The Mental Struggle of Athletes During COVID


The Mental Struggle of Athletes During COVID

Margot Ciccarelli


Movement is a choice, but when your choice gets taken away from you — what do you do?

I am a full time combat sports athlete (specifically Brazilian Jiu jitsu) and I compete at the highest level of the sport. I usually train in New York City where lockdown hit the city severely and I was left with no training facility, no training partners and no competition to fight (legally speaking) for when lockdown was officially implemented. Lockdown happened a week before one of the biggest major championships in the 2020 calendar (the Pan American championship).

In this time of pandemic, fitness and movement is considered to be the least of our problems from a societal perspective. We imminently have to place a lot of trust in other people and constantly put ourselves in positions of vulnerability if we make the choice to enter a fitness establishment in these times. Combat sports is an entirely different ball game where measures are even more stringent.

For those of us who chose to be fitness professionals or athletes, our story is a little different. We depend on athletic events, gatherings, training to operate. A range of issues from identity, self worth, sense of purpose, salary are all jeopardised and at risk. How do even begin this salvage operation?

Fellow athletes, do not be afraid to reach out for help.

There are resources, there are people out there who can help but please, please, please prioritise your mental wellness. Our goals for this year may be shortchanged but the world doesn’t end here. If you will invest in physiotherapists and other recovery modalities, you should invest into understanding how your mind works better and therapy especially in these rocky times.

I believe this time will definitely shape a great part of our history and transform our society into what I hope will become a more human centric collective. All these pressing issues of change in our society and the emotions of a fed up and fatigued nation have inspired me to evaluate how can I add value and contribute with what I know how to do best. Teaching and developing learning practices during this time has helped me get through a lot of the lockdown period with a steadier sense of purpose (it’s good to have passion(s)!)

As a full time Jiu jitsu athlete, I have been at cruces of existential issues on numerous occasions. Giving your all and putting all your eggs into one basket has been something that I have been warned about since the moment I embarked on this journey of pursuing jiu jitsu rather than continuing into engineering and a life of security.

‘Working in the field will make you hate it!’

‘You’re better off getting a real job and doing this on the side.’

And man, those voices have been loud over the last few months in lockdown. My eggs are in this basket and here I am in my quarantine egg basket. I have had a lot of time for introspection lately and I keep asking myself questions about how the rest of my life looks like, how to be productive and enjoy each day from a more present mind.

I keep telling myself not to look so far ahead. It feels tough as I’ve always tried to look fairly ahead in terms of timelining my athletic targets and targets in general. This abundance of free time has given me the space to be socially distant from physicality but it has brought me closer to the mental domain of what I tucked away from my years of athletic tunnel vision. This is my mental movement.

‘Hello Margot. What is it that you really want? There’s so much you can do. You can do whatever you want everyday. Why are you in pain? Why do you find it difficult to get up in the morning? You’re paralysed in your mind. Your body will only move if your mind says get the f**k up. You’re okay, but you have to get up.’

thinking. thinking. thinking. F**k, I hate it sometimes. I know I am capable of doing so much but when I see what I have been putting out recently, I just feel this constant stream of frustration.

I just keep thinking all day and I have found myself identifying and scrutinizing my behaviours, addictions and coping mechanisms more than ever. A movement practice is one that is supposed to nourish your mind and body and I really realised how much my mind wasn’t nourished or prepared for this.

When I can’t achieve what I want to get done in the day I fall back to temporary pleasures to relieve my disappointment and try again the next day. I tell myself that I am trying my best but each day is really a struggle.

The movement I needed was verbal. I needed someone to talk to. I needed to prioritise the movement of thoughts in my head and understand why I feel so much pain and heartache, but at times I can be so blunted. Reframe my thoughts so I can operate a bit more optimally than in this eddie current of gray that I have been feeling for so long.

In a simpler sense, we could look at all of this and say I am/was depressed and have mild anxiety around being a freelance artist/athlete during this time. Sounds about right. I think the mind and what things like depression feels like changes throughout our lives depending on our experiences and I couldn’t fully comprehend what felt somewhat familiar but so different from what I’ve ever known.

Movement can mean a lot to people usually in regards to what we view externally. The complete motion picture of movement is a combination of health, balance, aesthetics and connection. I hold the perspective of it being a combination of internal and external wellness.

Getting up before 11am on most days was considered a success to me. Leaving the house before 3pm also became a mini success. I lowered my expectations and tried to recalibrate my feel for where I was at and how I could slowly accelerate back to what I felt was my ‘normal’ self. I couldn’t compare my March self to what I held for myself in February. This adjustment of expectations is what I needed for my mental wellness reality check.

Fast forwarding to today, (I started this article at least 4–5 months ago) I still struggle on a daily basis. I have some great days and some really bad days and I am still learning how to adjust my expectations. I have been conditioned to a competitive mindset in athletic sports for so many years now, it’s difficult for my self talk not to just tell myself to grow the f**k up and keep hustling. Maybe in a few weeks those are just the words I need, but what’s important is that we keeping moving, contributing and adding value where we can, train your mental muscles as well as your physical ones and drink more water.

Move when you can. If you can’t move physically, read. Sometimes, I just listen to people talk/discuss intellectual subjects on YouTube. Sometimes it’s nice to hear people talk without any expectation of responding. Find what helps you through the days until you can start slaying your days again. Keep living.

Being in denial and blunting your feelings won’t work forever. Tune in, feel the pain and come out of this stronger. Maybe not right now, but stay faithful you will.

This life is yours, it’s mine, it’s ours. It’s still here even with COVID.

Don’t let the pandemic take over your life, let’s learn to align our perceived reality with what’s actually in front of us and around us.

my inner thoughts from March 2020 + edited Oct 2020

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