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Pandemic Like an Athlete


The techniques that elite athletes use to overcome adversity can be harnessed by anyone.

We're heading into the waist-deep snow of a pandemic winter. For many, it is cold, dark, and dreary. By now, most of the earth's human population has been affected by COVID-19 in ways large and small. Some have sacrificed life. Some have experienced job-loss, relationship strains, and health setbacks. Many have lost hope. As a sports neurologist who has the honor of working with people to overcome disorders that can affect the brain's functions, I am here to tell you that YOU have what you need to weather this pandemic storm. I've personally witnessed some of the world's most elite athletes overcome some of the most extreme adversity – both mental and physical – to succeed. While some might measure their success on a court or field, they aren't without a positive example that I believe can be extrapolated to anyone, regardless of their athletic prowess.

Controllable Control. Something many elite athletes can do is categorize their priorities so that they can achieve an uber-focus on the task at hand. While this isn't always possible in everyday life, it is a skill to hone. When so much is obviously out of our control during this pandemic, we can lose sight of what is. So, take some time to consider what you can control in your own life. Your diet? Sleep schedule? Exercise regimen? Is there one thing you can do each day that helps your body and mind and is entirely within your control? Make it a priority and stick to it. Structure your day for success by controlling what you can.

Tailored Time. For those athletes trying to hone their craft or shave fractions of a second off their personal best time, for example, they must often break down the concept of time into tiny chunks less than seconds in length. As the months of the COVID-19 pandemic seem to grow longer with each one that passes, the very concept of time can seem like your fiercest enemy. However, as I suggested, by attempting to control what you can control, you can use time to your advantage, right now. If trying to consider the future leaves you with a sense of dread, scrap it. Instead, focus on what you can do with this very second to make it better for yourself or others. If even the concept of the day ahead is daunting – break it down further. Live in the moment. Second by second, minute by minute by minute, hour by hour, and you might be surprised at the mental clarity that can be afforded by accomplishing tasks in smaller blocks of time.

Patient Perseverance. The word perseverance means to persist in doing something even though it might be difficult, or its success may be delayed. This pandemic is hard for many. But believing that you can persevere through it is a massive leg of the race. Perseverance and adaptability to change are innate human qualities – but some must dig deeper to find and harness them. Many seasoned athletes do so by tapping into a second gear or zone. Just when they think they can go no further or run any faster; they find a second gear, a mental zone, that blocks out pain, outside distractions, and fear to accomplish their goals. Some call this concept "mental toughness." Whatever you want to call it, the ability to persevere and overcome adversity is a life skill and can be a superpower that anyone can use.

Fastidious Fearlessness. The health, economic, and social crises brought on by COVID-19 can be downright scary. Unfortunately, fear, in and of itself, isn't useful to us. It robs us of peace, of sleep, of hope. In speaking with many athletes over the years, they aren't necessarily "fearless" people because they are careless of their circumstances or reckless in their behaviors. Instead, they've found a way to embrace discomfort. They become friends with the unknown. I know this can seem impossible for some people because fear can be downright crippling. If this is a big challenge for you, I encourage you to engage in the practice of mindfulness meditation and positive self-talk. You might be surprised at how much mental strength you possess.

At this point in the pandemic, I'd say we're all endurance athletes. Though some of us may be weathering it better than others, for a variety of reasons, we each can make our lives better right now. Become a mini-goal-getter. Parcel out one day at a time. One-half day at a time. Ten seconds at a time. Breath by breath (as professional yogis do). Self-pity and pessimism won't win us this COVID race. Whether you're an elite athlete or not, you can find ways to make the most out of this extremely challenging time in our history. Just be sure to make it scalable and doable FOR YOU.