Sport has been called a natural laboratory for examining the psychology of human behaviour. It is also a perfect place to learn and craft how to respond to life’s adversities. Sport, as in life, provides many highs and many lows for athletes. Some of these highs and lows are extreme and rare. For example, players at Leicester City FC probably experienced an extreme high after winning the English Premier League. Whereas Aston Villa FC probably experienced an extreme low, getting relegated from the same league. Sevilla’s manager Unai Emery and his players experienced an extreme high from their Europa League victory on the 18th of May, while Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and his team no doubt experienced an extreme low. And we all saw the extreme low that the England football team experienced in the recent Euro 2016 tournament.
But for the most part, the highs and lows of participating in sport are reflected in day-to-day occurrences. Some lows might include injury, short-term and long-term pain, high training loads, poor training sessions, not meeting targets, lack of sleep, isolation, environmental problems (weather, facilities etc). Athletes will also regularly experience rejection (e.g., being dropped), failure (e.g., losing competitions), unfairness (e.g., poor officiating), disrespect (e.g., sledging), and poor treatment (e.g., by rival fans). So when we look at the careers of athletes, we begin to realize that part of what helps them to succeed, is their ability to respond well to these lows. In other words, it is the athlete’s ability to come back from adverse situations that has a big part to play in their success.
Lets look at one example. Cast your mind back to 2011. Rory McIlroy had a four-shot lead after the first day of the Masters. However, he bogeyed the par-four first on Sunday, and then squandered his chances of a first major victory over the space of four holes. He triple-bogeyed the 10th, recorded a three-putt bogey from less than 10 feet at the next, before taking four putts to double-bogey the 12th. McIlroy then landed his drive at 13 in to Rae’s Creek. He closed at eight-over 80. Charl Schwartzel took the Green Jacket.
As you can imagine, a brutal experience for McIlroy. But what were his reflections after this collapse? “There are lot of worse things that can happen in your life… Shooting a bad score in the last round of golf tournament is nothing in comparison to what other people go through.” [i] McIlroy went on to win the next major golf tournament (the US Open) in resounding fashion, shattering the tournament scoring record and winning by eight strokes. McIlroy now deems his Masters Meltdown “the most important day” of his career[ii] and said that he “learned so much about myself and what I needed to do the next time I got into that position”. This sense of perspective was strengthened when McIlroy worked with Unicef in Haiti following the earthquake in 2011. No doubt there he realised what real devastation is like.
Also looking back to Liverpool’s capitulation against Sevilla on May the 18th, Klopp is adamant that his team will “use this experience” and points out that no international football next year means that the team can train more and be stronger[iii]. Also, Klopp says that “there are more important things than football in life“. This is from a man who has lost five successive finals. Again, the recognition that failure isn’t fatal and a sense of perceptive can help those involved in high-pressure sport to adapt to adversity with resiliency, pragmatism, and optimism.
Although McIlroy’s and Klopp’s “failures” are famous because they occurred in the media spotlight, they reflect common occurrences up and down the country and across the world at all levels of sport. The truth is, athletes, regardless of level, often fail. And the reality? Failure isn’t fatal. Sport teaches us this week in, week out.
Sport provides opportunities to prove that failure isn’t fatal, set backs are tolerable, and that unfair treatment, rejection, and adversity can help us be stronger in sport, work, and life. We will all face rejection, set backs, failure, and unfair treatment in our lives. The key is to react to these adverse situations with a flexible and logical mindset that perpetuates constructive emotional reactions.
At Staffordshire University we have been investigating what it is that helps people to react well to adversity. Our research shows that those able to recognize that failure isn’t terrible tend to be less anxious, less angry, and less depressed, in general. They are also less likely to burnout in their jobs, and are more likely to demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity. The key attribute of those who are able to come back stronger from adverse situations is that they recognize that it is not the events or situations that causes anxiety, anger, and depressed feelings, but rather, it is how they view these situations that really causes problem emotions. Our views about situations are within our control. This has very important implications. It means that we can control our perceptions of situations in order to ensure we react in ways that are helpful for long-term performance and well-being. Research shows us this time and time again.
The beauty of sport at any level is that it provides a test for us to see how well we can react to adversity. How do we respond to failure, set-backs, injury? It provides the perfect challenge for the way we think and feel under pressure. Many of the amateur athletes I have worked with describe how they are able to cope better with exams and interviews because they have performed in-front of crowds of people in their sport. They create their own evidence that pressure won’t kill them, and that they can cope with scrutiny and evaluation on the field of play. Just like in an interview.
Some might feel that because competitive sport is pressured then it is something to be avoided. Why put yourself through experiences that may be painful and emotionally difficult? Some may also say that encouraging competitiveness has its drawbacks, especially in younger people, and that sport should be a place for pure fun and enjoyment. I feel that resiliency is developed from childhood, and therefore young people should be challenged and tested. But these challenges have to be met with strong support structures that help young competitors realize that their adverse experiences are non-life-threatening learning opportunities.
So challenge yourself this year. Don’t just think of sport as a fitness enhancer or social outlet (although these are very good reasons to participate!). Understand that sport can be used as a tool to help forge a resilient mindset, helping you to deal with life’s many challenges.
[i] Telegraph Staff. (2011, April 11). The Masters 2011: Rory McIlroy insists he will come back stronger after painful collapse on final round in Augusta. The Telegraph. Retrieved May 21, 2014, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/golf/mastersaugusta/8442210/The-Masters-2011-Rory-McIlroy-insists-he-will-come-back-stronger-after-painful-collapse-on-final-round-in-Augusta.html
Dr. Martin Turner