I am not an elite athlete. Never have been, never will be. But as I contemplated how to support my colleagues at my hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic—knowing that we face more weeks of social distancing, probable virus outbreaks as business opens up, and myriad changes in how we will practice medicine—I wondered how Olympic athletes focus their mental and physical stamina to respond to the challenges of competition.
In this article, I offer some pointers, gleaned from techniques used by exceptional athletes, on how we can maintain our stamina during the COVID-19 marathon.
Train your mind
Elite athletes understand that what will take them to the top of their sport is less about their physical gifts (all elite athletes have superior athletic talent) and more about how they train their minds to achieve their goals. As basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, “Your mind is what makes everything else work.” Not surprisingly, athletes who train to be mentally “tough” have a better chance to reach the podium.
One definition of mental toughness is the “ability to perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill” regardless of external circumstances.1 Mental toughness involves an unshakable self-belief, resilience, motivation, focus, and ability to perform under pressure and manage physical and emotional pain.
Like me, most of you probably are not elite athletes, but you can train your mind to be tougher and increase your stamina using some of the following techniques.
Do you find yourself dealing with an inner monologue of fear, self-doubt, and feelings of worthlessness? That is the Obnoxious Roommate in your head as described in a HuffPost article and based on the pioneering work of psychiatrist Aaron Beck, MD, the father of cognitive-behavioral therapy.2,3 Such thoughts negatively affect one’s sense of self-efficacy, which is the mental state of believing that you can meet the challenges you face. Elite athletes pay particular attention to their self-talk and replace negative thoughts with positive ones. These may include affirmations of your strengths or cue words that pump you up or help you manage your nerves.
To begin this practice, first observe what you are telling yourself. You may be saying, “I can’t do this. This is too hard.” This is an important step because you may have lived with the Obnoxious Roommate for so long that these thoughts are automatic and seem like a part of you. If, however, you first observe the thought and acknowledge it, you can begin to replace negative thoughts with supportive ones: “This is hard, but I can do this. I am intelligent, strong, capable, and ready.” While practice and repetition are required, thinking positively eventually will become a habit of self-support. Elite athletes know that to reach the top, they need to become their own best friend.4
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