When The Chips Are Down

The relationship between athletes and social media is a difficult one, as TA athlete Scott Bowden unravels the highs and lows of what goes on behind the scenes.
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Athlete Topic
August 27, 2020

2019 was easily the most enjoyable year of racing I’ve ever had…

It’s hard to ask much more than spending over sixty days racing across Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe and North America, enjoying the sights and sounds of the world and spending time with some great people.

The season finished with a number of personal achievements and was capped off with a handful of top-ten results, all of which left me super eager to accomplish the big goals I had set for 2020.

Yet, even before the full impacts of COVID-19 set in across the world, these ambitions were quickly turned upside down.

Chatting with Dominic at what was close to the peak of my downtime, we thought it appropriate to pen a piece on the ever changing relationship athletes, of all levels, have with social media.

“When The Chips Are Down” kept coming up as a relevant title.

Thinking back, this term to me was referring to the resistance to post on social media platforms - like Instagram and Facebook - when things aren’t going your way.  

When training or competition are going well, there’s that internal drive to share these moments - yet, for whatever reason, we often don’t share the bad times anywhere near as much.

In this article for the Tassie Athlete, we chat about why that might be...

After a break during the middle stages of 2019 to refresh and recover from a lot of travel and racing, I began working hard in October to lay down the foundations for the season to come.

I remember so specifically the feeling on January 1st 2020 when I realised that something wasn’t quite right. It was just little things like not being able to keep up on a training ride and feeling incredibly fatigued – amplified by the fact that after a few easy days, I wasn’t feeling any better.

Actually, I felt worse.

Eventually I pulled the trigger and had a blood test and which revealed that I had Epstein Barr Virus/glandular fever.

What was supposed to be a big start to 2020 turned out to be six weeks, where I was sleeping 12-16 hours a day and not doing not much in the hours I was actually awake. A lot the time I was too tired to even watch Netflix or even make a cup of tea or coffee; two things I love.

To be sitting on the sidelines watching the National Championships, Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Herald Sun Tour was extremely tough, especially from a mental point of view.

Although I followed these races, deep down it wasn’t something I wanted to talk about as I struggled to come to terms with the idea that it could take me months to recover from the virus.

On top of the fatigue and drowsiness, I got a bacterial infection (tonsillitis and bronchitis).

I did my best to focus on what I could do initially, which was a lot of reading. One of the only highlights of this downtime was that I read about 18 books in a few months.

Another aspect that really helped pick me back up was catching up with my mates more once I got some more energy and strength back, where I could open up about what I was going through.

Thankfully, I recovered relatively quickly in comparison to others, who can be affected for well over twelve months by glandular fever. By mid-February I started to go for some short, easy rides – I guess more importantly though I began to feel closer to my usual self.

After having spent what felt like an eternity inside cooped up, often in bed with no energy and aching muscles, I also had the urge to go for a couple of runs.

I definitely didn’t need to be running...

My bad luck continued after I developed a femoral neck stress reaction which, due to the location, was far more serious than I had thought. To recover, I had to spend a couple of weeks on crutches followed by a very gradual progression back into training.

At this point, I had more or less written off the season and has plenty of thoughts of moving onto the next chapter of life - especially stepping back from racing at a competitive level.

Reflecting back on that time, I got so bundled up into the headspace that my cycling would be make or break because of the injury, that this wasn’t a good time to be making big decisions, being in such a clouded state of mind.

Despite thinking things were quite doom and gloom, in a roundabout way, the injury forced me to think about other areas in my life; my future, my study ambitions and my career.  

I’ve been so focussed on cycling since I finished school, that in hindsight it was actually nice to just completely turn off from it for a while.

For athletes, there's often the internal feeling that ‘you are your sport’ - that your involvement or achievements define you, that it’s your identity.

I just didn’t feel like I was a cyclist anymore during this time.

I had very much withdrawn from the cycling world and a part of that was I had stopped posting on social media. I honestly just felt that I had nothing to post about.

Personally, while I think it’s important to be transparent on social media to the perils of elite sport – at the end of the day nobody likes to be perceived as negative.

Reflecting on the times over a coffee with the Tassie Athlete lads, we discussed how everyone prefers to be a positive influence through social media - to bring people up and motivate them.

When things are going well, you’re up and about, wanting to share that on social media because it’s a positive thing.

It's contagious, if you can share that feeling others, you can hopefully pick someone else up.  

But when down, you're withdraw a lot within yourself and go away to work on what’s in front of you. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, stripping yourself back and keeping it simple, but the down side of social media is that it seems people are always having a good time, all the time - because that’s all we tend to share.

So I think when chips are down, it's important to remember that as an athlete, it’s okay to realise that this happens - whatever it is – and to appreciate that there are often silver linings in every situation.

I know for me personally I didn’t share a lot of what I was going through during my low times. I’m sure this is the same for many athletes, particularly those with far more challenging and horrific setbacks than mine.

However, a lesson I learnt is that it's important to remember any athlete or person you are following may not always be living in the idyllic world you perceive them to be...

For me, what I’d built 2020 up to be in my head turned out nothing like I had imagined - since then the world has been tipped on its head with COVID-19 and any issue is quite easily put into perspective by that.

If this year so far has taught me anything, it’s the importance of always being willing to help yourself, accept advice and look for ways to overcome and adapt to challenges.

Also that switching off from your sport and from being an athlete is okay - sometimes it's very healthy and refreshing.

Looking back, the time off the bike made me more comfortable with who I am and what I am doing. Cycling means so much but, I don’t feel defined by it... it’s not everything. Yet, following the down time - I come back hungrier.

Thankfully I’m now training again and awaiting the return of racing in whatever capacity that may be and outside of sport. I’m also studying a few university subjects online to keep the mind active when I’m off the bike.

We often get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of training, goals and competition that we can lose sight of what’s okay in sport.

I have a different perspective now, in that what may be a bad day on the bike, can still lead to a good day overall – where as previously, a bad day on the bike would ruin everything else, and I'm looking forward again for what the future holds.

Thanks for reading.

- Scott (@scottbowden)

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