Although the fall is beginning to look uncertain again, many of our athletes (and their parents and coaches) have expressed a desire for their sporting lives to return back to the way things were. After facing new and continually unfolding challenges for over a year, it's not uncommon to long for "normal" practice, a reliable schedule, uncomplicated travel, and just something familiar.
In sport sciences, we're introduced to the idea of homeostasis which is the tendency for an organism to maintain its equilibrium above all else (McEwen & Wingfield, 2010). This concept puts forth that living things resist change and return to a set point as a self-regulating process for survival (McEwen & Wingfield, 2010; Ramsay & Woods, 2014).
The most easily understood example of this is our bodies way of maintaining thermoregulation (core temperature). If you get too hot, your body produces sweat to help cool you down. If you get too cold, your body begins to shiver to produce its own heat. These are extremely simplified explanations but we don't need to deep dive the science on this one to understand the concept. There are mechanisms designed to return your body to homeostasis and bring about balance.
Although our bodies love stability, homeostasis isn't the only mechanism at play within. In fact, our bodies and brains are also crazy adaptable (Massey, 2013).
Big picture: Our species (Homo sapiens) are considered the evolutionary champions of change and being able to roll with the punches is ingrained in our biology (Massey, 2013; Joyce, 2007). We, as a species, would not be here if we couldn't adapt and evolve over time which brings me to another concept: allostasis.
Allostasis is the process of achieving stability through change, not resisting it (Ramsay & Woods, 2014).
"More specifically, Sterling and Eyer (1988) coined the term 'allostasis' to reflect the process whereby in order to be adaptive, organisms must be able to change the defended levels of one or more regulated parameters as needed to adjust to new or changing environments"
(Ramsay & Woods, 2014).
To provide an example, I'll draw from something personal I experience as an avid hiker and mountaineer - heel blisters.
I spent a fall trekking and climbing in Nepal. I stomped around in my favorite pair of well worn-in hiking boots but once my expedition team reached 15,000' (4572m), and we began traversing glaciers and practicing ice climbing, we switched to unforgiving mountaineering boots and crampons. For those who've never had the pleasure, mountaineering boots are extremely stiff. They're meant to be more fitted (but not too tight to allow for altitude swelling), designed to keep the heat in, and happen to be heavy and clunky. I won't say it's your foot's worst nightmare as I have seen ballerinas' feet... but it's up there. As you can imagine, within the first day of switching, unpleasant blisters formed on the backs of my heels. However, about a week or so later when we were making a bid for the summit, my feet had became accustomed to the mountaineering boots. And the blisters? No more. Instead, they were replaced by hardened calluses.
This wasn't a result of homeostasis as the skin on the back of my heels didn't return to its normal, fixed point of smoothness; rather, it was a result of allostasis forming tougher skin meet the current demands of its new environment.
This natural form of adaptation isn't to preserve who you once were, it moves you forward to create a new you, and usually with greater ability to face challenges.
What I was learning about human biology, homeostasis vs. allostasis, I couldn't help but draw the parallels to psychological resilience and the work I conduct with my athletes.
Resilience is "the role of mental processes and behavior in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors" (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013). This refers to one's ability to navigate difficulties or stressors and "bounce back". What we understand about allostasis that we could better understand about resiliency though is that we're not bouncing back to who we once were, but building ourselves back up to bound forward.
This ongoing pandemic presents everyone, let alone athletes and coaches, with the opportunity to practice resiliency that can translate into any area of life. I hope, if anything, the intro to this article revealed to you that we're actually hardwired to do so. It is in your biology. So when we take stock of what we've been doing and trying to decide what to do moving forward, ask: Does it serve you, your needs and goals, to maintain here? Or does it serve you to change here?
When I work with athletes on mental skills and we talk about coping mechanism, I often ask 'is what we're doing (whether it's problem-focused or emotion-focused) helpful or unhelpful towards what we want to achieve?' rather than good or bad/ positive or negative. There's a time and place for different coping techniques, but are we employing tactics to "survive"... or to thrive?
Key mechanisms for adaptation in allostasis include (Ramsay & Woods, 2014; McEwen & Karatsoreos; 2011):
1) relying on past experience and learning from past events;
2) changing the points (instead of returning to a set fixed points) to cope with the demands presented by the environmental changes; and,
3) regulating the activation of multiple responses to arrive at the most cost-beneficial compromise.
We can use these same mechanisms to direct our actions and build psychological resilience.
1. Learning from past experience is self-explanatory and translates easily from allostasis to resilience. But mechanism #2, changing our "points" may seem less obvious. The "points" allostasis refers to are biological markers but we can also think of our "points" as mindset and mentality when referring to resiliency.
In sport, this may look like trying to find meaning after a loss or unsatisfactory performance. We can continue to see it as a failure, or we can see it as a learning moment. This is an example of 'Growth Mindset' that we can use both retroactively (after something has occurred) and proactively when we are faced with new challenges. We can appraise the upcoming situation as threatening, lament over what's outside of our control increasing our anxiety heading into it, or we can perceive the upcoming situation as an opportunity to exercise what's inside our control. If you've been putting in the work, come game day, physically not much changes, but your mentality can.
The same is true of life and what we've collectively been experiencing through out the pandemic. The brain is the key organ in the stress process and will determine what we experience as stressful (McEwen & Gianaros, 2014). We can still seek learning opportunities while things are canceled, or at half practice instead of full practice. It could also look like proactively managing expectations for season while covid-19 continues to ebb and flow outside of our control and focus on what we can do in case things don't go according to plan. Adopting an optimistic explanatory style and growth mindset aid in managing difficulties resiliently and allows us to pivot instead of shut down.
2. Research has shown that how we respond to stress has important consequences (both good and bad) for our functioning (Jamieson et al., 2012). When we believe we have the resources to cope with stress, we find ourselves responding to challenges and experience more positive outcomes (Walinga, 2012). When we do not think we can cope, we find ourselves reacting which may include negative or impulsive decision making (Walinga, 2012). Imagine an athlete in a high-pressured situation who ends up choking. They may be a great player but when nerves take over we resort to what's automatic for us and not always what's best for us. Like-wise, the pandemic is one giant pressured situation that evoke nerves of varying degrees in different situations.
It's true that learning how to respond instead of react takes time through repetition and consistency of what it is we would like to do instead. Remember how we said the brain is the key organ in the stress process and will determine what we experience as stressful (McEwen & Gianaros, 2014)? It also will determine how we respond (or react) to those stressors (McEwen & Gianaros, 2014).
The concept for how our brains adapt to changing circumstances and how we form new habits is called neuroplasticity (Berkman, 2018; Sentis, 2012). The simplest way that I teach this concept is to have someone imagine their brain with a bunch of high-functioning highway systems. They're highly function because they've been ingrained over time to handle heavy traffic. However, if you want to create a new path, you have to start somewhere and just keep choosing to drive down that road instead. At first, it’s easier said than done, and it may feel more like off-roading down an uneven dirt path. But the more you drive it, the more it smooths out, builds efficiency, and becomes a part of your system. It becomes familiar.
Athletes can learn how to regulate their emotions and control arousal responses through mental skills training and applying various cognitive and somatic techniques. Overtime they find they become less reactive and more responsive, and regulating the application of those skills and making better choices to create resilient patterning when faced with difficulties.
Our bodies and brains are designed to adapt. If there's one thing you can actively choose during the lingering pandemic, whether it's for your performance or life, it's that you can be resilient in the face of change instead of resistant. When you look back on this time, what do you want to say about it?
McEwen, B.S. & Wingfield, J.C. (2010). What's in a name? Integrating homeostasis, allostasis and stress. Horm Behav., 57(2).
Ramsay, D. S., & Woods, S. C. (2014). Clarifying the roles of homeostasis and allostasis in physiological regulation. Psychol Rev., 121(2).
Massey, N. (2013). Humans may be the most adaptive species. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/humans-may-be-most-adaptive-species/
Joyce, C. (2007). Human history shows a gift for adaptability. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12344547
McEwen, B.S. & Karatsoreos, L. N. (2011). Psychobiological allostasis: resistance, resilience and vulnerability. Trends Cogn Sci., 15(12).
Fletcher X.X., & Sarkar, X. (2013) WORDS. More words, X(X).
McEwen, B.S., & Gianaros, P. J. (2014). Stress and allostasis induced brain plasticity. Annu Rev Med., 62.
Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M.K., & Berry Mendes, W. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. J Exp Psychol Gen, 141(3).
Walinga, J. (2012). Stress and Coping. In C. Stagnor & J. Walinga (Eds.) Introduction to Psychology (1st ed.) retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/15-2-stress-and-coping/
Berkman, E.T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consult Psychol J., 70(1).
Sentis (2012, November 6). Neuroplasticity [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELpfYCZa87g
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