In the midst of crisis, athletes tap into their coping skills

CBC

The COVID-19 pandemic has created chaos around the world. 

You and I may be waking up for the first time to sudden, radical changes but athletes roll with professional uncertainty all the time.

So CBC Sports reached out to some Olympians and Paralympians, and tapped their expertise at coping when things go awry.

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Jessica Tuomela, Paralympian Triathlete, offers advice that all coaches love: Control what you can control.

"At the 2004 Athens Paralympics, I found myself leading in the finals for the 100-metre breast stroke. I had switched my focus from other races to really nail this event and it seemed as though the plan worked. That is, until a referee from three lanes over disqualified me, saying that I hadn't touched the turn wall with both hands. We protested. The referee from my lane protested. And yet, I was disqualified from the event I was expected to win. I was devastated.

"I knew I had to get my head back in the game. I had four more races that I could attack to the best of my ability. Even though I didn't medal in those events, I set personal best times. Ultimately, I couldn't control the referee's decision, but I could control how I moved forward. When things are out of our control, we feel vulnerable and hopeless.  I'm now in a sport where nothing ever goes as planned. You have to learn to adapt and perform in unexpected situations. It's part of the challenge and joy of triathlon."

Submitted by Triathlon Canada
Submitted by Triathlon Canada

'That's life'

Kris Mahler, Canadian ski cross racer, toughed out gnarly injuries, and fought his way back to a World Cup first this winter. He shares a story about doing everything right, and still...

"I play the lottery every day in sport. That may seem glum, but the reality is, that's sport, and that's life. We were in Russia qualifying for one of the final World Cup races. I was sure to qualify, since I was ranked fifth overall. I remember pulling out of the start gate with a focus that was sharper than ever. My mid course was fast, and the finish was polished. It was the perfect run I needed to qualify. Everything was lining up except for one small detail: the weather.

"It was snowing hard for the first 10 bibs. Very wet, slow snow. I was bib five. By the end of qualifying, I had bumped back 34 spots. Qualifiers had to be in the top 32. None the less, I left that race satisfied.  I put my process into action and executed every detail I had control over. There is no certainty, but there are better odds. Create your process and stick to it."

Submitted by Kris Mahler
Submitted by Kris Mahler

'Hard pill to swallow'

Katherine Surin, a 400-metre racer, is also the daughter of Olympic gold medallist and co-owner of the Canadian record in the 100, Bruny Surin. CBC Sports asked her about past setbacks, but Surin's mind, understandably, is in the moment.

As of Tuesday she was still in South Africa for training camp. But the camp was cut short when all athletic facilities in Potchefstroom was abruptly shut down. 

"I initially didn't take the coronavirus seriously, mostly because I didn't want to. I was still confident my track season would go as planned. Right now I am being forced to slow down when all I want is be faster on the track. It feels like my biggest dream is rapidly being taken away from me, and all my hard work and sacrifice is for nothing. 

"It's a hard pill to swallow, but we're all in the same boat. Athletes around the world are affected by COVID-19. We can't compete, we can't practise, some of us can't even leave the house. With the Tokyo Olympics only a few months away, I hope the IOC gives its definitive position sooner rather than later on whether to postpone the Games. Many athletes are affected by this situation and it affects our performances. It's a stressful time for all us and not knowing what's coming is overwhelming. I am trying to control my attitude. I try to remember that nothing is lost, and I try to look forward and stay positive. I'm still me. I'm still special and talented, and I have faith in my training and all the work I've put in so far on and off the track."

Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press
Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press

Old adage

Canadian basketball star Kayla Alexander faced season-ending injuries, cuts from teams, and now, suddenly, instead of playing for a Polish championship, she's flown home to quarantine herself from loved ones.

Alexander drills into the old adage about controlling what we can.

"We can help control the spread of COVID-19 by staying home and quarantining ourselves. Basketball is all about teamwork, putting team before self, and that's exactly what we need to do right now. Even if COVID-19 may not be dangerous to you, you could pass it along to someone who is vulnerable. It's not just about you.

"When everyone buys into a basketball coach's game plan, we find success. We can overcome COVID-19 by listening to our government officials and following their directions. Wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, cough in a tissue then throw it out, sanitize surfaces. Stay up to date on what your governments are telling you.

"Now more than ever, we need to be good teammates to each other. Check in on loved ones and neighbours. Help those who have a hard time getting groceries. Don't hoard all the supplies. Your neighbours need them too. Help one another. Choose to eat healthy, stay hydrated and keep our bodies moving. To perform at a high level on the court we need good fuel and good care of our bodies. We can keep our immune system strong with healthy foods and balanced meals. We can go for walks or do at home workouts — there are plenty on YouTube. 

"How many times have we seen a basketball team come back 20 points to win? Those rallies are about attitude, and believing in the best possible outcome. So choose positivity and try to see the bright side. There is a blessing in disguise here: TIME! For many of us right now, we have time at home with our loved ones, so enjoy it. Is there something you've always wanted to try? Now is the time. Read that book, put together that business plan, organize that closet, start that YouTube channel. You never know when you'll have time like this again. And I throw in a little fun fact: 'Do not be afraid ' is written in the bible 365 times."

Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images
Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

'Being a professional'

World champion beach volleyball player, Melissa Humana-Paredes thinks back to her parents' annoying but useful advice to help her "weather" uncertainty.

"There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing." Humana-Paredes now sees it as a metaphor for preparation.

"What's the point in being upset over the rain? You can't control the clouds, so just focus your energy where you can make a difference. Always be as prepared as possible. Show up at a tournament knowing you have done your best to prepare. And don't complain! Recognize your privilege in owning a raincoat, or snow boots, and living in a beautiful country, in being a professional athlete, in (fingers crossed) having health and wellness, and a roof to quarantine under."

Christian Charisius/Associated PressThe Associated Press
Christian Charisius/Associated PressThe Associated Press

'Troubles do pass'

Finally, Canadian-Ghanaian bobsledder Cynthia Appiah has a favourite old saying she repeats when plans go awry. Every storm eventually runs out of rain.

"Although bad situations feel like forever, eventually the troubles do pass, and things do return to normal. Right now, the world is going through a moment of extreme uncertainty, but we've got to focus on what we can truly control in our own surroundings and know that we have the tools to weather this storm. Brighter days are very much ahead."

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