COVID has affected everyone in different ways. Some people have thrived, some people have suffered horribly with mental health and declining physical health in isolation. It's shaped the story for everyone, in some way. The first lockdown felt productive, like we got a huge amount done. After the second one, I had so many expectations; that it would feel like the first time again, that I'd have improved the same amount, that I'd find it easy to transition back into having more people around me. I was completely wrong!
Having a continuous block of training without any reprise has been hard going mentally. There have been several points at which we thought we were going to race, and prepared accordingly. Which is a huge amount of building up, and then flopping. I found it completely exhausting, and in May crashed a little. As senior selection had finally been confirmed to go ahead in August, I had time to take a week completely off, and start a new block. I think beginning again and starting an extremely difficult physical block gave me the mental reset I needed. It felt great to finally get back into heavy sessions where I could feel the fitness coming back, and actually feel the effect recovery was having on me. It's weird because you never really realise you're losing something, until you take a break and come back to it.
I think this year has been a bit like a tech session. Sometimes you'll do a single move for the entire time. You might get it really nice once or twice at the start. Then for some reason, you can only get it ugly, or not at all, no matter how many times you paddle it. You can try switching off your brain, adding speed, taking off speed, for some reason it doesn't work. But then it comes up in a race, and you sail through the move like it was never difficult in the first place. I think what happens here, is coding. Your brain is learning every scenario, every change of water. That's the only explanation I have for periods when your paddling might be below the standard you usually expect, then you come back to it and it's like the way has opened up again. Stuff that seemed difficult when you were in a slump doesn't just feel easy, it feels like you can add speed.
I think the key thing to remember in these moments of coming back to a fresh brain, is that trying to hold onto them doesn't work. In my opinion, you can't force yourself out of a slump. Some people's slumps look very different to others. For one person it might be capsizing more often than they thought, and for another person it might be making the final but not the podium. The thing is, the faster you can accept your moment and relax, the faster it will go away.
I really believe that to master that element of athlete life is one of the hardest. I refused to accept that I was just mentally tired after the second lockdown. The first one had been productive and I'd felt good. Why couldn't I just be like that again? My issue is often that I just want to train through phases like this. I enjoy the pain of hard sessions, and I love the science of recovery. The first coffee after an extremely difficult session is one of my favourite moments in life. But sometimes, like with anything good, you have to do something you don't want to do. In this case, it was to back off, take some time, and live without judging myself for having a slump.
I like to compare it to turning off customer service. At the end of a full run, we're all about the same relative fitness at an international level. It's how easily you let the lactic acid affect your technique, and therefore the bottom of your run, that defines people who make finals and medal. My brain wants to complain to the customer service desk, and change something. The change might be to make it easier, which is simple - you don't go as fast. You take wider lines around the gates. But if you can find a way to turn off customer service, and save the complaints for later - you might just get the result, or get out of the slump, much faster than you think.