Published: 9 November 2020. Written by: Lizzie Simmonds
In a year of unprecedented turmoil and change, it has never felt more important for individuals and organisations to be able to adopt a resilient mindset.
Elite athletes are renowned for their ability to withstand setbacks; injuries, de-selections, or even postponed Olympic Games… In fact, athletes have a well-deserved reputation for staring adversity in the face and refusing to budge.
But is mental resilience something that athletes just happen to be born with, or is it a skill they hone and develop? And is there something we can perhaps learn from an athlete’s approach to adversity?
I’ve thought about this topic long and hard since retiring from elite sport. Personally, I don’t believe being resilient is innate, and I don’t necessarily believe the only way to build resilience is to go through tough times. In fact, I’m convinced that absolutely anyone can strengthen their mental armoury in a positive, proactive way, come rain or shine.
To understand how to be more resilient, let’s take a look at some of the tactics employed by athletes in the world of elite sport.
Put yourself first!
If you’ve ever listened to the safety briefing on an aeroplane, you’ll recognise the instruction: In the event of an emergency, fit your own oxygen mask before assisting others. It logically follows that by making your own safety a priority, you will be much better equipped to assist fellow passengers.
In many aspects of life, we are taught that developing an altruistic attitude, and putting others first, is the honourable thing to do; that prioritising yourself is inherently selfish. As a result, many of us tend to go against the safety brief and ‘selflessly’ put the requirements of others before our own, often to the detriment of our wellbeing. But it’s difficult to build a truly resilient mindset when we’re weary or burnt out from relentlessly trying to accommodate other people’s needs.
So, the first step towards resilience is to prioritise yourself. Make sure you take time to nurture your mental wellbeing, try to make good choices with your nutrition, exercise regularly, recover from busy or stressful episodes, and ask for support when you need it. Athletes are great at this—in fact, our whole purpose revolves around the continual quest for self-improvement!
There is a wonderful irony to this approach. As a consequence of prioritising your own needs (both mental and physical), you’re likely to find you have a far greater ability to support others. Even if your main objective in life is to bring value to other people, fitting your own mask first ensures your energy and endurance levels remain topped up, and you can work optimally to do just that.
Control the Controllables
If there is one phrase that is used more than all others in sport, it’s this one!
Sport (like many areas of life) is judged on outcomes and results. And yet, as an athlete, you have very little control over the outcome. It’s virtually impossible to influence the performance of your competitors, and it’s hard to predict whether your ability on the day will be good enough for a medal, or a record, or a place on the team.
Obsessing about the outcome and end results is stressful, and a waste of valuable energy.
So instead, athletes focus on the process. They focus on the things they can control – the preparation, the match plan, the effort being put in, the execution of the race, the way they start, finish, respond to mistakes and interact with competitors.
I heard a great line from Sir Chris Hoy recently saying that when he won his first Olympic Gold and crossed the finish line, he didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t planned that far ahead! All of his preparation, all of his visualisation, had been about execution, had been about the process. Winning gold wasn’t under his control, putting in his best performance on the day was.
In the current landscape, there are many things we can’t control. It’s almost impossible to be more resilient if we let ourselves be battered by the raging storm; by the extraneous factors outside our sphere of influence. It’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by the big picture, so focusing instead on the things you can control becomes paramount. Well-structured daily routines, health and mental wellbeing, family support, kindness and humour, are top of my list.
Survive or thrive?
When athletes are faced with adversity, they have a choice. They can choose to be intimidated by the setback, resign themselves to the fact that failure is probably inevitable, and let their circumstances dictate the end result. I’ve certainly been there, defeated before I’d even reached the starting blocks.
Alternatively, athletes can choose to rise to the challenge, adapting to new circumstances and finding a way to thrive, despite the adversity. I’ve also experienced this, and believe me, it feels much better!
COVID-19 is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, and the pandemic is having a huge impact on many people. However, the way you frame your attitude is, at the end of the day, up to you.
You can choose to see only the negatives each day, in which case you might find yourself defeated by the trials this year has thrown our way. If you take this approach, it can be hard to get out of basic ‘survival’ mode.
On the other hand, you can try and rise to the challenge, approaching each new day looking for opportunities to adapt, learn and grow. If you can adopt this mindset, even if it’s only for a small part of each day, then you give yourself the best possible chance of thriving over the coming months. Navigating hurdles might even become exciting, as you build on your skillset and strength of character.
Of course, this isn’t always easy to do, and we won’t always get it right. Athletes train for years in order to approach challenging situations with this mentality. But viewing life through a rose-tinted lens offers an incredibly empowering perspective, because it puts you in the driving seat when responding to the tough events being dished out.
Make gratitude a priority
It’s incredibly easy in the current climate to focus on the things we’re missing out on. Freedom to interact with others, hugging our friends, visiting family, and even going into the office seem to be distant memories for many of us. The world has changed significantly over the last year, and each new wave of restrictions can be disheartening and frustrating.
Whilst this is an undeniably challenging time, it’s so important to be hopeful and thankful too if we want to feel resilient. Some people use gratitude journals to remain in a state of thankfulness. Others just like to take a few minutes each morning and evening to reflect on the things that bring light to their day. Family, work opportunities, a funny joke, the first sip of a hot cappuccino in the morning, or the vibrant colours of the autumn leaves in the park—being mindful and appreciative of what we do have can help give us all a brighter and more resilient outlook on life.
2020 might not be the year we dreamt of, but it’s still full of opportunity if you’re open to finding it.
For more of Lizzie’s expertise and opinion, read her blog How To Motivate Yourself Like An Elite Athlete.
Lizzie enjoyed a long career as an international swimmer, securing medals at Commonwealth, European and World Championship level. She also competed for Team GB at two Olympic Games, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, where she finished sixth and fourth respectively. She retired from professional competition in 2018, but still holds influence within the sporting sphere, supporting fellow elite athletes throughout and beyond their sporting careers.
Lizzie is also passionate about health and wellbeing and is one of Vitality’s Performance Champions, delivering motivational talks and workshops, and inspiring people across the nation to get active and healthy.
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