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.
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.
Sprinter photo available from Shutterstock
Everly, G. (2018). Learning Resilience from Elite Athletes. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/learning-resilience-from-elite-athletes/