Comfortable being uncomfortable - Lockdown Mental Training 101

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

I have to say, the lockdown is really tough for me. I am normally someone who is on his feet every day, enjoys the social interaction my work provides and most of all, has a bunch of energy that needs to be released. All of those things are not really possible right now, and it makes the days and weeks feel longer than a one minute plank. Naturally, I am constantly looking for things to keep my body and mind occupied: for instance, I started this blog. However, it is not enough and I am often left feeling bored, useless and frankly, like a heap of lethargic body on the couch. In one of those moments, my partner said: "you should write about strategies and techniques to help people (and she mostly meant me) through this period". That is a great idea, because there is a lot we can learn about this situation from sport, psychology and mental training and apply it to better cope with our current lives. So here we are, lockdown mental training 101, helping you through this situation! In a series of blogs, I will try and help you use mental training practices in order to better cope with and maybe even thrive in the COVID-19 lockdown crisis.

I immediately started thinking: what are some core techniques and tools that people should have to successfully cope with this situation. Techniques such as goal setting and self-talk came to mind until, a few days ago, I couldn't sleep and while lying awake in bed thought to myself, I am missing some important steps before we get to those techniques! This blog post will be about some things you need to do, or more need to accept, before you can start using mental training techniques.

In my previous blog post about professional sports in Corona time (if you haven't read it, you can find it here), I talked about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Quick recap, in order for certain psychological needs to be fulfilled, other needs have to be fulfilled as a prerequisite.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

In my opinion, a hierarchy of needs like that exists everywhere including in mental training. What prerequisites does someone need to have before they can start using mental training techniques to help improve their situation? In my personal opinion the answer to that question lies in people accepting the current situation and its implications as it is without anything interfering with their view of the situation. Something I call: situational honesty.

To fully explain what that means let's look at a fictional athlete, let's call him Mo. Mo is a competitive tennis athlete and he recently injured his knee in a major competition. After the required surgery, the medical specialist predicted that Mo is out of the running for at least 4 months, but with complications it could take even longer. He has been given strict rehabilitation measures and exercises that will help him recover as fast as possible. Even though I have just made up Mo's story, I have seen the same story numerous times and I have seen the same mistakes numerous times as well, including personally making these mistakes.

You would think that Mo has everything set in place to help him recover as best and fast as possible, but there is a problem, Mo does not have situational honesty yet. What that means is that Mo hasn't fully accepted what his situation is, what that means for him and as a result all the exercises, strategies and techniques will not work yet. So what are some of the mental mistakes Mo might make along his journey?

One of the biggest problems is that he sees the 4 month recovery time as a deadline to return back to competition. Therefore his goal is to get through the 4 months rather than to recover from his injury. He keeps doing exercise to stay in shape for when he returns, he adjust his calendar around this date, planning training sessions and competitions soon after that date. You can see it in the little things as well, he hasn't adjusted his home to make it more comfortable to live in with his cast, he eats the same, and he keeps pushing his body and mind. As a result, when he is 2 months in rehabilitation and hears that it will take another 6 months, he breaks down and completely disengages leading to situation in which his well-being is very low.

The problem is that Mo saw his situation as a temporary set-back in his normal life, like a temporary profile picture on facebook and therefore he didn't need to adjust anything fundamentally, where an injury really is a major impact on an athletes life and his or her life will and should look completely different. In essence, he was dishonest towards himself about his situation. I see situational dishonesty all the time in different shapes and forms. For instance, athletes often like to say things like: "it's just another game" or "it's just another point" when talking about play-off or game deciding actions. My response is always: "does it feel the same?". Of course it doesn't! Nobody can convince me that shooting a free throw to win a match feels the same as doing it in the first minute of the game, it just doesn't. So if you tell yourself: "it's just another point", you are being dishonest about your situation towards yourself and therefore you will probably approach solving the problem in a non-effective way. If you accept the fact that it is different, you can come up with the right strategies to help you deal with it.

Why do we do this? Why are we dishonest towards ourselves? The simple answer is, because the truth is often uncomfortable. Shooting that free throw is uncomfortable. For Mo, accepting that his life will change drastically, that he won't be able to compete, train and even live as an athlete as well as that there is no way of knowing when it will be over, is an extremely uncomfortable situation, but it is the current situation and it needs to be accepted before something can be done about it.

Do you see the similarities between Mo's situation and the one we are in now? Our lives have drastically changed, and not for the better, and we don't really know when it will end. The first mental training step is to be honest about this situation. Ask yourself: have I really accepted that I don't know how long this will last? Have I really accepted that things might not return to normal for a long time, if ever? Have I really accepted, that I won't be able to live my life as I am used to? Or, am I sitting at home, keeping myself occupied, pretending my life is roughly the same, waiting for this to be over soon? Accepting the situation as it is, is not comfortable and it might even seem grim, but it is not, it is honest. The acceptance of your situation is the starting point to find strategies and techniques to deal with it as effectively as possible.

This might all seem a little abstract, so I have a few tips to help you with your situational honesty. So, what can you do to help your brain accept your situation and grow to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

1. Communication is key (with yourself)

First of all, the way we talk to each other, but more importantly, to ourselves is very important and small details can often have a bit impact on the meaning of your words. For instance, there is big difference between, "I am trying to stay busy" and "I've started a new hobby". In the first the frame is about this situation being over but the latter talks about a positive new event. Take things like "lockdown baking" vs "baking banana bread" and "quarantine home workouts" vs "getting/staying in shape". See how the latter ones show acceptance of the situation more than the first ones? Try to change the frame from looking at I am doing this because of the lockdown to I am doing this because I want to do it.

2. Make changes and allow changes

Your house changed from just a house to an office, gym, cinema, house, and everything else in one. Did you make the appropriate changes to facilitate all of that? More specifically if we are going to be honest about the fact that his might take a while, did you make changes that look and feel permanent? On top of that, if are you trying to hold on to your normal routine? Nothing says situational dishonesty more than a temporary solution for a lasting problem.

3. Think forward, but not too far