LIMIT SKILLS Blog
Tips for athletes against the mental lockdown
Interview with sport psychologist and ultra runner Dr. Michele Ufer
(originally published in German language in Swiss magazine Fit for Life)
Recreational athletes, who have always preferred to be outdoors alone, are not greatly affected by the current sporting lockdown. Running, cycling, biking: for many that’s even possible in Corona times. Other athletes express significantly more trouble with the unfamiliar situation. The concrete competition goal, which they have been working towards for weeks, suddenly disappears from one day to the next. The club trainings with loved sports colleagues under the guidance of a coach: cancelled until further notice. The common beer after the evening training in the club. Unthinkable. Lessons and institutions with which the inner bastard could be outwitted: inaccessible.
What now? How do amateur athletes manage to mentally overcome this crisis? Which techniques and tools can recreational athletes currently use? How do endurance athletes find ways out of the mental lockdown?
Someone who knows this topic like no other is the German sports psychologist and ultra runner Dr. Michele Ufer. In countless books, he provides running and endurance athletes with advice, scientific facts and best practice tips when it comes to mental motivation in sport as well as crisis management in training and (ultra) competitions. That is why we want to know from him:
Michele Ufer, how are you yourself at the moment in the Corona lockdown? Do the current measures affect your own running and endurance training?
I'm doing fine so far, thank you. On the one hand, the Corona-Lockdown has not had a big impact on my own running training so far, because I usually train alone and only occasionally go out into nature with one or the other buddy away from large crowds, which is still possible in our country. In addition, I had a knee operation at the beginning of March, followed by a ban on running and cycling. So I was more restricted by this personal knockout than by the social lockdown and was not able to train.
On the other hand I am still massively affected. Numerous competitions were cancelled or postponed. I also had several big events planned this year and their cancellation now has a considerable impact on me, as this is connected with professional activities such as book projects, research projects, lectures and the like. I could get quite frustrated and curse in a triangle, but does this help me in any way? No. It is the way it is and cannot be changed. I rather see the good for me in the situation.
For example, although I know that enough time is crucial for an optimal rehab and I take the time in principle, I still had the upcoming races a bit on my neck and the question "Will I be fit again in time? This (un)conscious pressure is gone now and I can concentrate even better on the rehab, can put more energy into my #comebackstronger, can occupy myself beyond the usual training with things, which otherwise in the hectic everyday life sometimes fall behind, can try out/learn new things and question my previous actions. That actually feels quite good.
What is your advice to amateur sportsmen and women who go to training mainly for social reasons? Is there any way to compensate for the loss of social contacts (virtual training platforms, training apps?)?
The face-to-face contact, the real togetherness, the human closeness can certainly not be compensated completely by apps. Nevertheless, virtual competitions via corresponding training apps, virtual charity events or performances documented by organizers in result lists according to the motto "lonely together" etc. are a good opportunity to experience motives such as community and competition, to cultivate self-esteem, build motivation and "stay tuned".
I also think it's great to see the creativity and spontaneity that has been shown recently, not only in sports. I just have to think of singing and making music together on balconies or of a DJ who duly registered a party, then from his balcony delighted the neighbours with his music and created a great atmosphere, while the police with their blue light gave light and danced. That is cool.
Back to the sport. What I also like is that many providers and clubs now offer their courses in the form of videos, even better: as interactive video conferences. The conference connection allows all participants to be connected via laptop camera, push each other and laugh with each other when pain-distorted faces were pushed to the limit.
What are the disadvantages of virtual training tools?
Without feedback, there is a risk of acquiring dysfunctional patterns or even injuring oneself when performing demanding movements. In addition, there is another, often neglected aspect: some web conferencing software that is currently being hyped has such serious security flaws that even an intelligence agency like the FBI wittily warns of it. You should be aware of this before you decide on a system.
Since the moment after a training session is also important for the teamwork, I have recently made repeated appointments for a WhatsApp beer or barbecue after work. This is certainly no substitute for the physical togetherness, the appreciative clap and the hearty hug, but it is valuable in between. And then there's still the possibility to make a phone call. What did I spend hours on the phone in the past, when there was no internet, and felt close to other people...
Despite all the activity being shifted to the virtual space and as helpful as many offers on the net may be, I strongly recommend that you use Facebook, Instagram & Co. only in a well-dosed manner. The reason: Social media are more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, according to a study by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK. Too much social media is definitely not good for us, can have a negative effect on our general mental health, cause anxiety and resentment, nibble at (self) trust, and cause sleep disorders. We don't really want that.
What advice do you give to athletes who have prepared themselves for a competition goal that will not take place at all or only much later because of Corona?
In a short sentence: Accept, stay calm and rethink or reorient yourself and your goals or the way to reach them. As tricky as it may be in individual cases, it makes no sense to struggle with the situation for a long time. This would only make life difficult for ourselves. It makes more sense to make the situation our partner, to see what we can get out of it, how we can use the "gained" time. Here or there, there is even room for existential questions, e.g. about the sense of one's own actions or how professional athletes, for example, can build a foothold for the time after their career.
Another thought. The Corona pandemic and the associated cuts in our lives are unique. There is no empirical data on how we can best deal with it. But there are challenges that can at least be similar in their effects. Situations in which we simply cannot do what we want. And that's why I mentioned my knee surgery in the beginning, not without reason.
Can such a lockdown be seen as an injury to some extent?
Injuries and the associated forced breaks are something that just about every athlete knows. Sometimes the injuries are so severe that they prevent athletes from participating in competitions for a long time. Sometimes they may not be particularly severe, but they are so badly timed that a personally significant competition is not possible. Most of the time, after initial and understandable frustration, we actually come back through such phases quite well and sometimes even much stronger than we were before, because we take more time for certain things. I personally find this parallel quite helpful. And in my eyes it is interesting for another reason. There are research results that impressively document that athletes who use certain psychological strategies and attitudes recover from injuries much faster/better. And it's sometimes the same strategies that help us get through crises better and recover faster from stressful times, according to a study on resilience (psychological resistance) I conducted.
In contrast to runners and cyclists, for example, swimmers or team athletes "suffer" more from the lockdown. Does it make sense to turn to other sports - as a substitute drug, so to speak? Or is it better to look for a completely different occupation, detached from the sport (urban gardening, learning an instrument, photography, cooking etc.?)
That certainly depends on the personal situation. Various scenarios are conceivable. On the one hand, in times of general uncertainty, it can be helpful to maintain a certain training rhythm and daily/weekly routine, at least in sport, even if the specific content may need to be adapted to the circumstances. This gives support in a part of life and provides a certain continuity and a feeling of control. Ambitious competitive athletes should make sure that their body and metabolism remain in full swing. There are numerous sport-specific helpful workouts that can also be carried out at home without much effort. Certainly that is not perfect, but it is time to improvise, be creative and flexible. Of course we should not do this without sense and reason and, if available, in close coordination with our coaches.
At the same time, many rooms and possibilities open up for new things. It would be a pity if we did not make use of them. Athletes can reflect on their training, occupy themselves with and try out things for which they previously had no head, e.g. mental training.
But these can also be non-sporting activities. We know from resilience research that mentally resistant people remain interested in different things. And after all, there is a good life besides sports. For example, I learned just this week that digital pianos are currently in great demand because many people now want to learn to play the piano. Some people are now realizing that they used to only work and work at high speed on their hamster wheel. This awareness is a first step to consider whether this is exactly how things should continue in the future and what alternatives there might be in the way of life. Some athletes now have the opportunity to recover properly. Many professional athletes, who are studying on the side, are now finally getting to work on their long overdue seminar papers and register for exams.
As we can see, the situation, with all its challenges, also holds a lot of opportunities if we look closely and dare to take them.
What should one pay particular attention to in times of quarantine and social distancing?
There is one thing we should definitely pay attention to in times of quarantine and social distancing when choosing and designing activities: getting into the flow state as much as possible. The term flow has been used quite inflationary lately, and here it refers to a highly focused state in which we focus all our attention on an activity in such a way that we literally sink into it. Everything around it is faded out. There are no negative thoughts. Even challenging activities are mastered with a certain amount of effortlessness like on autopilot and time often flies by. This state is not only motivational and performance enhancing. In a recent study from Wuhan (China), Flow proved to be an effective coping strategy for quarantine and social distancing.
The longer periods of quarantine and social distancing last, the worse the psychological well-being. With increasing duration, fears, worries, depressive moods, feelings of loneliness and unhealthy behaviour increase. Experiencing flow is able to break up or at least greatly weaken this connection. The results from China show that the more flow they experience, the better the well-being of people in quarantine. The more the chosen activities are flow inducing, the less negative feelings, depressive moods and unhealthy behaviour are experienced, the more positive emotions and healthy behaviour are developed. Persons in a longer quarantine who reported above-average flow experience did not feel worse overall than persons who had not yet been in quarantine. So there are good reasons for choosing activities in which we are particularly good at getting into a flow state. Or for learning strategies that help us to get into flow more effectively.
Do you know easy to learn motivation tips that can be applied at present, that also work for athletes who have never dealt with mental techniques before?
I'm not sure if athletes currently need motivational tips. Many want to, but they can't/may not always do it the way they want. A recent study even shows that people who were doing regular exercise and sports before the corona crisis seem to be training more at the moment.
But there are a number of proven mental strategies that can be helpful in coping better with crises and recovering from them faster. And perhaps now is a good time to look into this topic more intensively, because these mental strategies also promote motivation, performance, flow and health, not only in times of crisis. Good arguments for mental training.
I had already referred to the study on resilience that I conducted with endurance athletes. The result: The more often mental strategies are used, the more resilient the athletes seem to be, i.e. the better they get through difficult times. But which strategies are these? The following figure shows this. The grey line is an average profile of hundreds of athletes. A detailed discussion would go too far here. You can find more details and a scientifically sound possibility to do a personal "Mental Strengths" diagnostic in my book Mental Toughness for Runners. A Complete Guide and at www.endurancepsychology.de.
But I would like to give a current example. By visualization we understand the systematic work with inner images. This can be, for example, the intensive imagination of the future, how it will be when we emerge strengthened from this time of crisis, what we will do then, how we will feel, e.g. how we will participate in the fantastic competition in 2021 and rock it. But these can also be intense memories. For example, as a mental training program for one week, a customer has decided to consciously take the time to relive emotionally significant and especially beautiful runs from the past as intensively as possible in front of his inner eyes. That feels good, makes you feel positive, strengthens your self-confidence and makes you want to do new, future runs.
When and how do you recognize that you should seek professional help?
Help with what? That depends very much on the topic. I will pick out one aspect that is discussed more often due to the current restrictions on activity and contact prohibitions: Depression. Just as the body can fall ill, so can the psyche. Although it can affect everyone and although mental illnesses are just as curable as physical ones, mental illnesses are unfortunately still a taboo subject in many places. The reasons for the occurrence of depression are manifold and cannot always be avoided: genetic predisposition determines how susceptible someone is. Personality factors, such as exaggerated perfectionism, and critical life circumstances promote the risk of a disease, such as the loss of important caregivers or identity-creating tasks, breaks due to injury or the end of a career. Against this background, vulnerable people may currently be at increased risk.
Depression can ultimately affect anyone. Approximately one in five falls ill with it at least once in their lives. Depression occurs in competitive sports to the same extent as in the general population. Early signs are often exhaustion, sadness, joylessness, sleep disorders, early morning awakening, lack of appetite. In addition, the symptoms must persist for at least two weeks. In athletes, the symptoms often initially manifest themselves physically with feelings of exhaustion or even pain. A well-informed, attentive environment can be very helpful in giving feedback. For a self-test, for example, the WHO 5 test can provide initial information. The scientifically based questionnaire takes only one minute and is available on my website for free download. Depression can usually be treated very well. Early detection and early treatment is important. Sports doctors or sports psychologists can be helpful in initiating and communicating measures.
Are there any of your articles or books that you particularly recommend reading these days?
I would like to recommend Mental Toughness for Runners. A Complete Guide The above mentioned strategies are explained in detail. You can train your mental skills on the basis of a well-founded personal position-fixing. The book offers tons of hands-on excercises, and proven tips. It is recommended by recreational and top athletes far beyond the running sport, e.g. also by corporate leaders. According to readers feedback it helps to promote motivation and performance and to master extreme challenges in professional and everyday life, as well as personal lows in life.