What the Delayed Tokyo Olympics Taught Us About the Wait

What the Delayed Tokyo Olympics Taught Us About the Wait

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Words by Laura Averna
Life
July 16, 2021

Tokyo 2020, plus one. Despite taking place with a one-year delay, the Olympics have kept their official name, amplifying the uncomfortable sensation of living in distorted times. After a surge of coronavirus cases in Japan, the government has decided that the event will be held in empty venues. Visiting athletes and staff will stay in quarantine for at least the first three days in the country; they will be tested everyday, and will have to leave within 48 hours of their last performance.

No support for fellow athletes. No group meals and socializing. No cheering from family and fans. Add widespread opposition to the games, due to Japan's slow vaccine rollout and fear of dangerous foreign variants, and all this looks very different from a lifelong dream. But for athletes, it still is. Envisioning the Olympic Games gave them the strength and sense of purpose needed to go through such unpredictable hardships.

Looking closely at the Olympians’ experience, we can learn skills and strategies for adapting to sudden change, managing tough feelings, and building resilience.

Coping with the pandemics, the athletic way

“That’s tough, but it’s what we’ve gotta do. It’s the situation that we’re in, it’s the situation that everybody’s in.”
– Max Whitlock, Britain's’ most decorated gymnast

With closed sports facilities, altered (or interrupted) plans and long-haul trips to unfamiliar training camps, maintaining physical condition over the past 15 months has been a huge challenge for athletes. Yet for many, the hardest challenge is mental.

Here’s how they coped - plus some key takeaways for us non-athletes.

1. Staying flexible

Scrap your training schedule, write it again, repeat multiple times. With constant unpredictability and the cancellation of pre-Games competitions, Olympic athletes have had a hard time planning. Nonetheless, they looked for solutions and built a flexible routine.

“I know my body was hanging on by a bit of a thread. I’m going to have to talk to the coaches and figure out my training plan so I can peak at the right time.”
– Susannah Townsend, hockey player

Lesson learned: ruminating on something you cannot change is useless. Don’t let adversity and constraints discourage you. Instead, try problem-focused coping: face one obstacle at a time, firmly believing in your ability to find a way. Studies* have shown that having agency - that is, goal-directed determination - is correlated with vigor and a good, healthy mood.

2. Cultivating consistency

Sports create the perfect breeding ground for consistency. According to a study*, this is due to the high level of structure and to the challenges that are set before a competitor - no matter the circumstances. See Malaysian diver Pandelela Pamg: despite the pressure and the postponement of the Games, she chose to block out all the noise and show up for her training every single day, whenever possible.

“Malaysia has been under lockdown many times already. It's like the third time and it really is challenging because it affects our training, it affects our competition. But all in all, we athletes, it's our job to just continue training and also to give our best.”
– Pandelela Pamg, diver

Lesson learned: when struggling with anxiety, focus on the present moment and on what you can do to improve and feel better, right here, right now. Don’t think too much about the future. Whenever possible, don’t think too much at all. If it’s hard doing so, engage the mind and the senses with activities that bring the focus outside yourself and give you a sense of meaningfulness: the more you feel involved in something worthwhile, the better you’ll feel - that’s how it works for athletes*. If you’re short on ideas, try gardening, running, mindful walks, or a meditation app.

“Take away the Olympics, and a big chunk of my ‘why’ is gone.”
– Kate Nye, weightlifter and current world champion in the women’s 71 kilograms

3. Searching for emotional support

The lack of social contacts has put a strain on everyone. It’s been one of the hardest things to adjust for athletes over the past year; many of them have been traveling to train, or they had to stay in quarantine for extended periods, far from their loved ones.

During the Tokyo Olympics, the camaraderie will be sacrificed, too.

“If you're out, you stay to support your fellow athletes and experience the whole vibe. That’s definitely not something we can do now.”
– Madelein Meppelink, beach volleyball player

Forced to train indoors, alone and on a treadmill, Colleen Quigley found support in her trainer on Zoom, and heartening company in Pie, her two-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog.

“Like, I'm trying to do Pilates over Zoom with my Pilates teacher, and Pie is on top of me. We call it 'Pie-lates’, because she's all up in my business. It's comical.”
–Colleen Quigley, middle distance runner

Lesson learned: from video calls to Zoom meetings and online classes, any form of remote interaction helps. Seeing a familiar face or hearing a friendly voice and sharing thoughts, opinions and passions can be extremely uplifting, even through a screen. Psychologists also confirm* that actively searching for human connection and warmth has a positive correlation with vitality and strength.

United by emotion is this year’s Olympics’ motto. Let it be your motto.

Stay true to your vision