you are finally able to go back to the normalcy that was once your sport, you do so mentally stronger and more confident.

Intention and purpose are powerful performance enhancers

Your sport, like life, is always loaded full of the "uncontrollable!"

That's the fun of life. It is full of uncertainty.

That is, there are always things in that you have no direct control over. How you react to these says a lot about your mindset and your mental toughness. In a normal sporting context, the uncontrollable are typically the following;

· how big, strong and fast your opponents are,

· the level of officiating,

· playing conditions and weather,

· having to deal with a nagging injury

· playing when you're not 100% physically,

· a mistake you just made (the past),

· whether you'll perform well and win or not (the future),

· how you felt in the warm-up,

· whether your coach or friends or parents might be disappointed in you if you perform poorly,

and now dealing and navigating your way through a worldwide health and economic crisis that has changed your training methods as you know it!

Humans are hard-wired for connection and everything a human does in terms of behaviour and thinking is hard-wired for survival. Thus, many athletes focus on the UC's because in a way it threatens survival as they know it.

By focusing and dwelling on these "UC's", the pattern of thinking becomes a vicious cycle. The space of thinking is about identifying the problem and not finding the solution.

This is a certain driver toward unhappiness, it elevates your nervous system into the 'danger zone', - some 'psychologists call this a 'red zone', which increases anxiety and severely destabilises your self-confidence and ultimately will sabotage your ability to problem solve and affect performance.

To mitigate the above, the first step is the identification and having sound levels of self-awareness. As an athlete or a coach working with athletes, endeavour to learn to identify the things that you have no direct control over.

Then try and discipline yourself to concentrate on the one thing that you can always learn to control: How you choose to respond to the uncontrollable'.

You see stress and anxiety are elevated when we don't know how to respond to certain situations. Emotional management is vital in becoming a world-class athlete, let alone good human beings with elite behaviour.

Occasionally the impact of the 'uncontrollable' can cause destabilisation to many things. Our income, our relationships, our hobbies, our training, and our routine.

It sends shockwaves and ultimately 'rocks your world'.

The effects can be felt far beyond your sport.

The most common is that we have seen in many industries, huge job losses and a complete stop or remodelled set of competition and training protocols.

Thus, to keep it within a context of sport and performance, destabilisation may for example;

· involve your favourite, long-time coach who suddenly leaves due to cuts in the coaching team,

· you develop an illness or sustain an injury that takes you out of training for months or even longer,

· your parents suddenly decide to move to another part of the country due to being laid off and finding work elsewhere

· you have increased family trauma and dysfunction, considering income has now been affected and family dynamics have changed

When these events happen, they're upsetting and hard to deal with and it's easy to get depressed, unmotivated, and lose your confidence and feel your dedication and commitment do a disappearing act.

We long for comfort and easiness. However, as a person matures and grows, perspective starts to infiltrate their psyche. As an athlete, you should be grateful for your hardships – they made you. Consequently, gratefulness starts to be the foundation of their being.

They realise that these unexpected, upsetting and uncontrollable events pale in comparison to the huge disruptive effects of what is happening worldwide, in sport within now this pandemic.

In some instances during COVID, schools have been entirely shut down, full seasons and tournaments have been cancelled. And all athletes want to do is compete. With your or your team unable to practice and compete anymore because of the fear of the virus spreading – it begs to question, what next?

The most troubling part of all of this turmoil is that, right now, there's no clear end in sight to get back to normal.

With no end in sight - how do you as a person, athlete or coach effectively ride this wave out amid anxiety and other emotions generated by this massive uncontrollable? that when it's finally in our rear-view mirror, you, your team or sporting club can come out of this experience stronger, calmer, confident and ultimately more resilient?

Resiliency stems from what you value. I believe that as individuals, our greatest asset is our ability to learn, connect, and adapt to new situations. For me - I value that a basis for personal success is rooted in the ability to be kind, empathetic, and to be a great listener.

Moreover, it is to acknowledge that everything a person/athlete wants is on the other side of fear and consistency.

Thus, I strongly believe that what separates people whether it be athletically or professionally, is consistency, courage to hold yourself to account and the capacity to grow and develop as a person

Everyone has their own unique story and thus their own unique values.

As I am writing for a wide-ranging audience - for simplicity and generalisation purposes, I will make a few assumptions based on my experience and education.

If you are reading this – then I assume you are a dedicated and committed athlete. You probably train 2-3+ hours a day, maybe 5-6 days a week, depending upon your age and level.

You have implemented important short- and long-term goals that you use to motivate and drive yourself that you're focused on achieving.

You have a sense of identity associated with your chosen sport and there is a parallel with your levels of self-esteem and self-worth derived from your passion and commitment to training and competition.

Like all of us, you are imperfect as your ability to cope with life's stresses can be improved.

You perhaps train and workout to help cope with the challenges that life tends to throw your way. It serves as a little 'me' time.

Lastly, and proportionately as important is that your sport often acts as a conduit for your social life.When you're a young, dedicated athlete managing workloads of school or work, you typically don't have time to have a "normal" social life and your friends are ordinarily your teammates.

When an athlete or team can no longer train, due to something outside of their control, whether it be an injury or something out of the blue and disruptive – the brain becomes uniquely vulnerable.

In a 2014 study in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, it stated that uncertainty disrupts many of the habitual and automatic mental processes that govern routine action. According to the study 'This disruption creates conflict in the brain, and this conflict can lead to a state of both hypervigilance and outsized emotional reactivity to negative experiences or information. In other words, uncertainty acts like rocket fuel for worry; it causes people to see threats everywhere they look, and at the same time it makes them more likely to react emotionally in response to those threats'. Uncertainty lays the groundwork for anxiety because anxiety is always future-oriented," says Jack Nitschke, the study's co-author and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Thus, when you abruptly find yourself lost, isolated, and continuously anxious, know that there is an internal conflict happening within the brain.

So, what are you supposed to do now? Athletes all over the world face this reality - if you can't train regularly with your coach and your teammates, what are the ramifications.

What you want to DO is first and foremost remove the worry. Do everything in your power to manage how you respond to this huge stressor via constructive means. Staying in a positive mindset and entering a state of flow is a way the brain can relax. This can come in many and varied forms. Typically, it means staying present by doing things you enjoy, learning new skills, staying connected to loved ones exercising regularly, and doing activities that require you to stay in the present moment. This then moved the brain to then to stay focused on what you CAN control, NOT on all of the things that right now are totally out of your control!

These guidelines are also tailored to those of you who are grieving from the loss and disappointment of having your final season in your sport suddenly terminated, such as seniors competing in the NCAA (even though there is an extra year of eligibility graced), or to the older statesman that will be cut from a list.

1. Go on a 'Digital Diet' and limit time on technology

A wider discussion of the role of technology in human and athletic development is beyond the scope of this article, however, there are some real implications of media and tech overuse and misuse on the lives and athlete development and that is what I'm going to touch on here. The overuse ranges far beyond the training and competitive settings in which athletes perform and carry out their daily lives. The last generation or two (post smartphone invention) have become addicted to social media via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, texting, and others. Addiction is a strong word; however, it has been validated by the research which has established that social media has the same neurochemical effect on the brain as drugs, alcohol, and gambling. We know that technology is everywhere in today's society. However, there is an apparent inability for most young athletes to disconnect from their phones, even during practice. So, you may wonder, how is this incessant use of media impacting athletes?

The biggest area in which athletes are finding more and more difficulty is in the simple act of focusing. Considerable research has found that the attention spans of young people have decreased since the rise of smartphones and social media. Because of the distractions caused by the constant pinging, buzzing, and vibrating of social media notifications, not to mention the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) effect, young people are losing the ability to stay focused for extended periods. The result has been a decline in study habits, learning, and grades.

2. Try to keep a long-term perspective.

Whilst your season or playoffs may have just been cancelled or suspended and or the next season is totally up in the air, it doesn't mean that your athletic career is over. Learn to keep a long-term perspective and appreciate that you are one of many. This will ease anxiety and worry. What is going on right now is unprecedented and scary, but it doesn't need to dictate drastic action that will affect your career. If you learn to be patient and cope with the uncertainty, you will come out of this stronger. Know that eventually things will get resolved and your life and sport will return to something more normal. Understanding that at present we're all in a state of extremely high activation (anxiety, upset, frustration, etc.), your coping mechanisms come to the fore. Sooner or later, like any activation, what goes up will come down. Even if it's a month or more, things will eventually begin to settle! Keeping a long-term perspective will help immensely.

3. The hardship you're dealing with right now, you don't have to go it alone!

Leaning into what you are feeling is healthy. Try to let yourself feel the feelings that have surfaced around this disruptive event. Whether it be financial, job security, health, or lack of connection, talk about them with someone you trust. This may be a friend, your parents, or even a counselor. It is important to know that while we're all asked to "socially isolate," this does not mean you should emotionally isolate! Stay connected at all costs, and build into your routine time to check in with others, your teammates, etc. Sharing your fears, frustration, and feelings with others is vital and contributes to you maintaining your physical and health!

Know that it is healthy to air you're the frustration. If you allow your fears to escalate out of proportion and begin regularly immersing yourself amid these stress hormones, it will strengthen the vicious cycle of suppression. It will only make you extremely unhappy and depress your immune system. When this happens, you'll be less able to fight off sickness and you will become irritable and moody. Talking and authentically connecting with others is a means to calm your fears and improve your wellbeing.

4. Lean into rest.

Use time wisely and take opportunities to rest, reset and reflect, physically and mentally. Many athletes forget that 'rest' is key for longevity, injury prevention, enjoyment, and is an important part of the training. Having balance in your life is key to a productive athletic career.

A committed athlete's life is full of complexity. From many training sessions a week (almost year-round), school or university and their own unique and intense demands and stressors it brings, to possibly working a part-time job – athletes find themselves with almost no free time to relax, or have adequate and regular time off to tend to hobbies or a normal way of life. Athletes are always used to hitting the "override button" and just keep pushing forward at the expense of their health. Resting your body is recharging so you can come back mentally clearer and refreshed.

5. Staying mobilized and continue to "train."

Be dedicated toward your full training program. However, many athletes complain about thewir results yet are not fully invested into their training and iuse their doubt or lack of motivation as an excuse not to train. There are is a plethora of ways to build fitness, strength, and speed without fancy equipment or the use of the gym. Working out outside is also good for your mental health. If you are an athlete who is injured – I advise my clientele to train harder in the presence of injury. I'd also be recommending to you that you train "around" your injury. That is, if your knee was injured, you might not be able to do lower bodywork and movement, but you could continue working on other forms of cardio and strengthening both your core, upper body, etc. Thus, if you can continue to train without putting yourself at risk, then do it and get into a mindset of training hard daily.

6. Long term goals SHOULD still be in play. Keep them in front of the mind.

This will keep you motivated. So, even if you can't practice and compete, you can still dedicate time to work towards your goals. Slowly but surely, you make begin to prioritise what's important to you, and consequently, when you're taking care of yourself, make right, educated decisions about what to eat and drink, prioritise sleep and commit to waking up early to run or exercise, self-discipline and self-mastery develop.

Intentions followed up by action is the foundation for success. Long term goal setting plays its part as it forces you to ask high-quality questions to keep yourself accountable; such as

· "How is what I'm doing today or right now, going to help me get to my goal?" Keep in mind that all of your competitors are in the very same boat as you!

· Is my diet helping me train my hardest and does it allow me to recover efficiently?

· Can I improve my sleeping habits?

· What can I do differently or better to get fitter?

Simply put, the athletes who do the work will be miles ahead when sport comes back to normality. They are also going to come out of this adversity in good shape both mentally and physically. These athletes are the ones who showed true 'professionalism' in how they responded to this crisis and will reap the benefits. By continuing to consistently "train" and work towards their goals in any way that they can, they used this time as an opportunity to grow, develop and get better with their long-term goals in front of mind.

7. Work on strengthening your weaknesses!

Following from tip #6, now is the perfect time to review where you are as an athlete. Athlete IQ is committed to assisting you in this process. It's what we specialise in. Human beings whenever adversity hits, we think about the negative and we all tend to focus on the poor parts of the situation. Mentally tough athletes look for opportunities. They look for the positive and the potential to get better. Forced time off can offer us the chance to work on parts of our sport that we wouldn't normally work on, and specifically our weaknesses!


It doesnt matter how you feel, you need to be self-disciplined and train by yourself or with a partner. This sometimes can be the difference in performance, who you chose to train with.

Some athletes often struggle when routine and instruction are removed, other athletes thrive on the flexibility and freedom to train when, how, and where they want. Regardless of where you fit on how you like to train, you can always work on different aspects of your game by yourself.

The one thing that you should and can consistently work on which will both help lift the level of your game as well as providing you with various coping skills to manage the stress and anxiety of these uncertain times is your mental training. Improving your mental skillset will give you not only a competitive edge but will allow you to be more productive.

Athlete IQ offers very specific strategies to help you develop mental fitness, mental toughness skills, brain endurance training, and interventions to calm yourself down and begin to manage your anxiety and stress.

You have more free time than you'd like at this time, it's a perfect opportunity for you to work on developing your mental muscles and eliminating some of your mental weaknesses!

Examples stem from being self-aware from where you are lacking in your mental toughness skillset. You may have a history of the following, such as;

· Falling apart under pressure due to of out of control nerves. You can begin to methodically learn how to handle emotions, calm yourself down when you're stressed and under pressure

· Losing trust and confidence, whereby performance has been lacking and you frequently get engulfed with last-minute negative thinking, negative self-talk, and self-doubts. You can learn how to manage these last-minute negatives and develop a plan to reduce the frequency and severity of these scenarios, so they no longer erode your confidence an affect your performance.

· Having a tendency to self-sabotage yourself leading up to competitions. From a poor diet to inadequate sleep to an incorrect mindset. You can learn how to mentally and physically prepare for important performances using mental rehearsal/visualization and self-imagery and adopting a preparation plan to get your mind and body in the best possible state to compete.

· Having difficulty controlling your focus and concentration under pressure. You can work on your focusing skills, learn through brain endurance programs, and develop mental strength through learning how to handle distractions, triggers, and how to implement interventions to promote hyper-focus in your game.

· Struggling to handle your nerves pre and during a competition, which affects your decision making and judgment. If you have levels of performance anxiety before a competition, you can learn to develop pregame routines and coping mechanisms to handle your nerves and promote the correct mindset leading into the competition.

If you are serious about improving your game, regardless of how upsetting, anxiety-ridden, stress-provoking we all find ourselves in when dealing with sort and use it as a foundation to improve. You may think you are mentally tough, but great athletes are always hungry to learn more. In Elite Sport - Mental toughness and concentration are the margins of victory.

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