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Finding Ways to Cope

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY ED MORAN, LISA WORTHY, AND COURTESY OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR APPLIED SPORT PSYCHOLOGY

With the spring rowing season lost, the summer schedule in question, and schools and clubs closed in the world-wide effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, athletes on all levels are having to deal with the emotion of loss and the questions of how to keep training and connected to the sport and their goals.

To offer some perspective and insight on what professional sports psychologists can suggest as ways to cope with those emotions and stay in training Rowing News reached out to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), who connected us to Dr. Stephen Gonzalez, Dartmouth College assistant athletics director for leadership and mental performance.

Dr. Gonzalez has years of experience working and teaching in the field of sports phycology in collegiate and youth athletics, as well as working with the United States Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program.

The following is a question and answer session that can be applied to student-athletes on many levels, but also focuses on the impact the COVID-19 shutdown is having on youth rowers.

Dr. Stephen Gonzalez, Dartmouth College assistant athletics director for leadership and mental performance.

Rowing News: What can the initial emotional impact on student-athletes who have lost their spring and possible summer seasons be like?

Dr. Gonzalez: “Under high levels of stress our world shrinks quite a lot, and it’s hard not to just focus on ourselves. But when a decision is made that really impacts you, your future and your wellbeing, it’s like nothing else matters, and the first thing you think of is, what am I going to do, how is this going to affect me?

“For juniors, they may think, how am I going to get to the junior national team? Or earn a college scholarship? Or any of those things. And so, I think the emotional impact really puts the blinders on, and it completely narrows us to not think about anything other than ourselves and the situation that we’re in, which then spawns us to have multiple categories of responses, depending on the individual. People can get really angry and frustrated that this is happening.

“A lot more people become sad and depressed, just very upset. And so, you have to sit with that for a while because [the season] is gone and you’re stuck with these feelings. There really isn’t a resolution at that moment, and I think that’s one thing athletes are pretty good at, we try to move on and get to the next target, or get to the next race. But there is no next race.

“And for junior athletes that maybe were hoping for one or two more opportunities to showcase their abilities, it can be really hard, because now you don’t have control over your destiny and you really struggle with that.”

Rowing News: What are some ways of dealing with those emotions?

Dr. Gonzalez: “The first thing we have to understand is our emotions are so powerful that we almost feel like they are indicative of us as a person. So, if I am really angry and sad, we tend to see it as I, as a person, am angry and sad. But really, we have to separate from our emotions. Emotions aren’t people, emotions are temporary feeling states, and how long those feeling states last are dependent on a lot of things, but the advice I give any athlete is you have to separate from the emotion.

“The first thing we have to understand is our emotions are so powerful that we almost feel like they are indicative of us as a person. So, if I am really angry and sad, we tend to see it as I, as a person, am angry and sad. But really, we have to separate from our emotions. Emotions aren’t people, emotions are temporary feeling states…”

– Dr. Stephen Gonzalez

“Once I can separate from the emotion, then I can actually examine and evaluate the experience – why am I feeling this way, how important is rowing to me, we start to really ask ourselves why am I so upset.

“I really care about rowing but why? Then it gives you an opportunity to really evaluate your experience and your relationship to the activities and the things that you do. Then I think the last thing is we can embrace the emotion, or appreciate the emotions, because emotions are a part of human life and all the highs and the lows. And we can then thank the emotion for getting us the realization that we care, or thank the emotion for keeping us safe, or thank the emotion for giving us greater clarity.

“The more we can get people to separate from the emotion, the more they can actually evaluate it and examine it, to really understand why they are feeling that way. I think it provides some really good context to help people start to move on and have a better understanding of the significance of the event, rather than get so caught up in an emotional state.”

Rowing News: What are some ways to best transition from being in a team environment to training alone?

Dr. Gonzalez: “I have had a lot of experience working as a performance expert for the United States Army, and the tenants of the U.S. Army are to be ready and resilient. And it’s so fascinating because we have soldiers in infantry divisions across the United States that are constantly training for, hopefully, wars that never happen. 

“But if they do happen, the question is are we ready for when that comes about, and are we then resilient in those moments when we need to be? They spend a lot of time training the social capital in soldiers to be ready and resilient.

“The message that I have had for athletes is you need to own the fact that seasons are going to come back, are you ready for them? And, your readiness level is how much you value what you can do. There are so many people that don’t have access to home gyms that are athletes. We have strength and conditioning coaches, for example, that are working on developing these body weight and home routines that require very little to no equipment at all. So, it’s doing squats with a backpack full of canned goods as resistance, or using a towel to do eccentric work instead of a band.

“The message that I have had for athletes is you need to own the fact that seasons are going to come back, are you ready for them?”

Dr. Stephen Gonzalez

“It’s not as glamorous as being in a really great team training environment, so because of that, because we know what those environments can look like, are we devaluing what we can do? I think it’s really, really imperative that when we transition to whatever you have access to, you have to give it value and meaning. I know it’s not perfect, or exactly what you’ve been able to do in the past, but the first thing we need to do is value it. The second thing is to appreciate the fact that you are capable of doing something to either maintain or sustain what you need to do to physically be ready when the time comes.”

Rowing News: Is staying connected to teammates and coaches important?

Dr. Gonzalez: “It’s very important to stay connected. And we do have this ability to be interconnected through a variety of different mediums electronically now. So, whether it’s checking in with teammates after workouts, or face timing with a teammate on the erg, or whatever it is, it can help with that transition. But first and foremost, you have to value and appreciate what we can do and not get so caught up in what others have access to. We can’t play that comparison game because that’s not going to help you take action now. And I think taking purposeful action is what we want people to do. 

“It’s absolutely vital in terms of coping with this event. It has impacted everybody, all facets of human life and society have been affected by this pandemic, and when we spend too much time on our own, we start to think that things are just happening to us. I think it’s really important to connect to the team because we start to understand that people are going through similar challenges, it normalizes the situation for us. It enables us to offer encouragement to other people.

“Rowing is a team sport, and I think it’s important to see what your teammates are doing so that you can appreciate their efforts. And, if you see teammates that are in your boat and you see them really making strides and doing what they can to be ready for when the season comes back, or when we can compete again, it builds trust and enables us to see the camaraderie of why rowing is so special. It really keeps that alive.

“I was a distance runner, so for me being able to connect with track club members and training partners is important. Part of the beauty of sport is once you are done being seriously competitive, it still connects you to people that appreciate what you appreciate, and we hope that sports provide life-long friendships, and helps us connect with people across the world. I think by staying connected, it not only helps teams, but I think it helps us just as human beings in moving forward.”

Rowing News: Will staying connected and doing interconnected workouts, staying positive and focused, become more difficult as time goes on the shutdown continues?

Dr. Gonzalez: The timeline continues to fluctuate, and I think in the next couple of weeks, by the end of April, we will probably have a better idea of how much longer this could potentially go. I think we’re on the brink right now. There are even questions now of is college football going to be happening, and if that’s the case, we’re now moving into fall.

“I am preparing our student athletes, especially in the fall sports, to prepare like the season is going to start on time. But we have to prepare for the option that this is going to be something that could continue, and now we need to adapt. Are we ready for that?

“I think that will help people stay more engaged, and at least anticipate the fact that this could go on longer, and not ignore the fact that it can. And I think that just opens us up to be a little more flexible to this very ambiguous and constantly changing, uncontrollable situation. So, when it comes to what our focus should be, we have to meet the athletes where they are. What that means is, are there athletes that are asking for these workouts, are still motivated. Or, are there some athletes that are still kind of grappling with this and aren’t ready to be in a formal training tempo, or battle rhythm, and just want to get on the bike or maybe do some other activities to stay active, but get some space from it because they are overwhelmed.

“I think we just have to meet people where they are with this, and then just give it a little time and then yea, get back to sending out workouts and gathering some metrics. But the uncertainty of the situation requires us to be probably a little more flexible than where we were in the past.

“Generally, we do our training with a target in mind to demonstrate our abilities. Should the focus be returning to competition eventually, yes. I think that’s a subconscious focus point, but I don’t think it can be the focal point right now because there is no target date, there is no definitive yes, this is going to happen. Because of that, the focus needs to be on am I still appreciating rowing and this sport for what it gives me in terms of a sense of accomplishment and helping me maintain overall health and wellbeing through some physical activity, and is it allowing me to stay connected to people, and do I appreciate the process of training.

“If we get back to that, I think we will still continue to foster a healthy love of what we’re doing. And then, when it comes time to target our training towards something, I think then we’ll be there.”

Tim McLaren assists with weightlifting at the United States Olympic Training Center in Oakland, California. Photo by Ed Moran.

Rowing News: What recommendation do you have for junior athletes who are hoping to row in college and possibly be awarded a scholarship or financial aid, and are now feeling anxious about their opportunities being threatened?

Dr. Gonzalez: “What’s interesting is looking at why people get involved in their sports. Generally, people get involved in their sports because they saw it on TV, they were inspired by someone, they had family members in the sport. There is some sort of social influence.

“But people start, and then they like it. It’s cool to see kids take on a sport, begin to appreciate it, kind of do it on their own. And if they show promise, all it takes is one person saying you’re really good at rowing, if you continue doing this, you could probably row in college, maybe get a scholarship. Then, suddenly that conversation has now created a transactional relationship with the sport. It used to be something done out of pure love, but as soon as we tell somebody they can do something for something, now there is all this stress. I have to do this to get this.

“I think this is a really great pause and reset for us to get back to why we do something, get back to fostering that love of the activity so that we have a healthier sense of motivation when the time comes to really need the motivation to train and get ready to compete again.”

There are multiple online sports psychology resources and tips for athletes dealing with the COVID-19 shutdown available at AASP.

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