| WORDS: Dr Andrew Lewis |
Have you ever noticed how sometimes everything just flows along nice and easily? Training is a breeze; you feel rested after a night’s sleep and racing feels easy. Naturally, during these times you feel over the moon with your performance. Then, other times, it may be a struggle to get out of bed for your morning training session, you aren’t sleeping well, and you feel burnt out from all of it. If it’s a particularly tough patch you’re in, you might even feel overly anxious and down when taking part in a race, right? Well, these emotions, if left unchecked, can quickly spiral into a complete burnout and potentially wreck everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve. For this reason, it is very important to understand and nurture your mental health.
Mental Health of Athletes: Perception Vs. Reality
Media often creates the impression that top-level athletes have incredible physical health, wealth and a support network second to none — yet the reality is often different. There is this perception that top-level athletes don’t, can’t, or are not allowed to have mental health challenges. Society typically perceives them as being a machine, incapable of failure. However, things are changing. These days it is becoming more common and widely accepted for all athletes to be aware of and even talk about their mental health.
As a cyclist, you have likely experienced the performance highs, the lows and everything in between. These highs and lows of the sport are to be expected but can be better managed when you are aware of the toll they take on your mental health and when you use your emotional intelligence to navigate through them. These are some guiding principles to help you achieve a more balanced approach and stable mental state through it all.
1. Be in touch with how you think, feel and act
Are you more anxious, happy or sad than usual? If so, how do we manage these feelings? Being in touch and coping successfully with these emotions means that you must have a high level of emotional self-awareness – recognizing your emotions as well as the effect of these emotions on yourself and others. Additionally, it helps to identify the triggers of certain emotional and behavioral reactions. The ability to be emotionally self-aware is one of the fundamentals of emotional intelligence and has to do with managing ourselves and others effectively. I will typically refer to the thermometer in order for my athletes to gauge their feelings – 1 is on the lower end and 10 being in the top end of their feelings. Monitor daily and write your score down in a diary, journal or on your cellphone notes. This gives you a quantifiable range with which you can work with.
2. Scan your body and mind for sensations, thoughts, and feelings and the possible causes thereof
Is it the exercise itself that is causing how you think, feel and behave in a certain way? The environment? Pressure from others or yourself? What are your thoughts and self-talk? Is it constantly negative and derogatory or is it positive and uplifting? Being in touch with and recognizing certain thoughts, feelings and sensations that your body is sharing with you allows you to gauge what is going on. The art is to recognize and manage. Ignoring and waiting for things to sort themselves out may have dire consequences.
3. Strategies to alter your mood
There are several ways that you can alter your mood – music, sleep, nutrition, meditation, and even other different types of activity and exercise. Explore these and other ways to manage your emotional state and restore balance. Explore and see what works for you.
4. Listen to those closest to you
Those closest to you can give invaluable feedback and support. Often this network of trusted people gives you a safe, but honest appraisal of what they believe is going on with you. Sometimes we don’t like what we hear, but on reflection, it could be the best guidance that you’ve been given in a long time. Building up a network of trusted advisors is very important. If in doubt, consult, those closest to you or your healthcare specialists.
Being able to identify and regulate your emotions are key elements of emotional intelligence. Striving for emotional balance and wellbeing has been shown by research to have a multitude of benefits. Having more constructive feelings and striving for your own interpretation and experience of balance will generally reduce the negative impact of a setback and allow you to move forward with confidence and courage.
About Dr Andrew Lewis
Andrew is a Health Professions Council of South Africa (SA) and Health and Care Professions Council (UK) registered Educational Psychologist currently working in the UK and conducting online sessions with his South African athletes. With a post-graduate qualification in Sport Psychology, he works with individual athletes and teams who compete at all levels―national and international; and those who compete for pleasure. Andrew also collaborates with institutions and schools and publishes Sport Psychology- and Educational Psychology-related articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, newspapers and popular magazines. He also presents Sport Psychology workshops to other health professionals and athletes; as well as scientific papers at international and national conferences. Andrew also has an extensive sporting background and understands the demands and pressures of competitive sport―himself competing in the Ironman triathlon. Andrew was a senior-lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, Stellenbosch University and the University of South Africa for 23 years where he trained Educational Psychologists, Counsellors and teachers; lectured students and conducted research. He also taught at two primary schools for 5 years.