Resilience through injury and hardship models coping techniques
Does external stimuli help or harm high performance athletes
Injuries in sports are an unavoidable fact of life. When training camp opened for the Saskatchewan Roughriders on July 10, no one could have anticipated four season-ending achilles tears in one day. When competitive gymnastics fans worldwide were anticipating watching Simone Biles compete across numerous events, the world’s collective jaw dropped when they learned of her decision to opt-out of the remainder of her events. After COVID-19 caused a year-long delay to the Olympics and forced the CFL to cancel their 2020 season, it is clear that 2021 will look very different for many athletes.
I spoke to Rob McCaffrey from the University of Regina to get a better glimpse into how athletes process their own mental resilience. Rob manages and facilitates the Mental Wellness Hub, an online resource for staff and students to manage their mental health both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also a Mental Trainer and is the new Co-Head Women’s Soccer Coach (interim). Rob is currently working to complete his PhD and does research work using a device called the neurotracker.
“We wanted to look at external stimuli to assess level of performance with noise stimuli. The hypothesis was that participants would be challenged by the dual task of performing, while also filtering out external stimuli. In fact, the athletes in the quiet room actually performed worse.” This has undoubtedly had an effect on many athletes. We’ve seen multiple athletes surpass their anticipated outcomes, and others falter well below their usual competitive level.
“Athletes are intrinsically motivated but they are also doing it for their country and the fans in the stadium. The current environment has removed a lot of those external stimuli and motivation… The Olympics has sports with completely different options for managing stimuli. In a skateboarding environment everyone has their headphones in. Whereas the swimmers are completely locked in and remove their headphones.”
Rob himself is no stranger to injury having experienced both concussions and other injuries requiring surgery. “We did a study at Wisconsin on athletes who have torn their ACL and had them do different mental training techniques during the injury. What was shown was that the athletes that implemented a mental performance strategy were more likely to return to play much faster. Athletes were often doing mental rehearsal, such as a quarterback taking the mental reps and keeping their brain in the same situation. Training with the same cognitive load as if they weren’t injured.”
For many of us, a return to work or school after COVID-19 lockdowns will be similarly challenging. In fact, from Rob’s perspective, “It’s going to be harder to go back to ‘normal.’ Night and day. There has been very little time to transition for public safety.” This can create anxiety. Learning to build up the cognitive load of external stimuli and building resilience to certain unknowns is a key part of helping people develop grit and resilience. The University of Regina received a Bell Let’s Talk grant for $25,000 to continue to help students and faculty with their mental health. The “Mindful Mondays” archived recordings and participating in the “Surviving to Thriving: Developing Personal and Academic Resilience” courses are some of the many opportunities available to exercise your mental health and wellbeing through the Mental Wellness Hub.