Risk, Resilience, Cold, and Gold

Karl Riecken is a Sport Scientist and the Coordinator of Performance Testing at the National Training Center in Cleremont, FL

Karl Riecken is a Sport Scientist and the Coordinator of Performance Testing at the National Training Center in Cleremont, FL

By Karl Riecken

While the concept of resilience may appear incomplete and weak to writers such as Taleb (author of Antifragile—highly recommended), the science of sport explores it as a construct for shaping the Olympic champion. To the athlete and coach, the development of resilience as a psychological concept is critical. The lifetime accumulation of chronic training peppered with mistakes and utilized feedback will form a master of a craft (in our case, an athlete) who better withstands the pressures of the sport world than his competitors. If that person’s accumulation of training exists on top of true adversity and challenge in his or her life, he or she will develop an intuitive understanding that hardening a biological system will cause it to prevail with the potential to prevail with glory. “Whatever does not kills us” (Seery, 2010).

In the winter months in spite of the shorter, colder days, morning practice still happens; evening practice still happens; dryland and weights still occur; we still make the choice to rise every morning for the greater achievement to come. Sport psychology’s resilience is what determines that we show up ready to perform (Sarkar, 2014). What, then, defines the resilience of an athlete who achieves more than most of us could ever dream, beyond the “also swams”?

In 2012, a compendium of different answers to this question was published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise. An analysis of 12 Olympic gold medalists explored a variety of topics revealed from interviews with each. All displayed remarkable resilience in a variety of ways. Not only did the interviews span a range of sports, but a range of time periods for competition from the 1960s to the 2000s. The article revealed what stresses these great athletes faced and how many of them appreciated stressors we hear athletes complain about today.

Of particular mention, the geopolitical environments for each decade differed greatly with athletes appearing to be more influenced by political issues in earlier decades (Fletcher, 2012). Athletes competing in the past two decades have been increasingly concerned with “publically-sourced funding”. It certainly appears that when there are greater political issues, concerns over athletic events such as the Games become less of a focus, requiring more individual drive for success rather than reliance on a volatile support system. Further, some researchers have reported that people who face a lifetime of adversity (such as political instability) are actually more mentally sound than those who do not (Seery, 2010).

"The world’s best athletes tended to perceive stressors as opportunities for growth, development and mastery, particularly at the peak of their sporting careers.”

Several of the athletes stated explicitly that “if they had not experienced certain types of stressors at specific times, including highly demanding adversities such as parental divorce, serious illness, and career-threatening injuries, they would not have won their gold medals.” Nearly a platitude, “the world’s best athletes tended to perceive stressors as opportunities for growth, development and mastery, particularly at the peak of their sporting careers.” Several mentioned that not being among the first choices for events was a primary motivation for increased effort and that losses in major competitions served as learning experiences.

Another striking aspect to these athletes’ performance was their ability to remain motivated while challenged in multiple arenas. Several had to balance work and training and actually cited this as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. They recognized that they chose to live up to that particular challenge. In fact, “[t]he present study found that the majority of gold medalists who won their gold medal prior to publically-sourced funding had worked part-time while competing which, interestingly, helped them learn how to switch their sport focus on and off” (emphasis my own). This pervades the world beyond the world of sport to anyone in any field who is seeking to achieve greatness, which may in part account for why many former Olympic champions move on to successful careers.

Also contrary to conventional wisdom was the analysis of the athletes’ level of confidence. The expected linear relationship between level of confidence and performance did not exist. Not only that, but the relationship was not consistent throughout an athlete’s life. Many cited that they actually became less confident as their careers progressed, but had some of their best career performances during their later years. Echoing earlier statements about motivation, some of the athletes suggested that the necessary confidence did not arise from internal sources but came from their teammates. Sarkar, et al. mentioned that the best athletes cited external factors such as rewards, feelings of obligation, and external pressure as a primary source of motivation (2014).

In their updated review article published last year, Sarkar and Fletcher highlighted five personality traits that appear to be ubiquitous through all of these Olympic champions: adaptive perfectionism, optimism, competitiveness, hope, and proactivity (2014).

  • Adaptive perfectionism “is a healthy type of perfectionism that is characterised by having high personal standards and striving for excellence but, at the same time, having little concern for mistakes and doubts about actions.”
  • “Optimism has been defined in two main ways: as a trait-like expectancy for successful outcomes and as an approach to explaining positive and negative events.” In essence, athletes do expect to win, but losses are treated as opportunities.
  • Competitive athletes reported their “anxiety as more facilitative and less debilitative for performance than less competitive athletes.” The true elites will use their anxiety as a performance enhancement rather than a detractor.
  • “High-hope individuals are able to envision alternative routes in the face of goal blockage, develop multiple strategies for overcoming obstacles, and display high levels of dedication and energy in pursuing desirable goals.”
  • People who are proactive “identify opportunities and act on them, show initiative, and persevere until they bring about meaningful change.”
  • Coaches and athletes: temper not those risks; adversity and challenge will form the baseline; hardening with accumulated mistakes and repair will form the person who results—the champion who understands and embraces opportunities to try himself. Enter the Olympic year.

Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(5), 669–678. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.04.007

Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (2014). Psychological resilience in sport performers: a review of stressors and protective factors. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32(15), 1419–1434. http://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.901551

Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(6), 1025–1041. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0021344

Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House.