The last few weeks have been challenging for everyone. Uncertainty abounds, and difficult decisions weigh on us all. It appears that these trials will only intensify as the COVID-19 crisis continues, so what should we do?
One way to get through this crisis is to adopt the mindset of a world-class athlete.
Mark Mathews is one of the most successful big wave surfers in the world, in part due to his capacity to cognitively reframe situations so they could become more manageable. Reframing is a tremendous skill to possess and one we can all use to face the uncertainty of this pandemic.
In October 2016, and Mark was about to surf a terrifying wave on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia. He was feeling the pressure to perform, even though he’d only been back surfing for one month after a nine-month recovery from a serious shoulder injury suffered on the infamous Jaws wave in Maui. Mark knew he was pushing his recovery in order to be back. “I was nervous about getting hurt again,” he says. “I had never surfed this wave before.”
Before Mark surfs a dangerous wave, he performs a pre-surf ritual to focus his mind. “Fear is a big part of what I do,” he says, “so dealing with it effectively is critical to my performance.” Using simple breathing techniques to slow down his mind, Mark concentrates on feelings of excitement rather than anxiety while reflecting on why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Mark’s first ride that October day was perfect as he swept out of the end of the glowing green barrel and rode safely over the remaining lip. His second wave was also in the eight-foot range, but it was chunkier than the first. He didn’t like it and attempted to escape. “I tried to dive off early and get out the back of the wave so I wouldn’t have to deal with a wipeout,” he says. “The wave picked me up and slammed me feet first into the reef.” The rest became a blur.
Mark’s right leg took the full impact when he was slammed onto the reef. The force of the blow dislocated his knee, fractured his shin, ruptured his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments, and ripped through his artery and nerve.
The prognosis was bad. Mark was told that his surfing career was over. Luckily, he kept his leg, but he’d always walk with a limp.
While recovering in the hospital, Mark struggled with depression. One day, a boy named Jason paid him a visit. “He rolled into my room in an electric wheelchair,” says Mark. “The kid — he was just a kid — was quadriplegic. He had broken his neck mountain biking.”
A switch flipped in Mark. “Straight away, complete change in the way I perceived my situation,” says Mark. “Now, all of a sudden, I was the luckiest man on earth.”
Our ability to consciously manage our emotional response to a setback and transform the negative emotions we feel into more positive ones is called cognitive reappraisal. It’s what Mark did in his hospital room, and it’s what we can all do with the high levels of uncertainty presented to us by the current crisis — and beyond it.
To develop the capacity to reappraise, start small and build your capacity over time. Even though the omnipresent challenges of the pandemic have thrown us in the proverbial deep end, we need to break down day-to-day challenges into small chunks and try reframing them. The idea is to start building an instinct to reappraise through small wins.
Clinical psychologist George Bonanno from Columbia University’s Teachers College has found in his research that “every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it.” His studies show that how we experience something depends on how we frame it: “The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.” Simply put, we have the power to find the bright side of any experience, and it’s better for us if we do.
Here are a few ideas for practicing cognitive reappraisal:
1. Take a Broader View
You’re likely working from home at the moment. Rather than seeing this situation as a major inconvenience, try to recognize it as an opportunity to spend more time with your family or to be thankful for your health and safety.
2. Appreciate the Opportunity to Reset
You may have had to make tough decisions about how to pivot your business or team to work in a virtual setting. Instead of seeing this reorganization as a setback, consider it an enhancement to your tool kit.
3. Look Beyond the Hype
As humans, our natural tendency is to watch for threats and to protect ourselves. Binging on media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis can exacerbate that sense of threat. It takes effort to pause, recognize and reappraise the things we can be grateful for during this challenging time, but doing so can be very beneficial.
Reappraising the COVID-19 situation is exactly the type of approach surfer Mark Mathews would take, and it’s one we can take, too.
As for Mark’s career being over, 14 months after his injury, he paddled out at Maroubra, his home break in Sydney. With help from a custom brace stabilizing his ankle, he caught some small waves on his longboard. It was a far cry from the monster faces that defined his big-wave surfing career but, in many ways, was just as meaningful. He’s begun talking about surfing giants again and doing what everyone, including himself, thought was impossible a year ago.