If you are like most families with young children, these past few weeks have been filled with playing simple games, such as who can run the fastest from one side of the room to the other, or who can accurately recite the alphabet backwards.
If you are like most families with young children, these past few weeks have been filled with playing simple games, such as who can run the fastest from one side of the room to the other, or who can accurately recite the alphabet backwards. When my children were young, their favorite game involved my hiding their stuffed animals in the house. Then they would head off on a search and rescue mission to find their favorite “friends.” Now they are much older but back home due to the COVID-19, but they still find comfort and joy in games from their youth, such as Wii MarioCart and Dance Dance Revolution.
I’m sure in your home too, the importance of games has become clearer than ever. We all need games to occupy our roaming minds, to cut through the boredom of being quarantined, and to challenge ourselves to improve in some way. Sports are also games, albeit at the more complex (and expensive) end of the continuum. And, as is the case with all games, it helps to appreciate the distinction between your goals (what you want to achieve) and your purpose (why you are playing). Although some use the terms goal and purpose interchangeably, they are not the same. For instance, the goal in tennis is to win, but the purpose is to enjoy the mind-body gifts that derive from playing.
Regrettably, the virus has forced everyone to reassess their immediate sports goals, and search for new purposes. Gyms are shuttered, some parks have been deemed off-limits, and athletic events have been cancelled for who knows how long. Any hopes of keeping up your swim workouts at the pool, competing in next month’s race, or vying for the championship have sadly been put on hold. Despite all the bad news, here’s some optimism: the virus can’t infect an athlete’s insatiable need to find new games to play, and adventures to give them a daily spark.
At the heart of it, that’s why you chose triathlon and endurance sports—to connect to something inside you that is curious and adventuresome, and that gives you a rush of excitement and a sense of aliveness (which your jobs or home-schooling may not necessarily provide). That’s what we mean by purpose; to see if we can improve in something important to us, to experience the flow of adrenaline as we push ourselves to move outside our comfort zone, and to “watch” ourselves grow and develop. The benefits of being an endurance athlete are as much mental, of course, as they are physical.
Although our original athletic goals are now on hiatus, COVID-19 can’t stop you from creating new challenges that incorporate some of the original reasons you chose to train and race, but perhaps in a new form.
Many of my Type-A triathlete clients are finding that now is an opportune time to shift their focus to maintaining overall fitness rather than worrying about their race preparedness. To that end, many are enjoying different kinds of virtual work-out classes, like Cardio Dance and Kick Boxing where they can enjoy being beginners again. Some need convincing that a temporary shift away from specific triathlon training to try something new is worth it. One dad realized the benefits when he recruited his 16-year-old son to try kick-boxing classes with him. What better father-son activity could there be? He’s experiencing a feeling of filial connectedness that even his best triathlon result couldn’t provide. He’s never looked forward to a workout more.
A pro runner client of mine has found a great sense of purpose in teaching and inspiring young people with mental health challenges to start running. His openness about his own psychological challenges, which he likely never would have shared had the virus not put an end to his season, has opened him up in a way he never would have believed. Despite the massive scare and disruption caused by the virus, this time away from competition has taught him that running will forever now be about more than just about split times and personal bests. It will always include this idea that what he has learned he must give back to those who still don’t know how running can be a part of their own therapy.
Of course, for all of us right now, “winning” in sports isn't about getting a trophy or improving your ranking, but rather inventing new games that allow for new ways to enjoy the process of participating and growing. The world is changing, and we need to adjust and find new goals that keep us in the game. If we can make the athletic challenge more important than any particular outcome goal we will likely find something during this quarantine that will still get our muscles moving, our adrenaline flowing, and provide a sense of psychological satisfaction that makes chasing some new goal worth it. Okay, now go play some games!
Mitchell Greene, Ph.D.
Owner, Greenepsych Clinical & Sport Psychology