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Learning Resilience from Elite Athletes

There was the 60th Masters golf tournament held in 1996 at Augusta, Georgia. Australian Greg Norman was one of golf’s elite players. Leading after every round, Norman began the Masters final round with a six-stroke lead over Nick Faldo. Shots into the water, the sand, and the woods caused Norman to finish with a 78, five shots behind Faldo.

Norman seemed to become overly cautious in his swings. He became stiff and mechanical, in many ways similar to Novotna. Many observers called it one of the most “painful” moments in golf.

Even teams can fail under pressure. Consider the San Antonio Spurs professional basketball team in the 2013 NBA finals. The Spurs led the seven-game series three games to two. In game six, the Spurs were ahead by five points with 28 seconds to play. The championship seemed assured. This should have been a situation where the team played to the end of the game the same way they started the game. But the Spurs seemed to begin to play in a manner “not to lose,” rather than playing to win. Overly conservative defense and missed high-pressure free throws seemed to seal their fate. The Spurs lost in overtime, forcing a seventh game, which they lost.

Considering our research and interviews over the years, we believe the key to performance-related resilience is what we call active optimism and relentless tenacity.

Active optimism is not only the belief that you will be successful, but the motivation and drive to act in such a manner so as to create success. It discounts failures as exceptions to one’s inevitable success. Failures and setbacks are viewed as stepping stones to success. The pessimist, on the other hand, sees failures as confirmation of their prediction of failure.

Step one in operationalizing active optimism is to have a vision of success. See it happen. Step two involves using a self-affirmation, repeating to yourself the successful version of the goal you wish to achieve. “I will make this putt!” Avoid using the word “not” in your self-affirmation. Don’t say “I will not miss this putt.” The fear center of your brain (amygdala) is apparently not calmed by the word “not,” so it hears you saying “I will miss this putt.”

In order to calm your fear center, your logical, problem-solving brain (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) takes over. It overanalyzes the situation and becomes overly mechanical and risk-averse. So guess what happens to that putt? It falls short of the cup. And what about the pessimist? Well, they said all along: “I’ll try but I know I won’t make the putt.” They usually blast the ball far past the cup as their fear center rages into control. The missed putt confirms their negative attitude, which then serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Relentless tenacity is an essential aspect of FACTOR R. Some of the most successful athletes were not necessarily the most gifted athletically. But they were relentless in their preparation and their effort. They had no control over their genetics, but they had control over the effort they expended on the way to success. Cal Ripkin was a gifted athlete, but his greatest gift may have been the work ethic he learned from his father. Relentless preparation and practice were the cornerstones of Ripkin’s success.

If you find yourself getting tense in the wake of a setback or failure, take a deep breath. It will reduce the stress you experience. Relax your muscles by stretching them. Practice natural, fluid movements prior to actually performing in earnest. See yourself as successful. Repeat to yourself a positive affirmation. If you fail, view it as an exception to the rule — success. Learn from your failures. Go back and practice. When a resilient attitude is present, destiny must follow. People with FACTOR R know they will be successful in the end. If they are not successful, it’s not the end.

© 2015

Sprinter photo available from Shutterstock

Learning Resilience from Elite Athletes

George S. Everly, Jr., PhD

George S. Everly, Jr., PhD, FAPA is one of the founding fathers of the modern era of stress management and an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of psychological trauma. He is the author of numerous books and research papers. He serves on the faculties of The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Everly has given invited lectures in 22 countries on six continents. His latest book is STRONGER: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed (AMACOM, 2015). For more information, please visit

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APA Reference
Everly, G. (2018). Learning Resilience from Elite Athletes. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 12 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.