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Attitude is everything: Managing the stress and uncertainty of Covid-19

by ZwemZa on April 14th, 2020

Michael Phelps (Getty Images)

We are all living in unbelievably stressful and uncertain times while this virus wreaks havoc on what we used to know as our “normal.” Unfortunately there is no normal now. Schools have been closed. Swim seasons cancelled. Pools are shut down, along with gyms and just about everything else. You can’t hang out with your friends. You can’t go out to eat. And the message we’re all getting loud and clear is to stay home and physically isolate.

It seems that everywhere we turn, we experience nothing but loss. Loss of our routines and regular schedules; loss of school and our interactions with friends! Loss of our more immediate goals in the pool! Loss of our ability to train! Loss of our identity as a swimmer! Loss of a way that we can feel good about ourselves! And for most athletes, loss of their best way to cope with stress – by training!

It seems our only option is to climb the walls. This is especially true given we don’t really know when life will get back to some semblance of normalcy and we can then return to the pool to train. While we don’t know exactly how long this pause button will be pressed, I can tell you one thing: it won’t last forever. Sooner or later, you will be able to get back in the water with your teammates.

In the meantime, what can you do to maintain your sanity, stay in physical shape and emerge from this major disruption feeling mentally tougher and more confident?

Probably the most important factor in how well you ride this gigantic wave of disruption and stress depends upon your attitude. How are you mentally approaching this pandemic that has thrown your life and swimming into major disarray? Are you viewing it as the worst thing ever that could’ve happened to you in your life? Certainly, no one could blame you for that if you did. Or, are you looking at this as an opportunity to grow as an individual and as an athlete?

Which of these attitudes you choose will determine how you respond to this stress and how you will come out of it. For example, if you view it as a major catastrophe, then you will end up feeling hopeless, depressed and demotivated. When this happens, you will go into “freeze.” That is, you’ll find yourself lacking energy to even get off the couch. However, if you view this crisis we’re in as an opportunity and challenge to grow and develop, then you will feel much less stress and stay motivated. Because of that, you will take advantage of the situation you’re in and find ways to get stronger, build your confidence and improve your mental toughness.

Michael Phelps developed this attitude as a younger athlete with the help of his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. Phelps’ mindset when adversity struck was that you could look at it as a catastrophe or a challenge. View things as a catastrophe, and you’ll be overwhelmed by strong emotions and become paralyzed. View things as a challenge, and you will successfully ride the waves of these emotions and become mobilized.

To help Michael develop this attitude, Bowman used to deliberately step on Phelps’ goggles when his young swimmer wasn’t looking so that they would leak during his races. Phelps’ challenge was how to constructively cope with the inconvenience of racing while your   goggles were filling up with water.

Many years later, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael’s “special” training and championship attitude paid off. When he dove in for the the 200 fly, his goggles began leaking. By the time he turned into the last 50, Phelps couldn’t see anything. However, he was well prepared for this adversity, stayed calm and simply counted his strokes as he had done countless times before and set an Olympic record.

So how about you right now? Are you looking at this major disruption as a catastrophe? Are you dwelling on how awful things are and obsessing about why this had to happen? Are you totally bummed out and bathing in intense fear and anxiety right now? While these feelings are certainly absolutely normal to feel, if you allow yourself to over-focus on them, without taking action, then you’ll become frozen and immobilized!

Instead, you want to look for the challenge in this disruption. You want to look at this forced break as an opportunity to grow as a person and athlete. You want to find ways to mobilize yourself to get stronger, mentally tougher and more confident. We are all in this boat together – you, your teammates and all of your competitors! How you structure your time and what you DO every day will determine how well you ride these scary waves of emotion. The better you manage this crisis and the more mobilized you remain throughout it, the stronger you’ll be when you come out the other end and return to the pool.

An important first step in managing this crisis is to make sure if you are feeling overwhelmed with fear, anxiety and depression, that you talk about it with your family, friends or a counselor. Do not sit on these feelings alone, and do not push them away. The more you allow yourself to deal with them directly, the better you’ll feel!

Second, find ways to train. if you can’t get in the pool, set a regular workout schedule for yourself at home. Communicate with your coach or a personal trainer to get guidance. Find ways to keep yourself in good shape. Work on your strength, even though you can’t go to the gym.

Third, keep your long-term swimming goals in mind every day whenever you “train.” This will help keep you focused and motivated. Continuously remind yourself of why you’re working out by asking yourself, “How is what I’m doing right now going to help me get to where I want to go?”

Finally, take this time to work on your mental toughness. If you used to get too nervous when you competed, learn and regularly practice relaxation techniques. If you were an over-thinker or easily distracted by swimmers around you, work on your concentration skills. You can go to my website – – for free guidance in learning any of the mental skills that will help you develop and strengthen your mental muscles.

Embrace the challenge right now! As unsettling as this time is, adopt Phelps’ championship mindset. Do not allow yourself to give into the negativity that is all around us. Instead, look for the challenge of this time, because if you do, you’ll come out the other side so much happier and stronger.

By Dr. Alan Goldberg |

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