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The highs of being an athlete are so often visible that we forget athletes can suffer from the same problems as everyone else. No athlete, regardless of success, would be where they are without overcoming adversity. In fact, nearly all Olympic champions have experienced adversity at some point in their lives which has been perceived as playing a crucial role in their success.
Adversities have the potential to interfere with normal functioning so individuals don’t have the resources to cope. We all experience adversity differently but if most of the population deal with something maladaptively, this would be considered adversity. Individuals are affected cognitively, emotionally, behaviourally, and physically.
Since the Covid pandemic started, athletes have faced many adversities: cancelled competitions, remote training, and general uncertainty. These are all added pressures to an already challenging environment.
Adversity can be experienced in many ways in elite sport in a sporting and non-sporting context. Sport-related adversities may include a serious injury or repeated non-selection and non-sport related adversities could include death of a family member, family dysfunction, or illness.
Athletes who battled adversity
Many gold medal Olympians argue that if they hadn’t experienced highly demanding adversities at certain times, they wouldn’t have won their medals. To put this into perspective, here are two examples of highly successful cyclists. A sport that requires great strength, commitment and tactics. Both of these athletes ‘bounced back’ and can be seen to have been very successful despite facing adversity.
Bradley Wiggins has eight Olympic medals, including five golds, is an eight-time world champion and Tour de France winner. He grew up in what he describes as a ‘dysfunctional family’. His father, an alcoholic and drug dealer, left him and his Mum when he was 2 years old. His father was then murdered in 2008. Bradley talks about how witnessing murders wasn’t uncommon in the council estate he grew up on. The adversity was perhaps what gave him the drive to achieve success.
Anna Meares has six Olympic medals, two of which are golds and is an eleven-time world champion. She overcame significant adversity and change in her time as a professional cyclist. These included a fractured neck 2mm short of a clean break, a marriage breakdown leading to a divorce and then the death of her coach from Motor Neurone Disease. This resulted in her struggling to process so many significant life changes in such a short period of time.
But how did adversity bring about success in these athletes? Contrary to belief, adversities don’t have to impede growth and development. Experiencing adversity in sport and non-sport can help athletes. Being able to positively adapt to adversity is key for optimal performance.
This is as a result of adversarial growth which are the positive changes that occur after stressful experiences.
In the face of extreme adversity, champions will fight and adapt. They change and excel.
How can we overcome adversity?
It’s important to remember that no matter what you are facing, many athletes have faced similar situations and experienced great success as a result.
Every time adversity is faced you gain resilience and mental toughness. These can be drawn upon to overcome any difficulties. The key to overcoming adversity isn’t based on the adversity itself but your mental toughness. This results in some athletes being able to withstand and even thrive in high pressure environments whereas others under-perform.
All mentally tough individuals are resilient but not all resilient individuals are mentally tough.
The role of resilience
Resilience is made up of individual’s mental processes and behaviours and their ability to withstand or adapt to environmental demands, positively. Resilience will determine who succeeds and fails.
What are the characteristics that protect athletes like Anna Meares and Bradley Wiggins from the negative effects of stressors?
The key psychological differences in these athletes who have overcome adversity are that they are more likely to perceive stressors as an opportunity for growth. These are unique, beneficial psychological and behavioural changes only experienced as a result of overcoming adversity.
Using the grounded theory model, there are five psychological factors that protect athletes from the negative effects of adversity leading to positive evaluations and meta-cognitions of stressors. These are a positive personality, motivation, confidence, focus, and perceived social support.
These factors can be developed over time and if an athlete successfully enhances these areas there will be optimal performance.
Adversity can bring about success, and it has the potential to act as a development catalyst for talented athletes. It brings about adversarial growth which is essential to develop the resilience required to attain success at the highest level of sport. This is achieved through enhancing the five psychological factors from The Grounded Theory Model.
Everyone experiences adversity but it is how you cope and learn from it that enables you to thrive; it doesn’t need to be seen as a threat or feared, it can create new pathways and opportunities. Use it as a chance to grow and develop, increasing your confidence in readiness for inevitable challenging situations.
An earlier version of this article was published on Medium.
Emily Tillett is doing a master’s degree in sport psychology at Loughborough University.