Adversity: (N.) Fortunate Misfortune

Imagine that right now, you are given a piece of paper. On this paper is a list, and this list contains all of the painful, frustrating, and heartbreaking experiences that you will have within the future of your athletic career. You are then given the option to cross off any or all of the items, thereby eliminating them from your life’s timeline and saving yourself from facing these setbacks down the road. Would you do so? Or what if: you are given the list, but you cannot change anything on it. You can, however, move to a new sport so as to avoid these otherwise inevitable experiences. Would you change sports in hopes of finding a smoother, more pleasant path toward your ultimate goals

Assuming that your desire is to maximize overall success, and that you want to become the best athlete you can be, you should have answered “no” to these questions. (This is also assuming that the setbacks are not so disabling as to cause PTSD or long-term trauma, as not all adversity has positive outcomes.) However, if you replied with “yes” to either of them, don’t be so hard on yourself. It is our natural instinct as humans to avoid danger and pain, so of course you wouldn’t look at that list and automatically shout, “Yes! I really want to go through all of these horrible events!” Yet…are they really so horrible? In the moment, yes, they very likely are. But with one or more people who are there to support you, and with the prerequisite skills and attitudes, these events are actually not horrible in the long run. In fact, they are beneficial, as they will likely move you further toward your goals than you may have travelled otherwise (Savage, Collins, & Cruickshank, 2017)

To gain an understanding as to why exactly this is, let’s step back for a moment and take a look at what can occur when an athlete experiences a setback. Let’s say, for example, that you get sick, and it’s the middle of the season. You are forced to sit out and rest until you recover, and this is likely frustrating in and of itself. But then when you return to practice, you are significantly weaker, and you feel as though you lost all the endurance that you had worked so hard to build up throughout the past few months. At this point, you essentially have two options. You can throw in the towel and give up on the season. Or, despite feeling angry and disappointed, you can proceed to work relentlessly—not only toward the level which you were once at, but also toward surpassing this level and becoming even greater. In this scenario, you choose the latter. You are somewhat disheartened, but your unwavering desire to reach your goals drives a determination within you which is greater than your sense of defeat.

Later in your career, you are able to see the full picture when looking back. Getting sick in the heart of the season had seemed like a purely unfortunate event. Nothing good came of it at the time. You couldn’t change it, so you gave all that you had in your fight to return to the top. And maybe the season didn’t turn out the way that you had hoped, but you now realize that you augmented your resilience and mental toughness as a result of the way in which you dealt with the setback. The overall payoff thus proved itself to be greater in magnitude than the initial negative impact of the adversity (Savage et al., 2017).

There are three aspects of this example which are important to recognize. First, when faced with the decision as to whether you wanted to confront the challenge head-on or accept the misfortune, you strengthened your resolve and chose the former. This decision was made by you, not for you (i.e., by someone else). Second, when struggling to get back on your feet and working through the grind, you employed the skills, attitude, and knowledge which you already had, including the initiative to seek external support (e.g., from family members, coaches, or trained psychologists). Even before this incident, you were a motivated, resilient, hard-working, and mentally tough athlete. It is also likely that you had previously witnessed others bounce back from injury or illness, so you had a sense of what it would take. And third, you learned from your experience by subsequently reflecting upon it, thus adding to the personal growth with which it enabled you (Savage et al., 2017).

Though it’s tempting, you should not erase your future adversities from that theoretical list. Similarly, it is not advantageous for you to constantly avoid situations which yield the possibility of failure or disappointment. Frustration and heartbreak can work to your benefit in the long run, given that you have the necessary mental tools and prior skillset to navigate them and pick yourself back up. These skills are consequently refined and strengthened, and your experience becomes a resource that you can draw upon when faced with adversity down the road. As such, setbacks cause an initial drop in perceived performance potential, but their subsequent rebounds exceed the magnitude of the drop (Savage et al., 2017).

Competition is not easy—physically or mentally. When things get tough, you need to be tough, too. Being faced with a major obstacle can at times, though, be tremendously upsetting; it can be scary, or stressful, or simply exhausting. But here’s the beautiful thing about pain: it can help you learn, it can help you grow, and it can be the catalyst for accomplishments that you had once never imagined possible.

––Kylie Burgess

Savage, J., Collins, D., & Cruickshank, A. (2017). Exploring traumas in the development of talent: what are they, what do they do, and what do they require? Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29(1), 101-117.

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