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Adversity Essays

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Every athlete grapples with shocking setbacks or finds themselves hitting the wall, unable to cope no matter how much they toil. Akin to life’s highs and lows, the route to athletic excellence is not a rosy one, involving both prosperities and fiascos. But what sets aside the world’s best athletes are not alone their success stories but the ability to combat hazards and extract distinctive benefits from having gone through adverse experiences. This brings to memory a befitting quote:

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

What is Adversity?

Adversity is usually any unfavorable life event or experience that involves a state of misery, affliction or trauma[1] and is accompanied by substantial adjustment issues[2]. The conceptualization further implies the notion of misfortune, the effects of which can be relatively enduring and pervasive as opposed to inconsequential everyday happenings[3]. In the context of sports, adversity can be viewed as a negative and stressful situation or a circumstance that acts as an obstacle in achieving a certain goal(s), thus disrupting the athlete’s prior state of being optimistic, progressing and well-adjusted.

It is no surprise that in the world of sports, adversity is a recurrent phenomenon. However, considering that athletes are people whose lives involve aspects beyond the periphery of sports, they are likely to be susceptible to not just sport-specific difficulties, but may also encounter generic life adversities[4]. Thus a wide array of hardships may disrupt athletes’ lives, adversely impact performance, or stagnate long-term athletic progress. Sport psychology researchers have enlisted some of the common challenges that athletes experience more often than not[5], [6], [7], [8], [9]:

Drawing from these instances, it is important to comprehend that adversities are not only tragic instances but are more importantly unpredictable and inevitable. Their occurrences have no justifiable association with the actions of the individuals exposed to them. Hence, they represent the fateful turn of events that cannot be escaped regardless of people’s intentions, decisions, actions or situations[3].

In view of this, athletes must realize that adversities are as integral to this human life as a certain level of distress is to such trying times[10]. Yet it is not simply a difficult circumstance that symbolizes adversity, but how one interprets their severity and responds to them emotionally and behaviorally. As Danny Dreyer, a bestselling author and the creator of the revolutionary ChiRunning program states:

“Adversity is anything that challenges your copacetic state: mild discomfort, pain, emotional angst, physical ailments or injuries, the weather or even just having a plain old bad day. That being said, adversity is never really a problem. I like to think of it as a lesson masquerading as a challenge, it’s your response to adversity that could either wreck your day or be a learning opportunity that could change your life.” [11]

Nevertheless, acknowledging the influence the socio-physical environment has on individuals and their functioning, research endeavors have since long tried to understand how adversities impact people, especially when they are severe or chronic[12].

When Misfortune Strikes…

When confronted with hardship or adversity, athletes’ responses are varied. Broadly though, some find it unable to cope while others thrive and eventually return to their prior level of functioning[13].

However, researchers have traditionally highlighted the negative consequences following a hardship, implying how difficult times and traumatic experiences play a significant role in the development of serious mental health issues, far beyond ordinary distress[14]. Some experts contend that it is not adversities but the sense of powerlessness and potential life risk [15], brought about by these uncontrollable occurrences, which determine (athletes’) psychological well-being as a by-product of disrupting normal activities and valued life goals[14].

In one of his leading books about the psychology of trauma, Janoff-Bulman suggests- it is the need for security and stability that causes negative psychological reactions to adversities. As humans seek to preserve their assumptions about the world and themselves, they struggle with not just the pain but changes brought about by unanticipated experiences[16]. In an excerpt from the book, he elucidates:

“Immersed in an environment that he does not and cannot understand, the individual is forced to create a substitute world that he can understand and in which he puts his faith. He acts in consistency with that conception and derives his standard of value from it, and… its preservation soon becomes a goal in itself. He seeks the type of experience that confirms and supports the unified attitude and rejects experiences that seem to promise a disturbance of this attitude.” [16]

The shattering of held assumptions is bound to accompany any adverse event. However contemporary researchers have begun to suggest that encountering some adversity can actually contribute towards achieving optimal emotional well-being, besides predicting higher life satisfaction than a life devoid of any hardship[17], [18]. The such unexpected positive impact of adversities offers hope, causing a drift away from traditional notions of illness and misery[19].

A Paradoxical Effect– ‘Adversity’ or ‘Advantage’?

Adversity undoubtedly indicates a demanding phase in anyone’s life, let alone athletes. However, being adept at tackling challenges has always been regarded as integral to sports, especially at superior levels of competitive performance.

The story of former women’s basketball player, Edna Campbell, demonstrates a classic example of excelling in spite of adversity. Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer, she continued to play professionally for several years and her return after cancer in 2006 was declared the ‘most inspirational moment’ in WNBA’s history[20]. Such accounts are not entirely astonishing as ancient philosophies and world religions have supported the possibility of deriving meaningful gain from human suffering[21].

Athletes overcoming life-threatening conditions to return to sport and seizing unbelievable victories are abundant in the contemporary scenario as well as in history. But it is only recently that researchers in the field of sports psychology have captured how, contrary to erstwhile claims, adverse experiences actually seem to produce beneficial outcomes in athletes[12]. In a phenomenal study, UK sport psychology professor, Lew Hardy extended the astounding role of early life adversity (parental discord, death, physical and verbal abuse, etc.) in athletic success. He noted all of the study’s multiple-times Olympic champions to have undergone some trauma as kids as opposed to only one-fourth of the non-medalling Olympians[22].In another study on adversarial benefit, 10 Olympic champions from different nationalities and sporting backgrounds revealed that most of them had experienced at least one momentous failure in their sporting careers preceding their gold medal win. While encountering adverse experiences in childhood or later life can be claimed fairly generic, it is elite athletes’ take on the advantage adversities bring into the later success that makes the concept of adversarial growth believable and fascinating[4]. In two selected quotations from their interviews, athletes narrated:

“In Athens… we finished… somewhere like eighth. It was pretty disappointing… [But] if I hadn’t failed in Athens, I wouldn’t have succeeded in Beijing… It takes losses like that sometimes, even though they’re hard to swallow and hard to deal with. It will benefit you later on in life. I just learned… not to get so hyped up or worried about stuff.” [4]

“The European Championships [were the] test run for the Olympics… and it was a disaster, but it was a good thing it was a disaster. Because there were team harmony issues that had to be sorted. We had to take a long hard look [at ourselves and]… we were disappointed that we didn’t perform, but that was a massive learning curve. It was the kick up the backside [that we needed]… so it made us work that extra bit harder over the next two months.” [4]

The study shows how experiences of anger, anguish, and guilt following adversity can become the inspiration for greater effort and zeal, and ultimately lead to enhanced performance. Sport psychology experts suggest that such drive comes from a felt need to rebuild the broken self, once athletes grasp the significance the event held for them and readily modify their life vision or philosophy to accomplish revised goals[19], [23], [24]. The key, thus, is to be able to pull oneself out of the initial despair and disappointment instead of allowing it to consume one’s belief system.

In other instances though, positive adaptation and growth may prove more challenging if the intensity of the misfortune exceeds one’s ability to cope[25]. Yet the significance of a productive thinking process is unarguable, with many accounts of superior growth resulting from greater degrees of emotional turbulence[26], [27].

No better example can illustrate the power of positivity and will in conquering life’s challenges than the life stories of Para-Olympians, who taste the joy of accomplishment after acquiring traumatic disabilities. Extreme circumstances as this highlight the importance of taking responsibility for choice over prolonged rumination or self-blame[28]. Because when there’s no way to change the situation, the only option is to change oneself[23], [29].

Thus it is not adversities that provide any specific advantage but a bold perceptive outlook that actively transforms it into a source of growth that not only helps overcome the prevailing misfortune but fosters an unswerving shield for impending hardships[27].

The Magic lies in our Mindset!

Victor Frankl’s book on how he survived the Holocaust in Nazi concentration camps provides a scintillating insight[29]:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The excerpt reflects the power of conscious choice in persisting indomitably even at the face of the most appalling difficulties. However, an analogous mentality in the sporting world has been demonstrated in a study of resilience[7], when athletes encountered events that pushed them to rock bottom and challenged them to seek their strength to rise up to success. This study highlighted the role of internal (e.g., personality, confidence, motivation, focus, etc.) and external (e.g., social support) characteristics in moderating the impact of adverse events.

However, it is reasonable to argue that traits in themselves are dormant without a spirited self-belief that drives athletes to bring together these isolated resources, to battle situations regarded as demanding. This presents resilience as a mindset that can be nurtured over time as opposed to the traditional notion of a fixed ability or trait[30].

Ultimately though, the importance of hardships and stressors is indisputable in automatically facilitating and boosting a resilient attitude. Hence to reap benefits out of misfortunes, approaching challenging situations has been proven to be far more fruitful for athletes than seeking to avoid them. This is because repeated exposure to demanding situations provides adequate opportunities for developing and mastering a mindset that makes it possible to preserve self-belief ( “I can” ) and vigor ( “I will” ) despite being struck by misfortunes[31].

Nevertheless, no level of resiliency can guarantee remaining unaffected when hit by future adversities. But a positive attitude certainly boosts the capacity to persevere and revive via healthier adaptation, regardless of how hard-hitting the setback seems. This captures the essence of appreciating an unyielding endeavor to achieve valued goals without being overwhelmed with encountered failures[32].

Such acceptance represents a ‘growth mindset’– which not only facilitates bouncing back from extreme difficulties but enables superior performance by highlighting the power of effort over talent[33]. There is empirical evidence that when athletes believe they can develop their ability through effort and practice, they are less likely to lose hope following unwanted debilitating stimuli (non-selection, injury) and are better able to return to training with determination and motivation to advance their athletic ability[32].

Proponents of the growth mindset contend that talent needs to be built through years of unyielding practice and can rarely be relied upon to produce excellence purely by its own merit[32]. Any of the world’s greatest athletes – Roger Federer, Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps – attained success not by resting on their flair or gift, but through perseverance and commitment to honing their skills.

Thus, in attempting to reach athletic supremacy despite adversities, it is imperative to focus on the process of learning and constantly developing the acquired skill. This shift in focus from the outcome (winning championships, breaking world records) to improving (increasing mastery) helps athletes reach excellence, which is the inevitable recipe for success[32]. At the end of the day, true accomplishment is to “fulfill one’s own potential” or “be the best than one can be”!.

Practical Implications

Following are some essential reminders for athletes at any level of performance sport, who are keen on developing and maintaining a constructive mindset to triumph over the mental battle against present or potential adversity.

  • Accept and advance – Rejecting the changes resulting from hardships represents a strong desire to go back to the time before it all happened. This induces a constant subconscious comparison between the pre and post-phases, which only highlights the misery of the present. Thus, a means of overpowering adversities is to accept the changes and start afresh. Consciously removing the past as a reference point facilitates acknowledging current developments and serves to reinstate self-belief and confidence.
  • Control what you can – When everything seems to be going out of control, wait and ask – Can this possibly be controlled? If the answer is no, it’s better to let that thing go. It is not just helpful but vital to make this distinction so as to be able to focus attention on elements, over which one truly holds definite control (effort, action, decision).
  • Proceed step-by-step – Being hit by an unexpected storm or dealing with affliction can make the goal seem further and increasingly unattainable. Thus a good remedy is to bridge the gap by setting multiple milestones emphasizing on developing oneself. The step-by-step mindset offers a repeated sense of accomplishment upon achieving individual goals and gets one closer to the desired outcome sooner than was hoped.
  • Evolve held ideologies – Spending a great deal of time in achievement-oriented settings often runs the risk of fostering a delimited idea of the self and success that only celebrates victories and not indomitable spirit. Reviewing beliefs pertaining to accomplishment allows for the gracious acceptance of setbacks without letting them define oneself. This nurtures a healthy self-concept regardless of outcomes, which are more often than not context-specific. The idea is to recognize that successes and failures are more about how life is and less about one’s athletic identity[34], [35].
  • Acknowledge the power of experience – They say knowledge is power and the prime source of knowledge is experience. Thus, when grappling with unbearable difficulties, a great resource to turn to are past struggles and hardships. This helps reflect on one’s ability to successfully strive through times that at some point seemed equally daunting to deal with or overcome[31].
  • Recognise the why – ‘What’ defines the misfortune, ‘how’ it occurred is destiny and ‘why’ is the real deal that makes growth a possibility. Deriving the meaning of experiences is integral to benefit from them. Be it patience, tolerance, resilience or perseverance, it is vital to absorb the message they were meant to impart in the first place.

Thus adversities are short-lived. What might linger longer are their effects or more precisely our response to their influence. Thus all that is needed to defeat difficult times is adopting a defiant mindset that sees through the transience and refuses to give in, at any point throughout the hardship. Remember:

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” ~ Joseph P. Kennedy

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