Whether it’s getting to the finals of three straight auditions (but coming up just short in each one), or receiving a letter from the school we have our heart set on (but discovering we’ve been rejected), we’ve all experienced crushing disappointments, setbacks, and adversity in our lives.

So when we see something like the ending of the recent England vs. Japan World Cup match, we can empathize with how awful that might feel (take a moment to watch the aftermath. And the play that led to it).

And imagine how difficult it might be to simply dust ourselves off and pop back up the next day.

Yet, that’s exactly what many elite athletes seem to be able to do. Whether it’s bouncing back from devastating losses, competing despite the failing health of a loved one, overcoming personal battles with cancer, or facing adversity in the form of injuries or physical limitations, sporting history is filled with inspiring stories of what the human spirit is capable of.

But how exactly do elite performers persevere and press forward in the face of challenges, with no guarantee that they will ever realize their dreams?

Is there something innately different about top athletes like this?

Or do they rely on certain learned and acquired factors to beat the odds? Factors that the rest of us might be able to emulate too?

12 Olympic champions

Many consider winning an Olympic gold medal to be the pinnacle of athletic achievement. Indeed, to produce a winning performance among a field of the world’s elite, on the planet’s largest stage requires a ton of dedication, effort, focus, talent, and good fortune.

So, two researchers from the UK decided to go directly to the source, and pick the brains of Olympic champions – to see if they could systematically identify any commonalities in their life stories. Are there common elements among the winners, that seem to have played a role in their successes? If so, perhaps these same factors would enable the rest of us to tap into more of our potential as well.

They conducted in-depth, structured interviews with 12 Olympic gold medalists1 to see what they could find.

From the taped, coded, and analyzed interviews, a picture of resilience began to emerge.

#1: Perspective

One of the central factors was the tendency for top athletes to interpret stressors as opportunities to grow and develop. As a chance to hone their “psychological and competitive edge”, rather than as some kind of unpleasantry or test they might fail. For instance:

“I remember one of my coaches saying to me what was I doing over Christmas and I said ‘Oh, I’ll be training twice on Christmas Day … I know [opponent’s name] won’t be training on Christmas Day twice and that will give me the edge’ … It was more the mental side of things because I knew that I’d be doing something that he wasn’t doing.”

#2: Meta-cognition

The Olympians were also good at monitoring and regulating their thoughts – engaging in helpful and performance-enhancing thoughts, rather than getting caught up in unhelpful inner dialogue. Such as:

“I’ve never ever been more nervous than before the … final. And one of the things I used [was] visualization … I saw … one of the … co-favorites take a start and he appeared to fly round the first bend. And so my heart hit my throat. Then I thought, ‘oh my God, I’ve got to run faster than that?’ And I recognized how unhelpful that negative thought was so … I just thought ‘get a grip’ and I thought ‘when have you felt really powerful and flowing?’”

#3: Positive personality

This is sort of cliche-sounding, but the gold medalists embodied a number of positive personality characteristics. Optimism. Conscientiousness. Openness to new experiences. Emotional stability.

Moreover, the champs also seemed to be very proactive in how they approached their sport. As in, they were very active about choosing their thoughts, and seeking out opportunities to improve. Here is a quote that captures the essence of this characteristic:

“There were four of us challenging for these final two places … and I got told I was on the reserve list. And at the time it was devastating but it’s one of those things; if you don’t take a ticket in the raffle, you’re never going to win a prize. So you have to take the ticket … that’s part of life and it just makes you think “well, what can I do differently to make sure I do get success”?”

#4: Motivation

The athletes were obviously motivated, and expressed all the sorts of reasons you might imagine, from the love of their sport and becoming the best they can be, to proving themselves. But what seems particularly important in handling adversity well is the recognition that they “actively chose to engage with challenging situations.” That competition wasn’t something that was forced on them, but instead, a challenge they valued, where the adversity would ultimately push and help them to get the best out of themselves.

“We all worked. But in terms of the build up to the Olympics, we didn’t bat an eyelid in doing it … it was our choice to do it. I don’t like the word sacrifice …. Sacrifice to me is about last resort and there’s no alternative – that’s rubbish. We made a choice to do that and I think that choice in what we did we highly valued and I think that inspired us, motivated us to perform on the pitch and as a group.”

#5: Confidence

Unsurprisingly, confidence was cited as a particularly important factor, and the athletes derived their belief in themselves from multiple sources. Like experience. And visualization. As well as “multifaceted preparation,” which I take to mean that they engaged in a full range of strategies to prepare for performance (like a musician employing a range of practice schedules, performance practice, slow practice, score study, and recording in addition to fully committing to the obligatory woodshedding). Indeed, the knowledge that we’ve practiced and prepared ourselves as well as possible is a big confidence booster – which in turn, can shape how we see the task ahead of us. Whether it appears as a challenge or a threat.

“We were playing against [country] in our last game … and I looked at my opposite number and I thought ‘I’m going to give you a hard time today kid’ … Now if I had that internal thought 18 months ago, I would have thought I was being schizophrenic or something, because if you’re going to lose to anybody it’s [country], but I just felt that I had such belief and such confidence in … my team’s ability.”

#6: Focus

Two things stand out with regards to focus. One, the athletes were able to focus more on themselves and what they needed to do, rather than getting distracted by the competition.

“It’s funny, in a way I was kind of oblivious to pressures because I think in some ways you just go so into yourself … well, it’s a hugely selfish thing isn’t it? You’re concentrating on yourself and this group of five people and you’re living in each other’s pockets.”

Another aspect of focus was the ability to balance their training and sport demands, with other aspects of their life. For instance, most of the older athletes in the group won golds before public funding was available, so they had to work part time while competing.

Rather than it being a distraction, this appeared to help them learn how to switch their career/sport focus on and off more effectively. This even seems to have minimized their risk of injury. So having a life outside of sport (or music) may actually be a source of strength, not an indication that you are less serious about your craft. As one gold medalist said:

“athletes nowadays, because they’re full-time, very often get injured because they’re [training and competing] too much”, advising aspiring Olympic athletes to “either do some voluntary work or some part-time work, so that they have a distraction from their sport”.

#7: Social support

Even though we’re often out there alone on stage, we don’t have to go through our careers and lives as if we’re an island. One of the important stress buffers for the Olympic champs was the feeling that they could count on family, coaches, teammates, and support staff to be there for them when needed. The perception that they had support available to them was a factor which helped them deal more effectively with the inevitable challenges on the path to a gold medal.

“I’ve got injured, I’ve not got selected, all those sort of things where it’s not gone right … But … they [one’s parents] talk it through with you. My mum especially would talk it through and say ‘What are you going to do about it?’ They didn’t judge me and say, ‘You’re doing this wrong’ or ‘you’re doing that right’, they just provided me with the support that you need and a sounding board to express myself.”

The result of it all

All of this ultimately led to more productive, performance-enhancing choices and actions. A constellation of thoughts and behaviors that were conducive to a take-charge kind of work and training ethic that would maximize their potential and chances of having an optimal performance when the moment of truth arrived.

“Initially, training was just something to get out of the way. And then gradually I’d do training and I’d think, “Am I getting the most out of this? Am I exploiting the session?” And, you know, if I did take a bad lift in the gym I’d think, “I could have done that better. That’s a missed opportunity. What have I got to do to be better?” So I had an obsession on getting everything right rather than just waiting for the day of the final and then hoping. It was about getting everything right before the final so I had all the tools ready for when I was racing.“

England vs. Germany

So how did things end up working out for England after their loss to Japan in the semis?

Three days later in the match to decide 3rd place, they faced #1-ranked Germany – a team which they had never beaten, in 21 tries over the last 31 years…

And won2 (here’s the winning shot).

Additional reading

One of the books that I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from on the topic of resilience is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. It’s short and sweet, but many years later still has the ability to get me to clarify my priorities and take action.

Footnotes

  1. The athletes competed in sports ranging from figure skating to hockey to the pentathlon and rowing, represented several different countries and cultures, and were mixed in terms of age and gender.
  2. 1-0, with an extra-time penalty goal in the 108th minute.