6 Lessons We Can Learn From Elite Performers to Manage Pandemic Stress

Lessons from elite performers to help us cope during this uncertain time of COVID-19.

Dr. Amy Athey

BY DR. AMY ATHEY​​​

During the Covid-19 pandemic, you may be hearing about stress management — but that’s too light a phrase!

In my job as Chief Wellness Officer at the University of Arizona, I create and support mental health and wellness initiatives for students, faculty, and staff on campus. Over the course of my career, I’ve specialized in crisis intervention and performance psychology. I’ve responded to Ground Zero, the shootings at Virginia Tech, and Hurricane Katrina, as well as served as the sport psychologist for NCAA Champions and Olympians.

A colleague of mine, Dr. Rob Fazio, works as a performance consultant for organizations and athletic teams through his company OnPoint Advising. He’s also the co-founder of the Hold the Door Foundation, a nonprofit founded in memory of his father, Ron Fazio, Sr., who passed away on September 11th, 2001 while helping to evacuate his friends and co-workers from the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

From our combined experiences in crisis intervention and high-performance mindset coaching, Rob and I have compiled lessons from elite performers executing in high pressure performance situations to help us cope during COVID-19.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, you may be hearing about stress management — but that’s too light a phrase! More helpful right now is the concept of energy management.

One of the big challenges of this current crisis is that it’s not an acute episode. A hurricane isn’t hitting an area and leaving, sending us into the recovery phase. We’re in the eye of the storm right now, and we don’t know how long we’ll be battered. We’re living with a lot of fear and frustration on an uncertain timeline — which leads to fatigue.

Elite performers in sport have to optimally perform for one performance (like the first game of a season), AND keep in mind that they have a thirty game schedule ahead of them. They have to manage their energy for the short-term and the long-term. And that’s what we also need to do. We need energy for our 9am meeting and make sure we can still be holding down our job in a month’s time.

So what have we learned from some of the world’s top performers? Here are several strategies that can help us in the moment (game day), and to sustain and manage our energy in the long-term for however long this period in our lives lasts (season-long).

Game Day (Short-Term) Strategies

Do Your Warm Up
No athlete competes cold. They have a series of warmups and pre-performance routines that they activate. In the same way, we can establish routines to get us ready to go into another day of working from home, or homeschooling (maybe both at once!), or caretaking. Your pre-game routine can be as simple as a self-talk phrase that reminds you that you know what you’re doing, or it can be a planned breakfast that you know gives you optimal fuel. Before an event that will require energy from you (like a remote meeting) deploy your warmup to get your energy where it needs to be (like a brisk 10-minute walk outside prior to sitting down).

Be Your Own Ideal Coach

Do you really need someone chewing you out on the sideline when you’ve dropped the ball three times, literally or figuratively? Challenge yourself to be your own ideal coach and ask what you need to hear before this specific situation. What would you want your ideal coach to say or do? What would be the timing of the statement — would it be instructional? Would it be challenging? Would it be supportive? You know best how you need to be spoken to right now. Your running dialogue can be your friend in helping you make it through a particularly challenging or frightening day. 

Cue Yourself

Elite performers, heading into big moments, often orient around one phrase or image that’s in their control. I was a basketball player. Instead of going into a game saying, “you know, I really want to be a leading scorer,” I would ask myself: what’s one thing I can do to increase the odds those other things will happen?” It might be “quick feet” or “be aggressive.” It was a grounding word or phrase I would return to when the stress was rocketing and my energy was shooting through the roof. A cue word or image like “pause” or “deep breaths” gives you one thing to focus on in a chaotic moment. That simple focus can be a gift right now.

 

Short Term Lessons From Elite Performers
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Season-Long (Long term) Strategies

Embrace Recovery
In sport, we’ve come to understand that recovery is critical to have focus, to manage our emotions, and to make effective decisions. Sleep has been identified as the number one performance enhancer. It’s a sensitive system — under times of stress, a common sign is disruption of sleep (waking up too early, not being able to fall asleep at all). Using routines to unwind at night unwind is critical. You need 30 minutes of unwinding before you get into bed. Your room should be dark, cool, but not too cool, and please — take a break from the screens. Your bed is only for sleep and sex only! You can also use active relaxation techniques. Along with Dr. Michael Grandner at the University of Arizona, we built a sleep wellness program called Project Rest with NCAA. You can reference that here.

Cultivate Self-Compassion
Like an elite performer at the Olympics who has a disappointing performance in the heats but has to readjust in order to perform in finals, self-compassion is critical right now. Your productivity may be lower (…maybe much lower!) than usual, and you might feel stuck in a brain fog, wondering why you’re getting one third of tasks done. Look — we’re not going to be able to do what we were doing before, and that’s OK. Acknowledge these are not normal times, and your reactions today might be different from yesterday — and they are BOTH NORMAL.

Reconnect to Enjoyment
Athletes can’t spend every moment off the field fretting over missed opportunities. To recharge and perform at a high level again, potentially even the next day, they need to relax and find enjoyment. The nonprofit Hold the Door suggests that each day, we find one thing in each of these areas: Laugh, Learn, Love. Watch a few episodes of a favorite sitcom. Read for thirty minutes on a topic you’ve always meant to learn about. Call a friend and laugh with them, or text someone just to say you’re thinking of them. By reconnecting to the things we enjoy, we reconnect to the elements that sustain and recharge us — so we’re ready for the next “big game.”

Long Term Lessons From Elite Performers
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In Conclusion:

Repeat after us: these are normal reactions to abnormal events. You might snack more during the day — it’s OK! How can you get up tomorrow and not beat yourself up? Be mindful of trying again, without berating ourselves.

Elite performers have dealt with stress in controlled situations throughout their careers, and learned to thrive during uncertainty. So let’s learn from them, in this unusual and challenging time. Remember — we’re in this for the long haul. Take care of yourself.

Goal Setting Requires Committment
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Author Bios

Dr. Amy Athey is a national leader in Performance Psychology and the training of Mental Fitness with over 20 years of working with elite performers, coaches, teams, medical professionals and organizational leadership. Currently the Chief Wellness Officer at the University of Arizona. She’s a co-founder of Confidently.

Rob Fazio, PhD of OnPoint Advising, has over 20 years of experience advising executives on crisis, power, influence, and motivation with elite and emerging talent. Rob is the author of “Simple is the New Smart” and the Motivational Currency Calculator. He is the founder of Hold the Door, a 9/11 inspired nonprofit focused on growth through adversity.

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