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Productive Downtime

At this time there isn’t a predictable date for athletes to return to training, or reconnecting with their teams. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, we are waiting for the trajectory curve of the virus spread to drop before entertaining the thought of returning to some degree of normality in general. A recent Q & A by Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors with Dr. Fauci is a resource that offered the public an opportunity to have some of their general Covid-19 questions answered. Hopefully there will continue to be ongoing detailed and relatable interviews with knowledgeable health experts that continue to provide an intelligent road forward through this pandemic.

In the meantime athletes can productively utilize this gap time to start or improve upon their mental performance skills. For athletes beginning to learn about the mental training process I recommend two classics by Terry Orlick,

PhD.  1) “In Pursuit of Excellence – How to win in sport & life through mental training.”

2)  “Psyching for Sport – mental training for athletes.”

Both books are excellent reads to begin steps towards developing a mental skills platform to your training. This doesn’t substitute for being with your  team or returning to your practice environment but it is a form of action that is within your control that can provide benefits going forward. Use your time well.

Psychological Momentum

Athletes feel positive and negative momentum. Coaches plan for it. Spectators see and at times feel momentum shift in a team or player. Positive and negative Psychological Momentum (PM) is a reality of athletic performance.

Sara Svoboda, MSc, Sport & Exercise Psychology Candidate recently published a blog article titled, “Cognitive Illusion or Key to Continued Success? An Athlete’s Guide to Psychological Momentum,” The article gives a nice over view defining Psychological Momentum and strategies to trigger positive psychological momentum and strategies for athletes to overcome negative psychological momentum.

A few key take-aways from the article are:

*An athlete’s perceptions dictate if a turning point will translate into (-PM or +PM).

*An athlete can trigger (+PM) by capitalizing on positive events.

*An athlete can maintain (+PM) by staying engaged and avoiding complacency.

*An athlete can overcome negative momentum by recognizing an opportunity for negative facilitation, using tools to manage arousal and capitalizing on cues from their opposition.

It’s a well thought out article that is worth a read!

Melinda Harrison - Personal Next

Melinda Harrison was on the national swim team for Canada and participated in the 1984 Olympics. Since those competitive athletic years she has built a career outside of sports as a professional ICF, PCC Level Executive Coach and facilitator. Many highly accomplished people after achieving a major success or realizing a lifelong goal struggle to start a new life pursuit with the same robust confidence and vision that fueled their previous success. In 2013 Harrison set a goal for herself to interview 100 individuals who had successfully navigated peak success and then shifted their lives to pursue different forms and meanings of success.

In preparation for writing, Personal Next, Harrison primarily interviewed high performance athletes from over 25 different sports. Their level of competition ranged from professional, amateur or collegiate. One question she addresses from her research is, “Is there a way to help athletes learn from their first pinnacle of success with sporting to help them achieve new pinnacles of fulfillment and true happiness in their post sport lives?”

SZ: The “Thoughts” section on your blog asks relevant questions for athlete’s as they consider “what next,” transitioning out of competition. What do you know now about preparing to transition out of elite competition that you wish you had known when you were an Olympian swimming for Canada?

MH: You can intellectually understand the process of transitioning out of sport and prepare for that. However, as prepared as you think you are, when you actually go through the transition, my experience working with clients is they are often caught off guard with the range of emotions that they are experiencing. It is difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for the emotional effects that you naturally feel when you say good-bye to something. And because athletes tend to have a persona of strength, they may ignore these signals. So, it is important that people close to the athlete are aware of any change of behavior. The effects can show up physically, mentally or socially.

What would I have wished I had known? Those first few months post-sport are tough and there was no question I was caught off guard. I talk about this in the book but in reflection I wish I had had someone to work with me and help me with the process. There is so much newness and I expected myself to be competent at it. (and I wasn’t).  I had no idea what I wanted to do but I needed to get a job. I was in a rush to prove I was good outside of the pool. I am sure a coach would have slowed me down, challenged my thoughts and pushed me to explore not just accomplish.

SZ: Do you swim competitively now?

MH: I get asked this question a lot.  The answer is no – I really do not like getting wet.  I am ok with warm water like a hot-tub but I think years of jumping into a cold pool has created a negative affliction to it.  There is another aspect to this as well – the goal of every practice is to push yourself as hard as you can. Backing off is not an option.  Exercise for a healthy lifestyle and training to perform are two very different things and when I finished swimming I needed to learn to exercise. When I got into a pool, I wanted to do what I had always done -race and win.  Eventually, I found other things that replaced swimming.

SZ: A majority of athlete’s say good-bye to a full commitment to their sport after University/College. Do you think these academic institutions are doing a better job offering closure for these athlete’s?

MH: The issue is being talked about (which is a first step). My understanding is in some places, programs are being offered. The student-athlete is so busy with managing classes, training, going to competitions, doing some volunteer work (to contribute back as well as to build resumes). At this stage the last thing an athlete wants is to be told that they must participate in another program around their retirement. It does not fit with their goals of improvement on the field/pool and it certainly does not fit with their schedule. I believe the best approach is to back into it and there is some great work that can be done around ‘who you are is not what you do’, understanding strengths, shadow strengths and weaknesses and building skills including a self-awareness that will help them not just after sports but during their time at school. The athlete will buy into this.

One of the challenges is the schools provide an incredible support system while you are competing and then that disappears. Student-athletes can get accustomed to feeling ‘taken care of.’  How do you learn to help yourself when you have always been helped by others? (probably from a young age) This is a skill that the athlete might think they have, but probably do not understand it like a NARP (non-athletic regular person). Part of post-sport transition is learning to let go of the hands and systems that have supported you: the coaches, the trainers, the doctors, physio, the academic support, the training tables, the rigors of a schedule etc…That separation can be difficult. You can feel as if you are going from ‘hero’ to ‘zero, especially in the high-profile sports.

In May of 2020 I am launching an online coaching program specifically directed at athletes’ post-sport that will be affordable and guide them through a process of discovery. For many athletes one-on-one coaching is financially out of reach so I have developed this to help them through both an awareness of self and  discovery of a personal next.

SZ: Team environments whether professional or amateur provide a comforting routine, with a reliable seasonal schedule of training, scrimmage (practice), competition and a fairly stable social network. It is a relative cocoon of predictability with a team fraternity/sorority built in. In your research did you find that being outside of that long-established routine of familiarity caused distress? Did athletes tap into the network of athletes that retired before them to gain a sense of what to expect or how to move forward?

MH: Yes. In the book I describe 3 categories of influences that affect you as you dismantle parts of your athletic life and experience change. These categories are Your Body, Your Psyche and Your Status. There are many sub-categories within each of these.

Here are some examples in each of these categories:

  • In your body, how is your sleep, exercise and eating/drinking/self-medication habits influencing your current state?
  • In your psyche, are you worried that you might not ever be as good as you were in sport and what influence does this have on your confidence and actions moving forward?
  • For your status, how has it changed? Do people you meet want to pull you back to your glory days. Do you hang out with the same group of friends. What influence does this have on how you are challenging yourself in your new life?

Your question about athletes’ networks is an interesting one that requires digging into.  It is way easier to keep in touch with your network than when I left swimming. There are positives to this and negatives.  This is highly individual to the person.  It is a support system that allows you to connect and feel comfort in shared experiences. But on the other end of the spectrum, because it is comfortable, it does not allow you to explore different relationships.  Additionally, if no one in your ‘group’ is excelling, the members of the group might fall to the mean.

SZ: If an athlete didn’t feel as though he/she hadn’t reached their potential was leaving their sport more difficult?

MH: Very few athletes walk away from their sport feeling as if they accomplished all of their dreams. (as well as their parents dreams) This absolutely can affect how they approach the next part of their life. Questions of ability can reverberate deep into your future and can create a self-talk that can undermine potential. Coming to terms with this is part of a post-sport transition.

I do not think it makes it more difficult. Those that achieve their dreams and reach their potential also have challenges that are unique to their situation.

SZ: Through your coaching business and in writing “Personal Next” you’ve interviewed hundreds of high performers. Did you find any commonalities among this diverse group of people that surprised you?

MH: My interviews for the book were with individuals who had positively identified as having made a successful transition from sport to personal next.  My goal was to learn from those who had found a pathway forward. The interesting thing that came out of this was that every athlete I interviewed (24 sports) went through some version of a messy middle. This surprised me.

We, as the public assume that high-performance athletes are invincible. We have created stories around them (from a very young age) and consequently the athlete learns to believe in those stories. For example, many are told they cannot show weakness or give up. Others are told everyday they are amazing. When they are done with sport, they do not feel invincible and or amazing. I want athletes to read this book and say – someone gets me and the life I have lived and what I am experiencing now. I want them to feel hope when they are in the messy middle and I want them to realize ‘if they have done it before they can do it again.

SZ: Personal Next, officially becomes available in April 2020, is there a way for reader’s to obtain a copy prior to the release date?

MH: No – This is my first book. The release date is April 21, 2020. It is a process to get it published and the last stage is far more intense than I ever imagined. I give kudo’s out there to all authors. There will be a few Advance Reader Copies but the publisher, Lifetree Media, has control over the distribution of these.

In the meantime your readers can follow me on Instagram, @melindaharrison or connect with me on LinkedIn.

SZ: Melinda thank you for taking time out of  your busy schedule for this interview. I wish you a very successful book launch in April.