A Covid Lesson In Controlling The Controllables

Besides my work as a professional mental performance consultant, I coach a post-secondary volleyball team. Recently, this team went through one of the hardest exercises of 'controlling the controllables' that I have ever experienced, and to my delight, handled the situation excellently.

"Controlling the controllables" is a phrase that is often used in mental training to describe a mindset in which all energy and focus is directed towards parts of performance that are within the control of the athlete. For instance, athletes can control things like their warm-up, nutrition, preparation and training. However, what often happens, especially when things don't go according to plan, is that the mind starts focusing on things outside of your control. For instance, people can get distracted by thinking about the opponent, referee, weather, etc. As a result, less attention is spent on controllable things and performance decreases drastically. When learning how to deal with such situations, athletes need to work on recognizing and accepting the emotions and thoughts they have in those moments, let go of those experiences and direct their attention to something they can control. This technique is very efficient in teaching athletes how to cope with setbacks and unforeseen situations.

Which brings me back to my own team. In a normal season, these athletes face a whole variety of uncontrollable factors. Like I mentioned before, the referee, crowds, injuries or whether they are on the starting line up or not (I control this) just to name a few of them. Luckily, since they are experienced high-performance athletes, most of them already have good coping skills when it comes to these factors and we continue to develop these skills in their time with the team. The unknown and new factor this season was Covid. Since we didn't have a season last year, this year was the first time that athletes had to deal with Covid related problems. In our case, athletes (and staff) got tested every week before our games and if you tested positive, you were ruled out for that weekend's games.

Fast forward to the day before our first playoff game. Having placed 3rd in the regular season, we were feeling excited and confident going into our round of 16 game on Thursday. At about lunch time, I get a text from one of my starting players: "I just tested positive". This wasn't the first positive test that we had to deal with so we knew the protocol and although it was disappointing news, quickly accepted the situation. Not even an hour later, the backup player in the same position texts me a picture of his positive test. For a bit of background, we only have two players in this position so we would have to get creative. After a discussion with my coaching staff, we quickly decided which player we were going to move to a different position, notified the team and had the opportunity to practice the new lineup in our training session that evening. At this point, everyone is still feeling confident and focusing on the things within their control.

The next day, we were able to win the playoff game relatively comfortably, even though our replacement did not have a good game (including in parts that are independent of the position he played in). I talked to him afterwards and he admitted to (understandably) being very nervous and said that he felt a lot better going forward now that the first game was out of the way. Our focus shifted to the quarterfinals, only two days later on Saturday. With the Covid protocols, we knew we weren't getting our players back before the game so we gave our stand-in more reps in practice on Friday and departed right after the session for our seven hour bus ride to the venue.

On Saturday morning, game day, I am having breakfast with one of my assistant coaches when my starting setter sends me a text: "Coach, I have a sore throat...". My heart immediately sank but we all knew the protocol. We met up with the athlete and our therapist and administered two covid test. Both positive, he was out. This loss was even harder than the ones a few days since his position is extremely hard to replace. The setter is the heart of your offence and we didn't have any time to practice before it game. It was clear that everyone on the team knew the impact of the situation. While the setter, therapist and me were waiting for the 2nd result, I was already getting texts from athletes asking what we were going to do now. Once it become clear that our setter was out, the whole team met up and this is where the team took up the mindset of "controlling the controllables".

After a brief period of swearing (I'll spare you the details but it wasn't pretty), my backup setter, who only transitioned to this position recently and has less than one game of competitive experience at this position, the player who was suddenly tasked with running our offence against the 2nd best team in the province, spoke up (I paraphrase for readers' discretion): "Listen guys" he said, "I know this isn't what we wanted, nor what we expected, but there is nothing else we can do out there today but play hard and have fun". He continued: "we have nothing to lose now, I want to go out there and take it to them."

The team quickly took up that message and ran with it throughout the game. Although the result wasn't a success, we all agreed at the end that we had done what we wanted to do: have fun and play hard. Like I said at the beginning, I was extremely happy about and impressed with the way this team handled that situation. The lesson that this situation can teach is that when you are faced with a tough situation, focusing on things that are within your control (have fun and play hard) is going to be way more beneficial than getting stuck on the things that you don't control (Covid cases).

Photo credit for all pictures: Ellen Bond, https://www.instagram.com/kanoehead/

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