In a new special series of posts, Roger Burlinson looks at how we might turn the adversity of the moment to our advantage
By Roger Burlinson
In moments like this, it’s so easy to be constantly reacting and responding to ever changing events and to be overwhelmed by things that are completely out of our control, leading us to feel powerless. Quite naturally, we might abandon all thoughts of our own long term goals, thinking that they are flippant in comparison to what is happening around us. But our goals are more than just personal trinkets, they shape us and define who we are and if we lose them, we risk muting aspects of our character that could be of immense value at this time.
Of course it’s vital to focus on the core practical things you can and should do – to help yourself, to help others, to contribute, to support, to generally be a decent and good human being. It’s obviously important too that we all give time to reflect on, and have empathy for, those who are suffering or have been overcome by this thing. But I think it’s also vital that we take note of what this situation is teaching us about ourselves, our lives and our world and then work to ensure something good comes from it in some way.
What I’m interested in is how we can, as experts like Rangan Chatterjee or the fabulous ‘Thrive Global’ crew would say, ‘reframe’ this situation and this is something for us as individuals to take the initiate on, not governments. Sure, we need to listen to the advice and guidance we’re being given and to respond, for the good of ourselves and for the good of our communities and those vulnerable members of our communities. We need to adapt to changing circumstances and to change our lives but this new situation we find ourselves in is temporary and if we simply view this time as a period to get through, to endure, to put up with, we’re completely blindsided to what could be a hugely transformative opportunity. It all hinges on the way we view it.
“There’s a classic mantra in elite sport: you can only control what’s in your control”
If we adopt a victim outlook – “this virus has turned my life upside down and I’m at its mercy” – we’re passengers but if we can let go of what our lives were before this and face the situation we’re in now as our new reality, we have an opportunity to take control of our circumstances, take responsibility for ourselves and to be accountable for our actions and that is the foundation of any sporting endeavour and an essential character trait of any athlete.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last ten years working with and alongside elite Olympic athletes in my day job. As a Director and film maker by trade, I’ve been in the fortunate position of being able to observe athletes in training, in competition and at rest and I’ve learnt a huge amount from them and their support staff. In fact, my former business partner and very, very good friend, who is herself an Olympian, taught me huge amounts about the mindset of an elite athlete, as well as a few techniques for tackling hangovers (don’t worry she’s retired now)!
Framing your world the right way and developing your ‘process’ are the building blocks of a sporting career but they can also help even the most occasional amateur to achieve more and to get to where they want to be, even if that’s only to be able to complete a Park Run and not come last. So, here’s my first pitch in what I hope will be a series of posts through this ultramarathon we call Corona: If you don’t already think of yourself as an athlete, start now!
You have a goal, you’ve entered an event, you’re hoping to raise money for charity by doing something big and challenging, you want to walk an iconic long distance route….. What are you if not an athlete? How will you do this if you don’t become the thing you’ll need to be to succeed? The only difference between an elite Olympic athlete and someone walking ‘Race to the Stones’ for instance is funding and four to eight years of full time training. You have a goal, they have a goal. You train, they train. You have an ability, they have an ability (and it’s only more than yours because of the funding/four-eight years of training thing).
People make the mistake of thinking that ‘athlete’ means someone who wins medals. It’s not. An athlete is someone who has a sporting goal and works to achieve it. There are certainly different layers of athletic ability but at its core is a mindset and that’s the critical factor. Think of yourself as an athlete (not an elite athlete, just an athlete), have an objective, a goal, and then commit to working towards achieving it.
Now, as you can imagine or maybe have seen from some of your favourite sports people, athletes have to deal both with the good times and the bad. With the successes and the failures and you can learn from this too. Some of you will have had events postponed or even cancelled and it can feel like your whole motivation has just suddenly been stripped away. But it hasn’t, you just think it has. Remember, you’re an athlete. Athletes have to deal with things that would test a saint. They have a bad day and don’t get selected for the team, they get injured and can’t do anything for months on end, they lose funding and have to try and maintain high level training while holding down a job. It’s not that they are immune to these things, it’s that they accept that they’re a fact of life and they develop coping mechanisms.
There’s a classic mantra in elite sport: ‘you can only control what’s in your control’. Sounds bloody obvious doesn’t it? So how come we never use it ourselves? If you can only control and therefore influence what you personally have complete control over, why do we worry about traffic, why do we stress about what we read in the papers or on Twitter? Because we’ve not yet learnt the same coping mechanisms as other athletes.
So, you can’t control the fact that the thing you’ve been looking forward to, the thing you’ve been training for has either been pushed back or cancelled, so what do you do? Do you say “well that’s all my hard work down the pan” and head to the pub…. oh, hang on….. head to the………. er………? Or do you say “right, change of plan, I can’t do that event, so I’m going to do something else”?
It’s really important to think of goals as fluid, not fixed. Your event isn’t your goal, your goal is to complete the challenge offered by that event but if that opportunity is taken away from you it doesn’t mean that goal has gone. The route is still there – the organisers don’t just turn up and lay a trail that day, then take it away with them afterwards.
You might think that your goal is to complete that event on that day in a certain time but, in reality, your goal is to win the battle between you and that trail. Yes your bout is scheduled for that event but for you to achieve your goal – to win over the trail – you can, if you think of it this way, achieve your goal any time you want. Yes, getting a medal is nice, as is doing it with other entrants around you but what you’ll keep as your achievement, what will last in your memory, is how you stuck it to the trail and did it in an awesome time, not how many times you said hi to other walkers or how many coconut balls you ate.
So, at this time, you do have choices, being as you are in full control of your goals and your actions! You can either just extend your training block so that you can take part in your event if it’s rescheduled for later in the year and this the best option in this circumstance. Or, if you’re uncertain about it being rescheduled, you can cover your bases and plan to take on that route whatever happens, perhaps supported by friends and family at a point in the year that works for you. So, if your event is unable to reschedule and ends up cancelling, you still have a challenge to work towards. If your event’s already been cancelled or you won’t be able to make the new date, then you can come up with your own replacement challenge of a similar nature that you can work towards. Again, this is where we can all learn from the world of elite sport.
One of the athletes I’ve filmed a lot in competition over recent years is Olympic Canoe Slalom Champion Joe Clarke. Now, Joe is a young British athlete that has a big reputation and is respected as a super talented paddler. Despite his age and it being his first games, he won the title in Rio 100% on merit with a perfect run.
He is an athlete who pushes his boundaries hard and sometimes that means he crashes and burns but I’ve never seen anyone in that sport bounce back like he does. He’ll sometimes put in a first run where he gets big time penalties and is lying well down the field but he learns from that run and then returns on the second run to put in a blinding performance because he’s found his limit and learnt from it.
So what’s all this got to do with your event being postponed? Well, Joe was odds on favourite, if not a shoe in to be on the plane to Tokyo to defend his title (next year now) but he didn’t make the team. He had a good season, had wins in strong races, performed very well. The trouble was, his nearest contender also had a good season and in the final qualifying race of the calendar for the team selection, Joe didn’t do as well in that key race and this time there was no opportunity to make a comeback.
I’m not saying the wrong man was selected for the team – there are criteria set out at the beginning of the season that everyone knows and they have to perform to them. I’m not saying either that Joe underperformed or did anything wrong, it’s simply that on this last race, which carried more qualifying points, he didn’t get as good a result as his team mate and his team mate got the place. It really is as simple as that.
So, you’re reigning Olympic Champion, you have all the self belief of a prodigious athlete, you’re in good shape but you’re not able to defend your title. How do you frame that? How do you cope with that and make sure you don’t just quit? You refocus and move on. That’s all you can do. That’s all that’s in your control.
I think Joe took the opportunity to have some surgery that he probably would have had to have at some point anyway and then he drew a line in the sand and focussed on training to come back better, stronger and to win again in future races.
Athletes understand each others’ situations and they learn from each others’ experiences and you, as an athlete, can do the same. Seek to learn from how others deal with similar situations to that which you’re in now and you can reframe your own outlook. You can refocus on what you can do and plan to reward your work during this time with something big and challenging in a few months, whether that be your rescheduled event or a challenge you set yourself.
Most importantly though, you can see these months ahead not as dead time that somehow needs to be filled but as a unique opportunity to focus on getting fitter, stronger and more resilient ready for when challenges return. So maybe you can’t do your planned event this year? Well, think of something you can do that will be as fulfilling and think of how this can then contribute to ongoing preparation for whatever you do next year.
And also, keep in mind all those Olympic athletes who have been training to perfection in order to peak this summer. Now they’re not going to be able to perform until next summer. For some, this schedule disruption will mean they’re unable to fulfil their potential at all, as they fail to maintain their form in its current state for another 12 months. For others, it gives them another opportunity if they hadn’t yet managed to get themselves into that sweet spot of training where your form is coming to you at just the right time. For some, this will mean that what might have been a glorious final games, where they managed to peak one last time before retirement, is one year too long and they end up failing to achieve their goal, ending their career empty handed in Tokyo next year.
Such is the precarious nature of elite sport but for the majority of us, it’s just a question of disruption to our plans, not a failure to achieve a life’s ambition. If we reframe, reset, refocus and use our ‘once a day’ permitted exercise slot effectively, we can still come out the other side of this in a very good place to achieve a goal, if not THE goal for the year. But that’s something for the next post….