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Exercise as Therapy: How to Plan Training and Racing For an Athlete Going Through a Crisis

BY Mackenzie Madison

Exercise as therapy can be a valuable tool for an athlete going through a crisis. Here is how to identify a possible personal crisis in your athlete’s life, and how to provide them with the support and training they need to help them cope, recover and thrive.

Exercise has been proven countless times to be one of the most powerful, cure-all treatments for overall physical and mental health. Training and racing is a critical staple in any athlete’s life. Training forms a lifestyle foundation that supports all of our daily interactions, relationships, careers and many other aspects in our lives.

Without the training foundation, an athlete’s life can rapidly snowball downward. For an athlete, training provides a way to help manage their life. When an athlete is struck with a crisis, every aspect of their life is shaken up. A crisis is defined as a loss—either emotionally or physically. It is imperative for you as the coach to help your athlete maintain their training and racing to prevent further loss and keep them on track.

Here are some essential pointers for coaching an athlete during a crisis.

Recognize a Crisis

The first step is recognizing that your athlete is going through a crisis. Any change in athlete behavior, training or motivation should be a signal to reach out and communicate with your athlete.

Frequently the athlete can be in denial of their current crisis. Bringing the situation out into an open line of communication allows for you to understand more of what your athlete is going through in order to help them use their training as a beneficial and therapeutic experience.

Your role as a coach is not just about the training. Coaching requires undertaking several roles: a teacher, a psychologist and most importantly a source of support.

Elite coach Jim Vance expresses the importance of recognizing when an athlete is self-sabotaging. “Most athletes are completely unaware that they are self-sabotaging when dealing with a life challenge. Pinpointing how they are self-sabotaging helps you as the coach to help stop those behaviors and counterbalance it with training.”

Sabotaging creates problems that interfere with long-standing goals often exhibited by unhealthy coping mechanisms. Recognizing these behaviors and actions is the first step to helping your athlete use training as a healing tool.

Promote Training as Self-Care

Make it your athlete’s primary goal to take care of themselves by maintaining the basic essential health habits such as healthy eating, sleeping, personal relaxation and training.

Life is about managing the necessary daily and longterm needs as required. Redirect their energy to taking care of themselves and making sure the basics are covered.

Coach them to eliminate distractions and simplify their daily activities—even if it means saying “no” to others. Training provides a plethora of physical and mental health benefits that transcend into overall daily life. Training helps to keep your athlete grounded and focused.

However, on the flip side, an athlete can oftentimes train too much during a hardship and run themselves into the ground. Training too much worsens the crisis and significantly increases the chances of burnout and cessation of training altogether.

Maintaining health is your athlete’s key priority. Stress the importance of training being therapeutic and beneficial as a staple to their overall health during their crisis.  At the start of their crisis it helps to simplify their training initially to make it as easy as possible for them to continue training. Over time you can gradually increase their training to the previous complexity level.

Maintain Training Consistency

Some training is always better than no training—especially during a crisis. Strive for the athlete to focus on sticking with the current training schedule. “When athletes stray from the plan by missing or changing workouts the sense of fulfillment derived from the training is lost,” says coach Jim Vance. “If the athlete is serious about racing and doesn’t achieve the results they wanted, the overall training desire and motivation drops fast and snowballs—which creates general life issues. When the athlete is in a crisis you don’t want to create another loss.”

To maintain training compliance, simplify their training and provide small, attainable goals for the week. Just getting out the door for an athlete can be extremely challenging while experiencing a crisis.

Push for the athlete to train in the early morning instead of the evening. Starting the day off with training creates an instant therapeutic session to help them cope with the rest of the day.

Redirect Energy

The stress of a crisis creates a lot of negative energy. In sport, mental toughness is just as important as physical toughness. In training and racing athletes are thrown curveballs constantly.

Part of being an athlete is overcoming these adversities. Your athlete can use their crisis as a platform for personal growth and developing mental strength. Have the athlete harness the energy from their hardship and channel it toward training as an outlet.

Suggest that your athlete dedicate their training or race for their hardship. Turn their training and racing into their positive “why.” Use the training as a tool to overcome personal hardship. Training allows for mental objectivity and processing about their crisis. Training can also eliminate the stress and mental challenges of their crisis by focusing on the present and being in the “now” of training.

Provide a Support Network

Your athlete needs an outside support network on top of using training for therapy. As their coach you are one of their supporters—but you shouldn’t be the only one.

Suggest visiting a counselor to help them work through their emotions, especially if the crisis is severe. The more your athlete interacts and makes commitments with others the better.

Increase their training accountability by rearranging their training plan so they can train with others. Do expect to check in and interact with your athlete more—perhaps by chatting on the phone or meeting up.

Or, instead of increased communication, change the focus and dialect of your interactions to better your athlete’s needs during their crisis. When your athlete starts going through a crisis, back down the higher training and racing expectations in the beginning.

Your athlete will be able to see success and accomplishment versus the negative emotions associated with failing. Set your athlete up for success in their training.

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About Mackenzie Madison

Mackenzie Madison is a professional triathlete and USAT certified coach. She has been competing in triathlon for 18 years and coaching for 15 years. Mackenzie acquired her B.S. in Kinesiology & Coaching and Masters in Exercise Physiology. She is also a former D1 runner and elite cyclist. Mackenzie is also an instructor at the University of Oregon. Learn more about Mackenzie at www.kenzmadison.com.