Mentally Stay in the Game

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The Ebbs and Flows of Motivation During Quarantine

When news broke of the postponement of the Olympics in late March, it felt like time had stopped. It represented the culmination of a series of unfortunate COVID-19 related cancellations; my teammates’ collegiate season, various other national sporting events and even the final project I had been diligently working on for work. 

Myself and the group I had been training with felt sad, disappointed, and most of all, lost. Having worked up until that point with one goal in mind–one that felt so near–it was difficult not to trap ourselves into thinking it was all for naught.  

Mokhtar Al-Yamani
Photo credit: Al-Yamani Family

Within days, many of my closest friends had gone home and/or otherwise dispersed. Four months later, it still baffles me how drastically everything had changed seemingly overnight. One day you’re playing board games with others and the next day you’re alone. It really makes you appreciate the things you used to take for granted. 

For many, the time since has been a period of deep introspection and self exploration. However, I quickly found that this is much easier said than done. 

Amidst the day-to-day uncertainty of quarantine, I found myself losing motivation, direction and a sense of purpose–all of which took a toll on my mental health, something I had long ignored and at times neglected.

The intricate 2-hour workout programs I had written for myself in the first week of quarantine with the hopes of remembering a sense of normalcy began collecting dust on the walls. I found myself spending more time on the couch, mindlessly scrolling through social media or playing video games and watching each day dissolve into the next. After all, it was much easier to lay on the couch and binge Netflix than it was to find the drive to work out in a living room with 3 borrowed dumbbells.  

While it may have taken longer than I am proud to admit, I realized that this was in no way an ideal lifestyle. Slowly, I dug myself out of this hole of unproductivity and I’d like to share with you the systems I developed so you can, too.  

5 Things You Can do to Mentally “Stay in the Game”

  1. Acknowledge your strengths (and your weaknesses!).
  2. Write your goals down.
  3. Set action items every day.
  4. Explore new hobbies that excite you.
  5. Understand that making mistakes is ok!
Mokhtar Al-Yamani
Photo credit: Al-Yamani Family

1. Acknowledge Your Strengths (and your weaknesses!)

Quarantine has caused a tremendous restructuring of our daily lives. For many, it means a lot of free time during which you’re constantly challenged to find productive things to do.  Use this time to your advantage!  Sit down and think about when you are the most excited to do something, and when you have difficulty keeping motivation.  Here are some observations I made:

Strengths:

  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Coming up with creative and expressive ideas
  • Making goal adjustments as circumstances arise

Areas for Improvement:

  • Self discipline when there is no explicit direction
  • Biting off more than I can chew–think: the rabbit and the hare!
  • Negative self talk
  • Managing stress levels outside of my sport

This list is unique to each individual, but outlining your traits in this way may help provide a better framework to think about your goals. Pre-COVID, it would have taken me a lot longer to realize my areas for improvement, especially when it comes to learning to be a self-driver. Now, I am learning how to “direct” myself, one step at a time! (See: Step 3)

2. Write Your Goals Down

This is a habit I picked up from one of my teammates, and has become ever so important to me during quarantine when the light at the end of the tunnel seems so distant! 

Physically writing my short term and long term goals for my athletic/academic/interpersonal lives (tailor these categories to your priorities) serves as a visual reminder for what I should be striving to achieve. I’ve found this clear goal sheet to calm me down when I feel overwhelmed with feelings of stagnation and/or unproductivity. 

Mokhtar Al-Yamani
Photo credit: Al-Yamani Family

3. Set Action Items Every Day


During the swim season, it’s relatively easy to set goals for yourself. Times at meets are often a clear metric for your training success…but with no meets (or even a pool training environment!) in sight, it becomes increasingly difficult to measure your progress. After realizing my struggles early on during quarantine with sticking to intricate, rigid programs, I found success in setting small goals and action items to provide more structure and purpose to my days. 

Below is a sample of my to-do lists: 

Tues, July 28Wednesday, July 29Thursday, July 30
Wake up→10 minute ab circuit 110 minute ab circuit 2, 15 mins jump rope10 minute yoga circuit 1, 15 mins jump rope
P1: Complete finance/accounting homework (2h)P1: Set up interview phone call with ___ for __ projectP1: Finish watching class lecture videos (0.5h remaining from yesterday)
P2: Brainstorm ideas for Athlete Approved projectP2: Watch class lecture videos (2h)P2: Sell furniture on FB Marketplace
P3:Unpack + Set up new bedroom (1h)P3: Make veggie burgers with ___ for dinnerP3: Zoom call with teammates @ 7pm
Sample of Mokhtar’s To-Do List

I knew I was a morning person, so I scheduled my more important tasks at the beginning of the day (P1 = Priority 1, P2 = Priority 2…) fitting in a small workout immediately after waking up.  Maximize when you are the most productive by getting the things you want done, out of the way! 

While I found myself struggling to keep up a regular routine of solo 2-hour workouts, breaking them up into chunks throughout the day was significantly less daunting and attainable for my personality.  

4. Explore New Hobbies that Excite You

Whether you’re working or your days are now relatively wide open, taking on new hobbies and exploring new interests is a great way to mentally reset from the chaos around you. 

Painting and rediscovering my passion for skateboarding have kept me stimulated and active! Constantly adapting to make the mundane days more enjoyable and having pockets of “fun” to look forward to is crucial to developing a healthier mind.

5. Understand that Making Mistakes is Ok!

Facing adversity, overcoming fears and developing goals are valuable skill sets that transcend swimming–but it won’t always be easy! There are times when you may not hit all of your action items, or find yourself snacking more than you had planned to.

Rather than getting too down on yourself and leading to a total burnout (like I did), refer back to your goal sheet and realize this we are playing the long game! 

Quarantine has made me confront many aspects of my personality that I had long misunderstood or didn’t realize, and every day is still a challenge of discipline. As with anything you do, athletics or otherwise, there will always be an element of mental preparedness that is necessary to perform at the elite level. 

Heading towards the Tokyo Olympics next summer, I acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of learning that can be done outside of the pool, and hope to be the best I can be when pools open back up!

About the Author

Mokhtar Al-Yamani
Photo credit: Al-Yamani Family

Mokhtar is a competitive swimmer of 16 years who has experience training and racing at both the national and international level. Prior to Athlete Approved, he was a captain of the University of Michigan Men’s Swimming and Diving Team (’19) and has represented Yemen in numerous international competitions including the 2017/19 World Championships. 

He hopes to share his love for the sport with athletes of all ages, and is currently training for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. See our Open Water Swimming Guide video and article featuring Mokhtar.

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