Learning Resilience from Elite Athletes
Did you ever see young athletes who had great potential? They seemed to have all the gifts. You knew they were going to excel, maybe turn professional — they were that good. But later, to your surprise, you learned they never realized their potential. They were good, but they never made it to the next level.
You may have dismissed it as “bad luck” or bad coaching. Often there is something else missing: an intangible factor. I call it “FACTOR R,” for resilience.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. In athletics, adversity usually comes in the form of defeat, failure, injury, or even extreme situational stress and pressure.
I’ve spent 40 years formally and informally studying stress. I became very successful treating patients who had stress-related physical and psychological illnesses. I even wrote textbooks on how to treat such patients. Every once in a while I would be approached by elite athletes whose careers were declining because of their inability to handle stress. Stress impeded their performance, which ultimately led to something they were unfamiliar with: failure. Failure then led to self-doubt, which led to further failures. Self-doubt and fear of failure became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you want to resolve a problem, it’s always best if you first discover the source of the problem. Beginning in 1990, Dr. Kenneth Smith and I began a series of research investigations wherein we sought to discover what caused people to develop stress-related illnesses, why people developed the symptoms of “burnout” (mental and physical exhaustion), why people would suffer from poor performance, and why people would consider “cheating” at work.
Over the next 20 years we were able to develop statistical models that would help us identify key factors of pathogenesis. But the most striking discovery to emerge was that the lack of resiliency seemed to be in evidence in many of these situations. By extrapolating the mirror image of pathogenesis, we were able to see what seemed to be protective, or what seemed to foster growth and success.
Statistics allow us to infer conclusions about life, but there is nothing so valuable as the lessons of experience. So I left the laboratory and spoke to former and current elite athletes, professional football and baseball players, Olympians, and elite amateur athletes. I even interviewed elite warriors, U.S. Navy SEALS. Regardless of their domain of excellence, they all possessed FACTOR R.
FACTOR R can be transient, meaning that an athlete may usually possess resilience, but there may be a certain situation wherein even the most accomplished athlete may fail under pressure. That phenomenon, the absence of situational FACTOR R, is called choking.
Examples of world-class athletes choking under acute situational pressure are legion. Consider when Jana Novotna played Steffi Graf for the 1993 Wimbledon championship. Novotna led Graf four games to one and needed one point to go ahead 5-1 in the deciding third set. At that point Novotna seemed to fail under the pressure. She couldn’t seem to serve nor return a serve. She seemed to become stiff and mechanical rather than fluid in her strokes. She lost five straight games and the Wimbledon championship.
Everly, G. (2018). Learning Resilience from Elite Athletes. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/learning-resilience-from-elite-athletes/