I am continually surprised by the way failure is viewed in sport, business, and education. In my field of expertise, Athlete Development programmes wrap talent in cotton wool by programming out adversity with failure being viewed as a blocker to progression.

At Peak Dynamics, we are looking at understanding #What it Takes to Transition to help our clients refine their talent pathway and in doing so, unlock the key experiences, knowledge, attitudes, and skills that will be critical in preparing for sustained success.  #Performance Resilience continues to surface as a critical trait, and I would like to explore this concept

‘Performance Resilience’

 It is essential to understand the relationship between any component of performance and achieving the stated goal.  By identifying the role, Resilience plays in increasing the likelihood of success you can start to characterise ‘Performance Resilience’ in the context of your Sport or Business.   Although this article will focus on emotional resilience, physical and emotional resilience may be linked.  

Resilience is the ability to consistently deliver your performance (close to potential) irrespective of stress level or in a period while under a level of emotional challenge. Mustafa Sarkar 

GRIT - Firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger - Merriam-Webster

GRIT - Perseverance and passion for long-term goals - Angela Duckworth 

Bouncebackable -  the ability to recover from a setback - Iain Dowie (ex-Crystal Palace Manager) 

For me, Mustafa Sakar’s definition sits well with my concept of resilience, and I am a big fan of his research in this area.  When you combine ‘delivering close to potential while under emotional stress’ with the ‘ability to recover from a setback’ and ‘perseverance for long-term goals’ you have defined the traits we are looking for in a person.   Now you just need to understand the factors that contribute to ‘emotional stress’.

Resilience v's Thriving

In the paper, ‘Ordinary Magic’ Sakar and David Fletcher looked to differentiate between Resilience from Thriving.  In its simplest form, Thriving can be defined by ‘the ability to enhance output or performance when placed under stress’.  That differentiation between increasing and sustaining is important, and I believe organisations should not confuse the two as the training interventions are very different. 

Thriving definitely has a place in Sport and Business.  Being adrenalised will enable some individuals to increase their output or become higher functioning.  We have worked with organisations, in both business world, sport and the military where we have seen people thrive under stress and others deteriorate under stress. For this article, however, we are interested in the individuals who demonstrate an inability to perform close to their potential under stress or who fail to recover to their potential after experiencing failure/challenge or who are unable to maintain their performance close to their potential while under sustained (chronic stress).  By tracking self-reported levels of emotional stress against objective measures of performance, it is pretty easy to develop a really powerful profiling tool.  

How do people become resilient?

 It is a widely held view that adversity blocks development but research shows the opposite.  In ‘Resilience: a silver lining to experiencing adverse life events’, Seery suggests that ‘people with a history of some lifetime adversity report better mental health and well-being than those with no history of adversity’.  This is a concept that Sakar and Fletcher expanded on in their paper ‘What doesn’t kill me…adversity-related experiences are vital in the development of superior Olympic performance’.  

In my own experience of working with a population of elite athletes, I have observed that Athletes who have experienced challenge consistently outperform other highly talented athletes during their career.  In my experience, that challenge can relate to negative life experiences (bullying or in extreme cases, personal loss), negative campaign experiences (missing Olympic selection, loss of funding, long-term injury) or negative competition experiences (poor performance at a key outcome event – 1st Olympics syndrome).  Even as I write this article, we are hearing about the challenge faced by British Women’s Bobsleigh Team and British Badminton players who are having to self or crowdfund their competition and training costs.  What I am proposing is that this ‘challenge’ may actually have a positive impact on their Olympic performance, validating decisions made by UK Sport and bringing into question the views circulated by athletes and journalists. 

‘Positive Adaptation’ to challenge comes from an altered mindset.  That Mindset is developed by a ‘positive experience of coping’ which replaces the ‘fear of failure’. Sarkar and Fletcher further define the resilient Mindset describing both a Narcissistic desire to ‘prove one’s self-worth via achievement’ or a reinforce raison d'être underpinned by a need to achieve for a higher purpose.

This altered mindset of a Resilient individual changed their perception of challenging situations resulting in renewed or increased effort, increased learning capacity, increased or maintained confidence and what Sarkar and Fletcher call a ‘mobilization of previously untapped resources’ and a ‘sense of mastery over future adversity’.

Training Resilience

 So now we get to the crux of this article.  We have discussed how resilience can influence sustained performance; we have identified the traits of resilient performers and how exposure to challenge has shaped their Mindset.  What organisations (sport and business) need to understand is that the current talent pathway is developing fragile performers.  We identify talent, yet we do not determine the experiences that have shaped our serial high-performers, repeat Olympic medallists and world-class CEO’s.   

Enabling athletes to perform under pressure (emotional stress) is about systematically exposing those athletes to relevant stressors in a controlled programme.  Strength and conditioning coaches would call this ‘overload training’.  In the case of resilience training, you are looking to gradually increase the stressors to experience overcoming adversity and gain a positive expectation of coping.   These stressors do not have to be related to the particular discipline and can be delivered in an unrelated environment.  The key is to engage real emotions in order experience a sense of ‘challenge’ and that those emotions are given context in your own field of performance in the de-brief.  

In the case of sport, temporarily removing support services and reducing funding while maintaining the same performance expectations would present a highly emotive challenge to any athlete (especially if they believed it would be sustained for a significant period of time – which may not be true).

In Business, where there is a critical deadline or where success or failure can measured , then this is where the greatest learning opportunity presents itself. These events provide an exposure to real stressors that may engage emotion, which may inhibit performance or conversely present an opportunity to thrive.  An unsuccessful outcome is a chance for positive adaptation or negative reinforcement.  Deploying a Performance Coach may enable the business to manage these events as part of a long-term plan to develop a resilient workforce.  This may be facilitated by effective de-briefing, reinforcing or reframing mindset and identifying missing Knowledge or Skills that would enable future success. 

If this article has peaked your interest and got you thinking, then please get in touch with us, and we would be delighted to help your organisation or sport to improve your resilience and performance. We would create a programme whereby one of our Performance Coaches would be made available to you to coach your talent pool.

Author: Harvey Hilary - Director of Performance, Peak Dynamics

Picture: Alex Zinardi suffered an horrific Indie car accident resulting in a double amputation of his legs. Since then he has bounced back racing European Touring Cars and is a double paralympic gold medalist in the Hand Bike discipline. He has shown remarkable persistence to achieve in his career despite all the adversity he has encountered. In this picture, he is testing a European Touring Car with hand controls.