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What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger: How do athletes make a comeback!

A never attempted Olympic journey was something, Dutch long-distance runner, Sifan Hassan was about to embark upon- a triple gold in long distance events. It was thought to be impossible even before the kind of fall she endured. Hassan’s two remarkable golds and a bronze is not only, one of the greatest Olympic moments, but what also stands to be inspiring is how 11 hours before her 5000mts gold, she picked herself up from a scary fall on the final lap of her 1500mts heats to not only cross the finishing line- but to win it, as well.


The 1500mts heat what should have been a warmup run for her main event later in the day, but little did she know. As the Kenyan runner, Edinah Jebitok, stumbled and tumbled to the ground in front of Hassan. She tried to save her pace by hurdling over, but instead, tripped and did half a barrel roll.


Most runners would have called it a day, filed a protest stating it wasn’t their fault and advanced to the next round.


But Hassan told herself “No. No excuses.” and in the span of two seconds, she was up and running again and what unfolded afterwards was a sight to see.


A remarkable 60 second laps in racing, as she moved from the very end of the pack, overtaking runner by runner.


All what she needed was to finish in top 6 positions.


She ended up taking the first.


Video Courtesy: Short Deals (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KUiLuSA0no)


Or let’s talk about one of the greatest NBA moments of all time.


“I’m back.”


These two very simple words shook the world of sports when Michael Jordan announced his return to the NBA. Long before the days of Instagram stories and twitter, his agent sent out these two words via fax to let the world know he would return to play for Chicago bulls.

On the fateful day of October 6th, 1993, Jordan announced his retirement three months post his father’s murder.


Stating his loss of desire to play.


Jordan was away from the game for 17 months, but his first game back you could barely tell as he stacked up 19 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals against the Indiana Pacers. And that’s not it, just 5 games in his comeback, he hung 55 points on the Knicks at the iconic Madison Square Garden.



Image Courtesy: Business Insider (https://images.app.goo.gl/RJCDkgkubRoqmtf27)


And how can we forget about one of greatest NFL comeback, Adrian Peterson.


He was so good that Minnesota Vikings gave him a $96 million contract in 2011. But he went on to suffer a tore ACL and MCL in his left knee. This is a type of injury where a lot of rehab is needed to even just get back on track. Most athletes would sooner just break their leg than to put in the work.


Many within the Vikings wondered whether it would be even worth asking Peterson to sit out 2012 season and prep for 2013.


But he was defiant. He not only wanted to play 2012 season, but he told everyone he’d be back for week 1.


Most found it unfathomable.


But on the Sept 9, 2012, eight months post-surgery, he was back. And what followed was one of the greatest comebacks in the sporting history. He averaged more than 6 yards per attempt, a half yard better than anyone in the NFL history. He ran a career best 2097 yards with 12 touchdowns.


And was named NFL’s most valuable player.

Video Courtesy: NFL Films (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWSYojBe7yY)


But what it is that binds these three stories together?


What does it take for an athlete to overcome a seemingly insuperable deficit?

If you ask me, resilience.


While athlete’s achievements are chronicled on every possible type of media, all around the world, may make it seem like athletes live a bedazzled and angst free lives, but that’s far from the case. Everyone experiences a certain adversity in their lives. But at the end it becomes our choice whether we want to go against the tide and take control or accept our fate. Adversity is defined as “a difficult or unlucky situation or event” [1] or “a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune” [2].


So how do athletes whilst constantly pushing themselves to become the best of the best, handle the pressure of competition and life?


What is adversity?

According to Haudan (2016), “Adversity is the fuel of greatness. If there’s no adversity there is no growth.” This statement has been supported by several researchers, who do believe that athletes have the massive potential to benefit from difficulty [3]. Researchers have referred to this phenomenon as adversarial growth.


Adversarial growth is defined as the “positive psychological changes experienced as a result of the struggle with a highly challenging life circumstances” (Tedeschi, Shakespeare-Finch, Taku & Calhoun, 2018, p.3) [4]. This very ability to withstand or adapt to the ever-changing environmental demands is an inherent aspect of athletic performance. At the highest level of sporting competition, an athlete needs to possess a phenomenal level of resilience to attain as well as sustain success [4].


Where does resilience stand within adversity?

Resilience is defined as a positive adaptation to a traumatic event (Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000) [5]. The concept of resilience emerged as to explain how some individuals maintain a certain lifestyle and become even more capable despite facing similar adversities that could result in maladaptation (Richardso, Neiger, Jensen & Kumpfer,1990, p.33) [5]. A definition of resilience which is commonly used in the sporting world emphasizes ‘the role of mental processes and behavior in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential effect of negative stressors’ (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012) [6]. Through these definitions we can identify two components of resilience; adversity & positive adaptation.


Although there are various biopsychosocial factors contributing to the very development of resilience, an important differentiating factor in the emergence of the world’s most elite athletes is the ability to benefit in some way from the adversity to the very extent that they at the end of the day, psychosocially grow and develop their resilience beyond their pre- trauma functioning, resulting in superior performance [4].


Factors affecting resilience: