Pandemic Athletes – Transforming Obstacles into Opportunities

Recent stories in the news highlight how the pandemic is affecting high school athletes and the fact that many of them won’t have a season this year. I move around town and hear parents talk about their child missing out on their senior year and the activities that come with that. However, in my mind, 2020 has become a year of re-commitment to that which is meaningful to me and the pandemic has focused my efforts in both my writing/speaking and my athletic pursuits. Part of the beauty in athletics is that victory is often tied to one’s ability to let go of a bad play/sequence and move on. An athlete that can make a mistake and immediately learn and move on, has a much better chance of success than an athlete that dwells. A team that can immediately push past a bad call by a referee has a much better chance of success than the team that unravels because the call wasn’t ‘fair’. Is this not one of the most useful skills in life? The pandemic is a great opportunity to practice this skill.

I’ve briefly mentioned my Mixed Martial Arts Training and how it’s evolved during this time where gyms are closed or, open with limited offerings. When the country started shutting down, my initial instinct in my training was to begin getting on YouTube and taking a look at the drills that I could do on my own. There is a wealth of free knowledge online in regards to athletics. Assuming that I’m able to return to a gym safely in the second half of 2021, I think I’ll be a much sharper fighter and in much better shape, versus the last live class I did back in March 2020.

This is where I see a massive opportunity for serious competitive athletes right now. If a person can gather the the will and determination to put themselves on a well thought out regimen of learning and exercise, who can they be relative to their competition when things open back up? I would argue that most people won’t choose the self-discipline to continue working diligently in isolation. So, as an athlete, who can you surpass in skill level based on the fact that you found a way to keep going where others gave up?

The reality is, people having been battling the barrier of access for as long as humans have been competing in sports. People have been improvising in light of their lack of certain equipment/facilities, forever. Take World Champion Javelin Thrower, Julius Yego, from rural Kenya:

Julius taught himself to throw the javelin from YouTube videos. He used tree branches at the beginning of his career.

Growing up, his parents were farmers. There was no electricity in his home and, daily, he walked to school barefoot. In the video he mentions that parents in Africa often emphasize education as a way for their children to be successful in life (sound familiar?). Of course, in this context the word ‘education’ means going to school and eventually university to get a science degree and eventually a high paying job. When I went to school at the University of Houston, I had many Nigerian/Kenyan friends who were doing just that. Often, majoring in Engineering like myself. But Julius decided to go a very different route.

As a kid he played a game with friends where they would see how far they could throw long tree branches. At some point he realized that competitive Javelin was an option. But he had no coach, no facilities, and no equipment. He improvised with the resources he had. He went to a local internet cafe in town and began watching YouTube videos of great Javelin Throwers. The next day he would practice what he had learned the using the tree branches in the open fields near his home. As the video shows, eventually he made it to the world stage and became a champion. Savage.

I first heard this story about 5 years ago. It is one that has been imprinted on my mind ever since. We need opportunities but we also need perspective. For Julius Yego, he saw another type of education being available to him. He saw the sticks from the trees and the open fields surrounding his farming community as a great training ground to begin his journey. He saw the internet cafe and YouTube as a place where he could receive world class instruction in a sport that didn’t exist in Kenya. Did he plant the trees? No. Did he build the internet cafe? No. Did he create YouTube? No. Did he express the agency to maximize those opportunities? Absolutely!

As for me, would it be nice to still be in live training sessions with coaches and sparring partners? Yes. Over the past 8 years it’s been challenging for me to get into martial arts and train consistently because I always thought I had to have a gym/coaches in order to train effectively. This just isn’t true. It’s profound what resources emerge in our environment if we decide to exercise some creativity. Nuance in movement comes through repetition and being much more aware of body positioning. This heightened awareness is easier to attain when I’m by myself. Add to that, watching professional fights online and studying the lifestyles of some of the greatest professional fighters has deepened my knowledge of combat sports. I definitely would like to teach/coach one day and solo training will probably always be a part of my routine.

There’s no magic in this folks. It’s a simple choice to not waste time focusing on what you don’t have and aggressively attack the problem with what you do have. Loss comes in different forms and the disappointment that a lot of young athletes feel right now is very real. However, grief doesn’t have to mean that you stop. As a matter of fact, grief/pain have often been some of the most powerful motivators in inspiring me to continue growing and pushing towards my goals. Grieve while you grind. The two can go in tandem.

Are you going to get bitter or better? Some of us are extroverts struggling with isolation. Some of us have lost jobs because our industry was wiped out. Some of us have had our plans for graduation and the next phase of life totally upended. What do you need to do in order to find the upside and move forward? Also, practice creativity. How can you transform the way you look at barriers and make them tools for personal growth?

-Travis

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