I get knocked down, but I get up again...
So the other week my daughter, a seasoned athlete even at the tender age of 14, had an accident. Her training took a dramatic turn when she fell nearly three metres on to hard ground banging her head and back. How did it happen? She pole vaults. She happens to be good at pole vaulting but is relatively new to the sport. She switched after retiring from a successful career in gymnastics where she represented GB and won many accolades. However, no amount of training for anything in life means you can avoid the unexpected. Occasionally the unforeseeable and, sometimes, unforgiving happens.
M Dodd Floor routine, English Championships 2019
The week following the accident has been challenging. With the Southern Championships coming up she knew she had to train. Due to the weather and coach availability she hadn't managed to get back to vaulting, and worries were simmering in the background. What had seemed like a fairly benign sport suddenly had an edge, the fear factor had crept in, and with it, doubt.
Mental blocks in sport are common. Ask any athlete and they’ve had their moments when they haven’t been able to do things that came quite naturally some time before. Ask a gymnast who’s been able to do flicks on beam quite easily and suddenly can’t. Blocks and fears can be frustrating for everybody: athlete, coaches, and worrying parents add an extra layer. Young athletes can put terrible pressure on themselves, driving themselves away from what they absolutely want to achieve.
In all our lives there are parallels. So often something bad happens, a trauma, a nasty surprise, something as simple as an argument with somebody that you weren't expecting. It can push us away from tackling situations we find challenging.
I’m interested in building resilience. Resilience in life. Resilience for young athletes. Resilience for you and me so that we can be brave enough to face challenges in life.
But resilience comes from difficult times. The foundations are laid down in childhood. Too much trauma and resilience can be hard to build, conversely too little, over-protective parents for example, and there is little resilience. So the truth is, moderate difficulty and failure are actually good for us.
So what can an athlete or even just you and me, do to get back up again and face the thing that we found scary or failed at, and overcome the odds?
1. Think of the times things have gone right not wrong. It’s so easy to remember bad things and not appreciate the good things. How many times have you heard that we need to journal the good things that happen, to counter our ability to only remember the tricky stuff.
2. Learn from bad experiences. It’s not that failure happens that's the problem, it’s our attitude to it that matters. Failure is in fact beneficial; it is not a mechanism for blame or shame. NB coaches, parents and others!
3. For a difficult action in sport or general goal, examine your approach. Could you go back a few steps? Could you make the thing you were trying to do simpler? Could it be broken down into small and safe parts before doing the whole thing? Goals are achieved through a series of small and achievable steps - this also drives motivation - not by doing the whole thing at once.
4. Where is the support network? Nothing is achieved without a positive team behind you. Find the people that are here to cheer you on, and not those who will pressure you for their own benefit, or those who are unkind, or those who are impatient with where you are at. How can your support network help you to tackle the problem, and do you have the right support?
5. Mentally prepare. Imagine it going really well. Your brain can’t tell the difference between imagined memories and real memories. Imagining it going really well and put that memory in the bank. Focus on this positive image.
6. Take the holistic approach. Sleep well, eat well, get in shape, practice mindfulness, live it. My next blog will be about the body balance, this is a guide to your optimal physical and mental balance.
7. Identify what you can and can’t control. The things you can control are your effort, your focus, your preparation. Evaluate the things you can’t control and put them away. You can't control the wind, but you can adjust the sail.
8. Relax. If you can start the morning with a three minute meditation, do that. When you get to the place where your challenge is, smile at the people around you, act as if everything's fine. Your body and mind will take positive cues from your actions. Ever seen 100 m runners at the start line shaking their muscles to relieve tension, and waving to the cameras and crowd? The less tense you are, the better the result. However...focus.
9. Focus. Your preparation and your effort has made you ready, now find your zone. Be in the moment. Don't think about the end result or what has happened before, just check in with yourself and be present.
10. Breathe. If your heart is racing, control your breath. Focus on it. Breathe in for four and out for five. Our heart rate slows on the out breath so that last bit is important to help ease your physical and mental self in to a state of calm.
We all face challenges daily. Some are small but feel enormous, like walking into a meeting that feels intimidating, and some are potentially physically dangerous (like gymnastics) but our skill, mindset, and practice helps us tackle these situations. Practice the strategies above and let me know how some (or all!) helped you get on with the things that have challenged you.