Elite sport is one of the most pressurised and competitive environments, which reaches a peak during Olympic selection and at the Games. The stakes are high. There are the tribulations of selection, and the trials of non-selection. There’s the euphoria of success for a few, but most will experience the pain of defeat. Here’s what I’ve learned about resilience and its role in coping with an arduous Olympic cycle.
The way athletes deal with this period in their lives has a lot to do with their resilience. Resilience is developed by the way we explain things in our life, which sets the tone for our future experiences.
Choosing to view the selection process as an opportunity to perform and one to learn from can help athletes to not only increase their chances of selection, but also ensure they bounce back from the disappointment of non-selection.
The same is true of the heat of competition – asking yourself how well you can perform and learn, too.
Interpret, then react
The way you choose your words to explain a situation, both inside your head and to those that will listen, creates meaning to that event. Resilient athletes who train for the four-year cycle to experience non-selection or defeat will make conscious decisions about how they will interpret and explain such an undoubtedly painful experience. The specific thoughts are what have helped both non-selected athletes and defeated ones triumph four years later, to become an integral part of a national Olympic team in a subsequent cycle.
Silver linings for all
Non-selection and defeat are challenging for all athletes. A mindset that interprets this challenging time as an opportunity to learn and grow is one that serves athletes well, and helps them to give it another go. Similarly, those who decide to transfer their lessons in high performance sport to other high-pressure environments have had success through this mindset.
Articulate then challenge
The way you explain things in turn influences the expectations for the future. Resilience is commonly linked to ‘bouncing back’, but the thoughts that help people to bounce back also build hope. If you’re committed to the choice to learn and grow from setbacks, you can also use these lessons to better prepare for future challenges.
Athletes who have not been selected in one cycle, or those who fail to meet their expectations in competition, set themselves up for future successful selection by doing things better than last time. The self-confidence that comes from learning and improving helps their chances of selection, and winning.
So what is it going to be?
In my 16 years of Olympic campaign involvement, there has been a broad spectrum of results. Some athletes have returned from the Games with shiny medals, while others have trained and competed as hard as possible only to get beaten or miss out on selection; their Olympic dream for that cycle, and in some cases forever, is gone.
Examining how the ‘losers’ and non-selected choose their response to deal with such disappointment provides insight into the role the mind plays to be able to fall, dust yourself off, and have another go.
It would be easier and understandable for those coming home without medals or PBs to let the experience knock their confidence, and let it shape excuses as to why they weren’t successful.
Instead they choose to be resilient and come again. What’s your explanation going to be?
Illustration: Dale Edwin-Murray