Lessons from Sport

Feel like you’re sitting on the sidelines of your own life? Maybe you should choose to play by different rules. 

Cover portrait by Phil James / Shadowplay
Photography by JR Korpa
Creative by Mark Perkins

Words by Giles Mountford

Out of Control?

Lessons From Sport no_2

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Here’s where you’re likely at. The initial shock of what’s going on around you and everyone else has subsided and you’re living a new ‘normal’. It’s not easy but hopefully, you’ve found that just as the sun rises and sets every day, you get up, you move around and you attend to whatever needs attending to. 

The challenge is likely not your base level ability to function as a human being but rather how to function effectively (all the time wondering where the hell you put your ‘why?’. More on that in another lesson).

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Even when you’ve reset and accepted that things have changed, there are any number of factors that can impact on your progress through each day.

When an injured athlete sits on the side-lines, things move on: rivals advance, competitors win things. Tournaments come and go without your presence. This has a twofold effect: the worries grow, insecurity and anxiety are fed and consequently an athletes’ ability to repair and perform is not only inhibited but on occasion completely de-railed.

Someone who understands, better than most, the impact of being forced away from your calling is Kelly Smith MBE, England’s footballer of her generation,

“When I was playing, I was alive and happy I could really express myself. And people would talk to me after the after the games and I’d engage them about the performance of the team and myself, but when I wasn’t going out and performing, I felt like I didn’t have anything to talk about”.

Kelly Smith MBE is widely regarded as the best women’s player England have ever produced. Photo © Getty Images

When major injury hit and prevented Kelly from playing her total focus on the loss of playing caused her emotional distress to spiral into depression and a growing reliance on alcohol.

“I just felt so lost as an individual and as a person, I didn’t know who I was anymore because I couldn’t. I wasn’t doing what I was felt like I was born to do”.

Many of us may feel, to a greater or lesser extent, that we’re sitting on the side-lines of our own lives. Hopefully we’ve benefitted from extra time to reflect and re-asses just as much as we’ve had the opportunity to consider our values and, for the fortunate ones, cherish time with family that prior to the crisis, may never have happened. But that nagging worry of ‘what next?’ remains.

“When I was playing, I was alive and happy I could really express myself…but when I wasn’t going out and performing, I felt like I didn’t have anything to talk about”

Kelly Smith MBE

We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic where no-one really understands what the next few weeks and months hold – in any sense. For many, the fear of illness affecting us, or our loved ones, begins to be rivalled by very real concerns about the economic reality of feeding family and paying bills. Even when we return to ‘normal’ – what might that mean? We can find ourselves grabbing out for news stories that give us hope at the same time as fixating on ‘what if’ scenarios being painted by others. How strong is the pull of distraction?!

The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote of the power of choice over 2000 years ago.

You’ve probably heard the quote,

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”.

That quote, from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, is over 2000 years old! It might not feel like it, but even in the face of the upheaval caused by a global pandemic, as long as you avoid contracting COVID-19 itself, you have a choice: to be a victim or a survivor. That is not an easy message to hear right now but it’s vital to think about if you are to come through this intact.

Think about what’s feeding your negative responses and step away from them. You do have choices. You can choose to not get swept away. You can choose to be a survivor. You can do it.

One of the most important actions in stepping away from negative responses ways is to focus your energies on what you can control – not the things that you have no control or influence over.

There are plenty of different versions of the following exercise that sportspeople use to concentrate on the things that they can actually address in relation to their performance.

Just by redirecting our energies away from the things we can’t control benefits us – emotionally and physically. Once we work our energy into the things we can affect, we will begin to see progress. And seeing improvements, however small, is exactly what feeds the positive energy in you and marks you out as a survivor.

Here goes: When you get the chance, grab a piece of paper and pen and write down a big list of all the things that you’ve got playing on your mind. Once you’ve got nothing else to write down, because your head is empty (it might be a long list), go back, slowly, through that list and draw a line through all the things you can’t control. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know exactly what they are.

What you’ve got left – that’s where you need to focus your energies. In fact, that’s the only place you should be placing your energies. And every time you feel yourself attention slipping – go back to that list. Work your way through it, one item at a time, concentrating on the things that you feel matter the most.

More from Lessons in sport

On the grass Kelly Smith achieved things most footballers only dream of.

Hope Powell, then England coach was in awe of her abilities, “Kelly is one of those players who come along only once or twice in a lifetime. In the men’s game you’d think of Diego Maradona or Messi, players with a unique talent, and that’s what Kelly has.”

But perhaps Kelly’s greater achievement is that, although she became England’s record goal scorer and won multiple trophies with Arsenal, she also learned to redefine herself as a person. That was achieved, perhaps ironically, through the experiences delivered indirectly by injury.

“It wasn’t until rehab and counselling, that I learned how to deal with these emotions and have put coping strategies in place that when an injury happened for the third time when I broke my leg, I didn’t go to that dark place again”.

During those times she learned to value so much more about herself than her footballing prowess: to redefine who and what she was and grow as an individual, not just a superstar footballer. Now retired from playing Kelly Smith MBE thrives as a mum with a successful media career. It took losing football for a while – which at the time seemed like losing everything, for her to gain a whole lot more. It’s a lesson we can all learn from.

It’s not easy but by reminding ourselves every day to focus on what we can genuinely impact on is a powerful step in building strength in ourselves and those we care for.

To close. I really do wish you well. It’s not easy but I would urge you to take a breath, focus on what you can control and make your choices: each day, every day.

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