We humans don’t like disruptions in our lives. We like to feel safe, secure, and comfortable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it means we’re, well, human. This need is hard wired into us through evolution with one purpose in mind: to ensure our survival.
Unfortunately, crises are, by their very nature, disruptive and cause reactions that are decidedly uncomfortable, not to mention a threat to our survival. Crises create unfamiliarity, unpredictability, uncertainty, ambiguity, discomfort, and, most difficult, a loss of control. And the recent meeting of ski racing with COVID-19 is one of those crises. The cancellation of the rest of the competitive season by U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the closing of most ski areas around North America, and ski academies around the U.S. sending its student-athletes home are just a few of the biggest impacts COVID-19 is having on our sport.
These abrupt changes to the ski racing world have left everyone in our sport in a state of shock, disbelief, and distress. We are all asking questions that, at this moment, have no answers: When will our ski area reopen? When will I be able to go back to school? Will I get to train again before the end of the winter? The even-bigger question that can completely fill up our minds and spirits is: WHY, WHY, WHY??? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question either. Depending on your sensibilities, you could answer the “why” question with: bad luck, an act of God, or sh*t happens! But, ultimately, any answer that you come up with will be largely unsatisfying and may even cause more consternation and frustration.
For some racers, this crisis means more than just a bump in their ski racing trajectory. Instead, for seniors in high school who won’t be skiing in college or seniors in college whose season was abruptly ended in the middle of the NCAA Championships, this crisis means the abrupt conclusion to their careers. And, more viscerally, the sudden death of their ski racing identity rather than a gradual shift to a new self-identity that would have come with a normal ending of this race season.
For parents, they may experience a double dose of suffering. First, having to see their children’s hopes and dreams of finishing the race season dashed and dealing with the emotional aftermath of their usually predictable world come crashing down so suddenly. Second, having to deal with their own grief from having invested considerable money, countless hours, and undeterminable “emotional points” supporting their kid’s ski racing aspirations.
For coaches, the costs are similar as those of parents with the added pain of not being able to ply the trade that is their career, livelihood, professional identity, and passion.
Perhaps the only people who gain benefit from this unfortunate turn of events is injured racers who will lose less ground in terms of development and points with their peers no longer able to train or race this winter.
With this massive disruption and the widespread “suffering” (in the first-world sense) that it is inflicted on our ski racing community, I thought I would share some thoughts on how we can all cope as effectively as possible with the crisis and respond to it in the most positive and constructive way. As the noted psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, observed, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The emotions we are all feeling are the most powerful and immediate discomfort we feel in reaction to the loss we are experiencing. Sadness, disappointment, grief, devastation, despair, stress, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, frustration, and anger are just a few of the emotions we feel in response to this abrupt end to the training and race season. I have heard from many parents of the many tears that have been shed by their young racers in seeing their season so suddenly pulled out from under them.
- Don’t try to assuage, placate, or distract your children’s feelings.
- Don’t give them pep talks (your kids will know it’s BS).
- Don’t minimize (“Oh, it’s not a big deal”), rationalize, or blame.
- Allow your kids to feel bad (an essential part of developing emotional mastery involves feeling bad, identifying and understanding the emotions, and learning to express those unpleasant emotions in healthy ways).
- Be empathetic: listen to and reflect back their feelings.
- Don’t try to solve the problem (there is no solution).
- Allow your children to go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).
- Over time, as the negative emotions begin to fade, refocus on the positives of the past season and the opportunities for the next season.
Because young people have little life experience to draw on, they see their world narrowly and only in the present and the immediate future. This short-term perspective can lead children to see a crisis like what we are currently experiencing as much larger than it really is (naturally, when you look at something close up, it appears much bigger than if viewed from a distance). And this enormity through the eyes of young people can turn the volume up on how they think and feel about and react to the impact of COVID-19 on their ski racing lives.
One of the most valuable things parents and coaches can offer their young ski racers is a perspective that is wider and longer than the perspective that they currently hold. This view of the crisis puts it in a context that is easier for them to wrap their arms around and that will soften the emotional impact on them.
- Acknowledge, rather than devalue, the short-term and narrow perspective your kids hold (it is their view and it should be respected).
- Think long-term (it may seem like a big deal now, but in a short time, it won’t seem so big or overwhelming).
- Think big picture (COVID-19 is causing much bigger problems all over the world than having to cancel some ski races).
- Offer examples from your life and the world at large to bring #2 and #3 to life.
Resilience has become a buzzword in our achievement vocabulary, yet its deep meaning and value to the development of young people remains important and powerful. Resilience can be characterized as the capacity to cope effectively with setbacks, obstacles, failures, and disappointment. These days, many young people don’t get the chance to be tested in ways they are with COVID-19 (though one thing that I love about ski racing is that resilience is tested every day in training and at races). Like a muscle that isn’t strengthened, without these opportunities to experience life’s challenges, resilience can’t be exercised and strengthened.
- Encourage them to view the crisis and its effects as a challenge to embrace rather than a threat to avoid.
- Tell your children about the value of resilience in a crisis, what it means, and what it is comprised of.
- Provide support and guidance through the crisis.
- Show that you have confidence in your kids’ resilience.
- Remind them that they are resilient.
- Highlight their strengths.
- Have them focus on things over which they have control.
- Provide tools that they can use to be more resilient (e.g., relaxation, positive thinking, goal setting).
- Make life as normal as possible (e.g., family dinners, daily activities).
As President John F. Kennedy noted, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters-one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” Whether a crisis is viewed as, well, a crisis, or an opportunity depends on whether the focus is on what is lost or what can be gained. The ability of young ski racers (and their parents and coaches) to respond positively to a crisis will be dictated by whether they can let go of the costs and focus on the potential benefits of the crisis.
- Racers can adjust their dreams and goals to work within the “new normal” of this crisis.
- They can see the loss of season-ending races as an extended prep period for next season.
- Racers can identify areas they need to work on in their ski racing development and focus on strengthening those areas.
- Use this time away from our sport to seek balance in their lives and pursue aspects of their lives that they didn’t have time for before the crisis (e.g., focus on school, enjoy a hobby that has been neglected, try something new and different).
- See their response to the crisis as an opportunity to become mentally stronger which will benefit them next season.
- Create new structure and routines in their lives around school, conditioning, and social life.
- Take action (decreases feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and victimhood; increases sense of competence, feelings of control, and optimism).
The natural tendency during a crisis to go into protective mode and isolate ourselves from the threats the crisis presents. Unfortunately, this strategy is the worst thing that we can do. When a crisis strikes, it’s important to seek out support from others (while, in the case of COVID-19, being sure to maintain appropriate ‘social distancing’ to help minimize the spread of the virus). The fact is that everyone is suffering in some way, everyone is stuck, and everyone is frustrated. As the saying goes, misery loves company.
- Seek out others (e.g., racers, parents, coaches) with whom you can commiserate.
- Ideally, find people who are optimistic and forward thinking rather than pessimistic and backward thinking.
- Express your emotions to family, friends, teachers, and coaches and encourage them to be open about their feelings with you (letting emotions out reduces their power over you).
- Share ideas and strategies on how to respond constructively to this crisis.
- Help each other be distracted from the crisis.
- Do activities with others that generate emotions that are counter to the unpleasant emotions most commonly experienced in a crisis (e.g., watching videos, playing games, listening to music, dancing).
- Ordinarily, I would suggest that hugs and shoulders to cry on are great “medicine” in a crisis but be careful with whom you are in contact so you don’t inadvertently spread COVID-19!
As with most crises, COVID-19 will pass, and life in the ski racing world and beyond will return to normal. The off-season prep period of conditioning, on-snow training, and, of course, mental training will occupy the minds and spirits of young racers (as well as their parents and coaches). And then, the snow will fly next winter, training will resume, and races will be held. And life in the ski racing world will once again return to its usual intense, frenetic, and fun pace. And we’ll look back on this crisis as a bump (admittedly, a pretty big one) and then look forward to another great and fun and exciting season ahead.
To learn more about how to respond positively to a crisis, listen to my Crisis to Opportunity podcast or read my latest book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: Nine Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisis.