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:




Richard Charlesworth a world class former Australian hockey coach perfectly reiterated what an ideal coaching environment should look like for optimal performance.


The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort troubled.

This statement ideally aligns with the characteristics of a facilitative environment. To facilitate both excellence and well-being, the very environment must balance high levels of challenge and support. Such an environment may be characterized by supportive challenge towards a goal, individual taking ownership of their goals, seeking challenges, craving constructive feedback and good relationship between the athlete and coach [7].


The last thing we need to ask is, how do we put all this to practice?


Self-Awareness: At the very core of self-awareness is the capability to be emotionally flexible. With realistic awareness of our own emotional strengths and weaknesses, an athlete can become more efficient in identifying emotional cues. Self-awareness acts as a protective factor that promotes athletes sustained performance, in response to a stressor [8].


Recognize and accept emotions: It’s important that athletes are able to recognize and understand the emotions that they may feel during a stressful situation. At times athletes get entangled in their own thinking. They are unable to recognize the cues surrounding them. Burns in 1989, identified 10 types of these distortions that might trap an athlete in their own thoughts. Read through them, you might identify one or two [18].




Growth Mindset: The way we perceive our own self can determine everything. If we look at our qualities and think they are unchangeable, we are likely to possess a fixed mindset, whereas in contrast, if we hold the belief that our basic qualities are something which we can cultivate through our efforts, we are likely to possess a growth mindset [9]. Learn to embrace challenges, persist in the face of a setback, focus on mastery and learn from criticism [10].


Support system: A support system is defined as “having or perceiving to have a close other who can provide care, particularly during time of stress” [11]. A support group can help an athlete to reduce risky behavior, cultivate a feeling of being understood, enhance a sense of control, and help the athlete to actively engage in coping mechanism [12][13]. Thus, having healthy relationship with one’s coaches, teammates, training-mates. friends & family becomes important in an athlete’s life.


Cultivate locus of control: Locus of control is an individual’s belief system regarding the causes of their experiences and the various factors to which that individual may attribute their success or failure. Possessing a high locus of control means that an athlete is more likely to learn from their actions and engage in behavior that will lead to the results they hope to achieve [14][15]. Having a high locus of control means that you understand that setbacks and their causes are temporary and changeable.


Inculcate pressure training: This one is specifically for coaches to remember. It becomes important for an athlete to perform a skill under replicated pressure, as it may help the athlete to cope with it the feelings of pressure during competitions. Pressure Inurement training involved gradually changing the training environment using specific strategies to increase the level of pressure the athlete faces [16]. This could be achieved through dividing competitive stressors into four categories: mental, technical, tactical, and physical [17].


Final Thoughts:

Remember, in every challenging set of circumstances, there’s a way, be it small, to regain control and act. One might reframe a goal, recite a positive mantra, seek support, or maybe you just need to pause for a moment.



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