Why athletes crave resilience

November 27, 2015

Resilience defines us

Resilience is fundamental to living well and achieving great things. It’s how we respond to adversity and setbacks that in many ways determines if we succeed – and how we fail. Resilience defines us.

It’s our capacity to absorb pressure and to rebound when things get tough. That’s why the best seek out opportunities to learn resilience.

We admire resilience when we see it. The team that refuses to admit defeat. The footballer who comes back from heartbreaking injury. The leader who never seems to lose their cool. And we observe it painfully when we see others struggling . The student who always complains about higher grades. The team that always seems to fold when it falls behind.

Elite athletes know the benefits of resilience as well as anyone. They know how much it can affect their performance.

It’s the very best who rebound from setbacks

Rebound from setbacks marks the best, according to Hugues Ansermoz, the seasoned coach of Canada’s women’s alpine ski team. “We see a lot of shooting stars come in young, and I’m always the one to say: ‘Let’s wait until after the injury,” she said last year. “The champions, the real champions, they all come back stronger.”

“Two cycles” is Drew Ginn’s rule. Drew won three Olympic gold medals rowing for Australia. Much better typically, he says, are the athletes who experience a major failure – and presented with that unwanted gift – resolve to fight back. They’re very often the ones, he says, that come back as elite winners.

So, it’s not that we should go creating adversity, but rather welcome its potential when it comes.

“Good leaders seize crises to remake organisational habits,” says Charles Duhig in his influential book Habit. “In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.”

Resilience is acquired the hard way

Some of us are probably wired for it better than others: personality tests tend to show. And the strength of our networks also boost our resilience, other studies have shown.

But resilience is also a capability that can be acquired and practiced. It has to be earned: through practice, sacrifice, and repetition. It requires getting out of your comfort zone and the willingness to fail. Learning from every failure, adjusting behaviour and racking up the experience.

Everest Academy founder, Nick Farr, a Mount Everest summiteer, strongly supports augmenting that learning in mountain wilderness environments in particular. “The mountains are an extraordinary teacher because they present us with unlimited and powerful ways to fail.”

“Success in the mountains is never guaranteed so there is always something at stake. And there has to be something as stake for our actions, responses and behaviour to have a consequence,” says Nick.

Embracing the unexpected circumstances that help make us resilience

Throughout life, we all face our own challenges, setbacks and personal crises. Some we barely notice, but some hit very hard.

Understanding these experiences and learning to adapt our response is the key. Failure provides us with an opportunity money can’t buy, we just need to be aware and engaged enough to take it.

That is the basis of a limited edition program for young elite footballers The Everest Academy has planed  in the Tasmanian wilderness in 2016 or 2017.

By John Carruthers & Nick Farr


“Habit: Why We Do What Do In Life and Business”, Duhigg, Charles, Random House (2014)

Hogan Personality Inventory Technical Manual (Hogan Assessment Systems) (2009)

“AP review shows more than half of top 50 Alpine ski racers missed time with major injuries” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (25 Jan 2014)