12 ways to deal with the unexpected

As an elite athlete, you are likely to experience a very stressful or traumatic event at some point in your sporting career – and your reaction to such a stressor will challenge your capacity to adapt. The IOC Mental Health Working Group have come up with 12 recommendations to help you prepare for and deal with anything that comes your way. 

  • Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms can affect elite athletes, just as they can the wider population.
  • You can take on board the following 12 recommendations, developed by the IOC Mental Health Working Group, to enhance your well-being and reduce your risk of developing such stress symptoms.
  • Download Headspace, a mental well-being app that promotes proactive steps for you to stay on top of your game. Claim your six months’ free subscription to Headspace.
  1. Learn about stress and trauma

Stress is necessary for survival and for human growth and development. It is usually a normal reaction to demanding, complex or novel situations. It is initially positive, but if prolonged without breaks can be unhealthy, while stress in one life area can raise stress in other life areas.

Traumatic events, if intense and persistent, can cause symptoms and disrupt functioning and performance. But if they are managed, they can lead to enhanced mental health and well-being.

  1. Recognise symptoms early

Be aware of stressors and the impact of traumatic events in your life. Remember that high-stress levels are just as likely to occur when many small stressors are present as compared to one or two large stressors.

There are four common reactions to high-stress levels: anxiety, depression, anger, and physical change. Most of you will have one main type of stress reaction, but a mix of some from each area is also possible. Changes in sleep and energy (too much or too little) and increased substance use (e.g. caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana) are common to all four.

Responses to traumatic events can be different than stress responses and can cause intrusive thoughts or memories, physiological arousal, negative mood and cognitions, dissociation, and avoidance. Be open to mental health screening prior to and at the end of the season, following a major competition (e.g world championship or Olympic Games), after a serious injury, or upon retirement from sport.

  1. Develop a support network

Most of you need several people whom you trust and whose advice you can obtain quickly and easily. The main purpose is to talk about your stressors and to put them into perspective. Consider a combination of family, friends, team-mates, and coaches.

Notice those around you who seem to manage stress well. Learn from their example and ask for their advice. If this is not effective then seek assistance from a spiritual advisor, team physician, or mental health professional. 

  1. Think and act positively

The mind and body have repetitive patterns of thinking, emotion, facial expression, posture and movement that are associated with good stress control and life balance. Actions follow thoughts, and certain facial expressions like smiling are associated with better emotional control. Making yourself maintain a calm and confident outward appearance can lead you out of a cycle of stress more quickly.

  1. Take regular breaks

Your mind and body operate in high-stress periods using chemical supplies of energy, which can be depleted if recovery breaks are not strategically inserted into each day, month, and year. Short breaks (20-30 minutes) every six to eight hours are often enough to allow for energy resupply. Longer breaks (days to weeks) with a complete sport disconnect may be helpful for you after a prolonged period of exertion. Breaks should have different tasks than the demands of sport and should bring enjoyment, humour, laughter, and relaxation.

  1. Practise meditation

Cardiovascular exercise, stretching, and lifting are reliable ways to trigger your body’s relaxation reflex, which occurs through the reduction of accumulated muscle tension and the release of certain calming brain chemicals.

Stress breathing is rapid, shallow, and uneven, whereas relaxation breathing is deep, smooth, and slow. There are breathing techniques (patterned breath-in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, breath-out for a count of eight repeated four times) that can be mastered. Massage, music, movies, meditation, mindfulness, muscle stretching, and nutritious meals are also reliable relaxation triggers.

Finally, there are many helpful apps that can guide you through short (3-5 minute) meditation or mindfulness exercises. Through our partnership with Intel, you can claim six months’ free access to the meditation and sleep app, Headspace.

  1. Try journaling and time-blocking

Break down the day into smaller time blocks and accomplish at least one task during each. It’s better to complete one small task (or a small part of a larger one) in each time block than to fail to complete a larger task that day. Take time to write down your thoughts and feelings (e.g. via journaling) as a way to process and move on (reset) after a successful or disappointing performance. Talk to others who have experienced success and/or failure to see how they coped and adjusted.

  1. Stay informed

Incorrect information can lead to false perceptions or opinions, unnecessary thinking, and activated emotions that drain energy. Seek out the source of rumours and regularly get an update on the situation even if little change has occurred. Small pieces of information can lead to new solutions.

  1. Consider a spiritual solution

Spiritual views often help us to see our problems in different ways and may enhance our natural creativity. Solutions to stress or traumatic events are often just around the corner if we allow enough time to pass and maintain our optimism.

  1. Avoid excessive sedatives and stimulants

The use of alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, and caffeine may increase during periods of high stress. Sedatives and stimulants are often used together and can lead to risky dosage escalations in short periods of time. These may bring temporary relief but could lead to insomnia and rebound anxiety (anxiety that is even worse after the substance wears off). Limit alcohol if you’re stressed, and monitor stimulant intake. As little as three alcoholic drinks, 200mg of caffeine (1-2 cups of coffee) or 20mg of nicotine a day can interfere with sleep duration and quality, and raise stress.

  1. Remember to have fun!

It’s so important to have fun in practice and competition when laughter and humour should be present throughout your day. If your sport is not fun, then look at the people around you who enjoy it and ask them for advice. Consider adding someone into your inner circle who is calming or can lighten the mood. After the sporting season or during vacations, find a hobby that uses different skills and that is not as high pressure or results-oriented. Find a way to enjoy the process and share it with others.

  1. Develop positive routines

Try to start and end each day with a series of patterned but flexible actions that last 30-60 minutes. You should try to develop an awakening routine that raises your energy levels and prepares you for action, which could include breath work, exercising, reading, meditation, and a meal. A midday routine such as a meal, social conversation, or a walk in nature can then be used to recover lost energy and maintain focus and concentration. An end of the day routine is also really beneficial so that you can shift from action to calm and prepare for sleep. This might include listening to soft music, reading, calling a support network member, or meditation.

At the end of the day, it can be useful to record the positive moments. Review them in detail to allow the sights, sounds and positive emotions to be fully registered. Spend some time visualising success in an important sport or life event. Allow the images to be strong and clear.

Read about the different ways in which Athlete365 and the IOC Mental Health Working Group are helping you stay #MentallyFit