The mental resilience loop to cope with uncertainty – learnings from elite sports
Many of us probably hoped this autumn would be a return to “normal”. The pandemic, however, continues to keep a strong hold of the world, creating an ongoing sense of uncertainty. Hence, our mental resilience is put to the test. Pete McKnight, Sports coaching Director at Hintsa Performance and performance coach for Olympic athletes and racing drivers, shares how he helps athletes build mental resilience and cope with uncertainty.
“Coping skills are crucial. Let me take Formula 1 as an example. The F1 season went on hold just ahead of the Australian Grand Prix back in March. Along with the rest of the world, this was a huge shock and source of uncertainty for the teams and drivers. What does this mean? How long will this last? Will the season be cancelled altogether? What does that mean for my career?
There were questions related to both physical and mental wellbeing. While you might assume that an elite athlete’s coach would jump directly into designing a new physical training routine, that’s not what we did. The crucial thing to get right is mindset: how can the coach help the athlete cope with uncertainty and build mental resilience? To be effective, the right training routine requires the right mindset.
The basic “mental resilience loop” our coaches went through with drivers has five steps:
The first step is crucial: accept the situation. This sounds simpler than it is. Denial is actually a natural part of significant change. The well-known Kübler-Ross model, also known as “the 5 stages of grief”, was developed by Elizabeth Kübler Ross in 1969 after working for years with terminally ill patients and their loved ones. She stated that you go through a succession of five stages: (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, and (5) acceptance.
While this epidemic isn’t the same as losing a loved one, it can imply large changes. You may need a personal “grief” process. You can’t force acceptance, and you can’t sprint through the emotions: during the first week or so of lockdown it was key for the coaches to help their drivers come to terms with the situation. The key trait here is adaptability: the belief that whatever life throws your way, you’ll manage.
2. Choose your mindset
The second step after acceptance is finding the positives. Coaches and drivers sought for ways to use the lockdown to their advantage. Some decided to work on things they didn’t have time for during race season, others used the time to better heal a chronic injury like lower back pain from sitting in the F1 car. Yet others decided to enjoy the downtime: after over 10 years of life on the road for some of the drivers, the three months of lockdown was a welcome chance to take a breath. One driver commented that it was probably the first time in his life that he was more of a father than a Formula driver – and that was a good thing. Some others took the opportunity to get into e-sports, both to keep their reaction times up, but also as a distraction and for the enjoyment of learning something new.
3. Create a winning environment
The next step in the lockdown performance process is making your environment conductive to success. Research has shown that the environment, i.e. both physical locations and people around you can have an immense impact on your chances of success.
Some of our drivers went into lockdown with their coach, meaning they had a positive influence and a training and accountability partner with them during this time. Many of them then adapted their physical environment by repurposing a spare room, hallway, or garage as a gym, and ordering training equipment for home use to use lockdown time to make gains and get ahead. This became an opportunity, not a disaster.
4. Revise goals
During race season drivers have very specific goals: lap times or race positions. These are results goals. During the lockdown, however, coaches re-focused drivers on process goals: how much to train, what to train, how much to rest. Coaches also took a more long-term view: irrespective of how or when the lockdown ends and racing recommences, what are the core skills the athlete should develop?
Focusing on process goals and longer-term objectives helped take drivers minds off the uncertainty (“when will this end?” or “will we be able to race at all in 2020?”). Instead they focused on training and long-term development – important goals irrespective of the fate of the 2020 season. Razor-sharp focus on what you can control rarely goes wrong.
5. Revise routines
Finally, with acceptance, mindset, environment and goals in place, you can turn your eyes to the actual training. How to build your day in the most effective way to avoid boredom and facilitate progress – and ultimately success.
In general, the drivers did more physical training than normal in lockdown, using the extra time as an advantage to create rhythms and routines of training, rest, recovery, and entertainment. Lockdown time allowed for greater training volumes and loads, meaning greater physical improvements, but requiring more recovery, good nutrition, and sleep to ensure adaptation and avoid burnout.
Having the coaches with the drivers as training partners helped immensely. Where not, the coach and driver had regular Zoom training sessions, daily calls and chats to stay on track.
Importantly, drivers also involved the people around them like their spouses and kids. Kids popping in on an athlete’s training session can be as distracting as kids popping in on an office worker’s Zoom call - we’re all in the same boat on that one.
In the end, the Formula 1 season restarted in July after 3,5 months of lockdown. Drivers returned pumped up and ready to race, hoping to make the 2020 season a success despite the setbacks.
What can office workers learn from this? Formula 1 drivers are world elite in what they do, but the same “loop” for mental resilience works for anyone. So if you feel frustrated or anxious about changes in your job, industry, the economy, or how we are forced to pandemic-proof and limit our lives, try the following:
- Acceptance: Don’t force this – allow yourself to grieve what you’ve lost. Then accept: we cannot change the world, but we can change our own response. For example: “I accept that for the next year I won’t be able to go to the gym.”
- Choose your mindset: What positives can you find? How can you use this time to do something you otherwise couldn’t? For example: “I can explore the opportunities for outside exercise, or sign up for online classes in a new sports.”
- Create a winning environment: what changes to your environment or the people you spend time with will help you succeed? Maybe order an exercise band or roll out your yoga mat in the living room before you go to bed. And hang around with those who encourage you and influence you positively.
- Define process goals: Focus on goals in the here and now, for example: “I’ll go for a morning walk every day,” or “I’ll try a new online class every week”.
- Revise routines: Design your routines, for example:, do a weekly hour of exercise together with the family. Most importantly, maintain consistency and routine with a spice of variety to avoid boredom.
These tips are not insignificant. As the WHO has mentioned – the longest lasting impacts from this pandemic may not be physical, but mental.
Pete McKnight, Hintsa Performance
Pete McKnight, world-class performance coach of Olympic athletes and Formula 1 drivers, explores the scientific link between body and brain: what do we know about how physical and mental health interact, and what can we do about it? Drawing on learnings from elite athletes, Pete gives concrete takeaways for the listeners.
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The above text is from the Technopolis Wellness Talks "Boosting resilience through body and mind – learnings from Formula 1" webinar which was organized on September 9, 2020. Watch the recording below or here.
Webinars are organized in cooperation with Hintsa Performance.
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