words :: Molly Hurford.
As we head into our second winter in the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions are loosening up but the world is still far from normal. For professional athletes, it’s been especially difficult: How do you train for a season that may not happen? And in sports like alpine racing where stress is already high on competition days, how does the added stress of global shutdowns change their outlook? If you’ve been struggling with heightened stress and anxiety in the past two years, know that you’re not alone.
Recently, Colorado-based epidemiology researcher and running coach Megan Roche, M.D., helped lead a study in partnership with Strava and Stanford University looking at stress and anxiety reported by professional athletes during the pandemic. The results were jarring: One in five athletes reported difficulty exercising related to mental health, motivation and COVID-19. Reports of depressed and anxious feelings increased sixfold during the earlier stages of the pandemic.
This survey might sound scary, but in some ways it’s positive: It’s showing that athletes are getting more comfortable sharing their mental health struggles. “It’s great to see so many professional athletes talking openly about their struggles with anxiety and stress,” says Krista Chandler, Ph.D., a professor in the Sport and Exercise Psychology Laboratory at Ontario’s University of Windsor. “I think that allows amateur and recreational athletes to realize that it’s okay to have those feelings.”
Toronto-born FIS alpine World Cup skier Ali Nullmeyer is no stranger to high-pressure situations as a slalom racer, and she’s also familiar with adversity. After winning the overall 2017 NorAm Cup, a crash in 2018 sidelined her for nearly a year. Now the 23-year-old, who grew up skiing at The Georgian Peaks Club, is preparing for another season that will likely be impacted by restrictions and lockdowns, testing requirements, travel quarantines and delays. But as she takes a break from her economics homework at Middlebury College in Vermont to chat with Mountain Life about handling the anxiety and pressure of even more unknowns, she seems to have a good handle on her mental well-being.
Life on the road for much of the year, chasing snow for training and competing, can be stressful, but Nullmeyer has learned the way to deal with anxiety from an overwhelming calendar is to be organized. “I have a day planner and I spend time planning things out in there. If I had a really busy week, I’ll plan everything down to the hour,” she says.
While it might seem like balancing school and skiing together would add stress, Nullmeyer believes her stress is better managed because she has different outlets and facets to her life. Similar to how amateur athletes turn to skiing to take their minds off of a tough workday, Nullmeyer turns to school to get a forced mental break from skiing, and vice versa. “Even though it’s busy, school has been a good way for me to handle the pressures of the sport,” she says. “It’s just something for me to get my mind off skiing, where it can be hard not to think about things you could have done better. School is a way for me to decompress from skiing, in a sense.”
“We have control over what attitude we come to practice with,” adds Chandler. “There are always going to be stressors in our lives, but an athlete can develop the ability to put those stressors aside and focus on the task at hand. So even if you have stress or anxiety around work, when you step outside for the run, you can stop focusing on those stressors and instead focus on the benefits of getting outside and getting that run in today.”
For Nullmeyer, COVID cancelling a season and a half thus far was particularly tough because she had just recovered from an injury. “COVID started during the first year I’d really come back from my injury. It took me longer to get back into the swing of things and back to World Cup level,” she recalls. “But I was starting to ski better. I had just gotten my first World Cup point, and that’s when everything shut down.”
When she did finally get back to the slopes, it was a different world. “It wasn’t the normal European experience; we were just in condos trying to stay away from people and trying to minimize exposure,” she says. “The worry about testing positive and not being able to race added a whole other component as well.”
But while Nullmeyer was less than optimistic about the season, she realized her internal motivation was actually stronger than ever. “At the beginning of last season, I thought the season might be canceled. I started asking Why am I doing this if the season is just going to get canceled? That made me come back to my love of the sport. The fact that we were all still out there training, not knowing if we’re going to have a season, just proves how much we love ski racing. Now I approach training as if everything is normal, and then if something does happen, I deal with it as it comes.”
This time has also taught her the importance of paying attention to how she’s feeling—not physically, but emotionally and mentally—in order to avoid those feelings of being overwhelmed. “The more organized I can be with everything, the easier it is to get to sleep at night,” she says. “If I wake up and start thinking of something I need to do, then I just get up, write it all down and then I can fall asleep way easier because it’s written down and captured.”
Chandler is a fan of journaling as well, as a way to tame the anxiety beast within. “You don’t need to make it a precious activity, but take some time to reflect on your workout or your day as a whole,” she says. “Ask things like What did I do today that allowed me to feel so great and how can I recreate that? And conversely, Why did I feel bad, and how can I change that? This helps athletes start to notice patterns.”
As with anything, it’s about balance. “For me, what I learned last year is that I definitely need some time alone. And whether that’s watching a show or just being by myself going on a walk or something like that, it’s important,” adds Nullmeyer. “I try to build in times of the day that I can just relax. Otherwise, I think I get a little too overstimulated with everything and that’s when I struggle. It’s all about building in that time to do whatever I want and not have to worry about socializing or this or that.”
If you’re struggling with anxiety or just a lot of stress in your life, there’s no one “right” solution. For some, talking to a professional may help ease anxiety or learn ways to manage it. For others, journaling can help work through stressors and find solutions to problems. And for some, simply taking a morning to enjoy some time on the slopes—without thinking about getting faster or stronger—can be the best anxiety buster of them all.