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10 Tips for helping Young Athletes through another Lockdown

Just as we started a brand New Year and the horrors of 2020 were left behind, we are yet again dealt with another blow to our physical and mental wellbeing. Within hours of being announced we are hit with lockdown number 3.0.

The first thing to do is let your emotions flow - have a good cry if you need to, scream, shout and let go of those feelings that actually may have been bubbling under the surface for a few weeks. Showing and expressing your frustrations and feelings is completely normal and you will be surprised at how many people will be doing this; it's good to offload and a completely healthy way to begin the healing process so don't hold back.

For the next 6 weeks, we go back to working, schooling and exercising at home, facing restrictions with going out and not meeting up with friends. This can be upsetting, frustrating and hugely disappointing BUT instead of worrying about all the things you cannot control, it can be a very rewarding time as you learn to cope with different situations and find ways to improve things that are still in your control.

GB Swimmer, Katy Sexton MBE, had a career threatening injury in 2001 when she damaged the nerves that supported the shoulder muscles in her right arm. Katy had 2 options, one would be to quit, the other would be to find an alternative way of continuing to train and improve. Having already won a Commonwealth Gold, competed at 2 World Championships and made an Olympic final in 2000 she had certainly achieved International success but she was hungry for more and didn't want this injury to be the reason to retire from the sport she loved.

Katy decided to work on her weakness which happened to be her leg kick. She spent the next six months training in the pool, legs only, with her arms by her side. In one week alone she recorded in her swim diary a total of 55000m (34 miles) on just leg kick! With the Commonwealth Games trials in just 6 months and being the reigning 200m backstroke champion she had to learn to re-use her arm and re-learn how to start properly.

Katy qualified for the England team by the skin of her teeth and 3 months later she was competing at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. With a home crowd she managed to finish with a bronze medal. This bronze medal meant more to Katy than the gold medal she won 4 years earlier and proved that you can overcome a career threatening injury and return fitter and stronger both physically and mentally.

Katy went on to win a gold and silver in 2003 World Championships, becoming the first ever female swimmer to win a World Championship and earning her a MBE from the Queen! Out of adversity came the most amazing success for Katy and that can also happen for you.

So what can you do to help you cope with this new situation and lockdown? Here are some useful tips:

1. Accept the Situation and Ride the Storm

First off, don't fight it. The only way to move forward is to firstly find some acceptance. Understand the reasons why we are in this situation and what we all need to do to help us eventually get out of this lockdown. As hard as it is, try to look at some positives - the one good thing this time round is that vaccines are already being rolled out with the aim of vaccinating the most critical and vulnerable within the next 6 weeks.

If you've made 2021 goals already, take the time to reassess them in light of the new restrictions. Don't just give up on your goals - you may need to adjust them and be flexible with end dates because it can be quite overwhelming if things aren't going according to plan. Treat this new situation as the new norm for the time being, it won’t last forever but the simple act of accepting this can help your body and mind relax.

2. Routines are crucially important!

Don’t treat this new lockdown as an extended Christmas holiday with lazy lie ins, staying in your pyjamas all day and eating rubbish food. This may be ok at weekends but earn it by having a routine ‪Mon - Fri‬ just like you would if you were at school, college, or work. Having a structure to your day is key:

a. Get enough sleep and try to wake up at same time each day. Aim for 7-9 hours sleep each night - this is important both physically and mentally. Lack of sleep and poor quality sleep massively impacts your mood and performance. Stop using screens at least an hour before bed (unless its reading) as keeping your brain active right up to lights out will not help you!

b. Plan your day ahead with exercise, school/college work, food and relaxation, this give you structure and purpose. Top tip: have a daily/weekly to-do list and add weight to each item. Who doesn't love to use highlighters? Use different colours for those things that you absolutely have to do and those that are just a nice thing to do. Tackle the important stuff (but don't spend all day on it if you are not progressing) and give yourself deadlines leaving the online browsing of new clothes to a lower priority!

c. Write down your thoughts and feelings, good and bad - the simple act of writing things down can alleviate some of the symptoms (see point 6 below).

d. Practice mindfulness (more on this next).

e. Ensure you're eating balanced healthy food - don't let bad eating habits and snacking become the norm as they can dramatically affect your performance and mood. It's ok to have the odd treat if 80% of the time you eat healthily (lots of varied colourful veg, some fruit, lean meats etc with limited processed food).

f. Get physical. Many people, sports clubs and governing bodies have released lots of at home activities and workouts and there are loads of helpful videos out there. We have all become experts on Zoom these days so why not workout together with your teammate? Use this time to work on a weakness you may have had just like Katy and her weak legs, maybe it's a sloppy core or weak flexibility? How about perfecting that Push Up and getting the technique right? (Mark Foster Swim Academy is now on YouTube and has lots of 'how to' videos to perfecting your exercise techniques).

g. Get some fresh air (yes opening a window can be enough if that’s all you can do). But if you can get out and walk this is a great way to release some tension. If you are struggling with anxiety try the 5,4,3,2,1 mindfulness practice on your walk. Focus on your 5 senses which can bring about calm and stop you worrying about everything else that's going on. What 5 things can you see? 4 things you can hear? 3 things you can touch? 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste? Fully embrace yourself with this task and for that moment in time you will have fully escaped any stress and anxiety as you become more mindful with your surroundings and the present moment.

h. Do a little something each day that makes you happy, this could be reading, listening to your favourite artist, chatting to a friend online, watching another Harry Potter film, taking the dog for a walk etc. Give yourself time for you and a hobby - perhaps even try a new one that you can do to give you a sense of achievement and happiness.

3. Mindfulness

Creating a calm relaxed state of mind can help reduce anxiety and create positivity. Your brain is a muscle and just like your body needs training to work for you. Some useful mindful steps are pictured. Being mindful is about being in the present, not dwelling on the past or thinking about the future. It's about clearing the mind and focussing on what is happening right here right now with no judgement.

4. Try to Stay Positive

There will be days when you don't feel positive and that is ok! Right the day off and pick yourself up the next day. A person with a positive (growth) mindset will find a challenge in anything and find ways to develop themselves no matter how hard the situation. Yes, you are restricted but let this develop you as a person.

Try to get on with your family/housemates/partner. Yes it is a testing time for everyone and the one biggest thing you need to get through this is to talk about how you feel and openly engage in conversations so you can deal with any anxieties you may have (if you are on your own - FaceTime/video call others so you can do talk and share). Be comforted by the fact that you aren't alone, so many others will be feeling the same as you!

5. How to be Happy

Happiness is a chosen state of mind, your mind chooses how you feel about anything you experience so it’s up to you to how you feel about things...choose wisely!

We talk about accepting this ‘new norm’, but you have to truly accept it, delete any negatives, look at what’s good about each day and do things that create happy feelings. Spending quality time with your family can be rewarding (yes we know it can be hard at times but take a deep breath, relax and think before you react - this goes for parents too!). Perhaps each person takes turn to choose a film, a board game, what’s for dinner etc. Why not make a list of jobs that need doing indoors and outdoors then choose what to do (sort through that wardrobe, tackle the cluttered drawers in the house, have a good throw out, rearrange furniture, redecorate, do the garden etc).

Start a list of rewards - things you want to do when this is all over and these rewards can be earnt when the jobs get done.

6. Dealing with Anxiety

With a global pandemic it can help knowing that everyone else out there is in the same boat. We’ve already talked about how important it is to talk about your feelings- you can even write them down. The simple act of expressing how you feel on paper can make you feel better. It may help to write down the things you are grateful for too, as this can help shift your mood to a more positive outlook. If you can’t express your thoughts or feelings in words then try drawing a picture.

With illness and injury it can be quite isolating knowing you are suffering, this is when your support network will help (your coach, family and friends both in and out of the sport). Talk and share your anxieties, they will offer advice some you will like and some perhaps you won't. Don't be quick to judge, take on all comments and advice and choose what works for you.

It’s also ok to take some time out from other people. Not perhaps for the whole day but having an hour or so in your own space can be a positive action (and a great time to practice mindfulness).

7. Better out than in

As stated earlier if you feel angry, frustrated, or upset, it’s ok! Don’t ignore these feelings as it’s good to acknowledge them. Don't see anger as a bad emotion, it's how you deal with it that matters. Try these ways to help - scream into a pillow, have a change of scenery, get some card and coloured pens and go mad scribbling as hard as you can, rip up a cardboard box into tiny pieces (pick them up afterwards), make some bread (not only productive, the kneading is a great release!), do some exercise, have a good cry. There’s no need to hide these emotions, they are just as important to accept and deal with as the joyous ones.

8. Completing your Journal

You may not be training in your normal environment but filling in your training journal can help you enormously at this time. Write down what you’ve done (school work, walk, exercise session, what you ate, watched, played etc). Also add how you felt, good parts of the day as well as bad parts. Offloading can help deal with issues and help you to process what’s going on. On the days when you feel really frustrated you can look at your journal and see your progress and work rate and that can keep you focussed and motivated.

9. If you are Injured

Injuries are common amongst athletes and in most cases can lead to better performances post rehab (from a stronger determination and drive, a stronger body from rehab, and a focussed goal driven mindset). Use Katy's example as your motivation and inspiration.

One thing to do when injured is focus on things you can control, not on things you can't control - worrying about losing fitness or not training like your peers are things you cannot control. However, if its a shoulder injury you still have legs remember! Work to build that part of your body (kicking may be your weakness anyway just like Katy).

Rehab the right way - be patient, it may take time but seek professional help and work on rehab exercises daily. You can come back stronger from injuries and illnesses as long as you do it right. Log your journey too as it will be great to read back on when you get back to performing to your best!

10. When it’s really all over...

Wow how good will you feel? You will appreciate your family, your training, your friends and even going to school and work (hopefully!). Try setting some goals now as to what you want to achieve in the short, mid and long term when it's all over. Plan what steps you need to do to achieve those goals and who can help you. Talk it through with your support team (family, friends, coach etc). You may also be able to start some of these steps whilst you are at home (e.g improving your flexibility, strengthening your core, developing a positive mindset etc). Setting goals can give you a purpose and the drive and motivation to be a better you!

Good luck, stay positive and remember this third lockdown won’t last forever!


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