How To Deal With Setbacks Like An Elite Athlete

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How To Deal With Setbacks Like An Elite Athlete

Words by Dr Michael Gervais

20 February 2020

Dr Michael Gervais is a sport psychologist whose work seeks to uncover the essential skills of sustained high performance. What makes a CEO or an MVP? Why do some individuals shine under pressure while others crumble? And what can we normies learn from those operating at the very limits of human potential?

One thing Dr Gervais has discovered over the course of his career is that what defines the top one per cent from the rest isn’t just their winning mentality, it’s how they respond to failure. This is reflected in his work with professional athletes, who often find their high-flying careers thrown into chaos by unexpected injury and the subsequent need for recovery.

In this feature for MR PORTER Health In Mind, our campaign to get men talking about physical and mental health, Dr Gervais shares some of the lessons he has learnt, and how we can all benefit from them.

Discomfort is a precondition for growth – and the gateway to high performance. World-class performers don’t simply tolerate discomfort. They seek it out and embrace it again and again to test themselves and get better. They have a disciplined set of mental practices and principles they use to navigate the unfolding, unpredictable unknown. When things don’t go according to plan, they are nimble and able to adjust. Nowhere does this mental dexterity show up more vividly than when an athlete is confronted with a breakdown in their body. We can learn from how the best in the world psychologically manage injury and approach their recovery process.

Rather than getting stuck in the disbelief or frustration that something happened to them, great performers focus on what’s within their control and how they can harness the recovery experience to improve. A disruption in our physical health is an opportunity to take inventory of ourselves and sharpen our mental skills. We can deepen our understanding of who we are, build resilience, learn to be flexible, strengthen our connection with the people who support us and exercise our agency. Here’s how.


Stay optimistic

World-class performers interpret events in a way that gives them agency and the opportunity to grow. They rarely wallow in self-pity or victimisation. Despite the physical hardship, they look for what’s positive in their new circumstance.

I had a conversation with Ms Bethany Hamilton, a professional surfer whose arm was bitten off in a shark attack at age 13, as dramatised in the 2011 film Soul Surfer. Her reflexive optimism propelled her back into the ocean – and surfing – 30 days after the incident. Though her circumstance was more dramatic, her mindset reflects how most world-class performers seek the positive when dealing with injuries.

“The cool thing was I still had two inches of my bone, which is super awesome in the limb-loss world,” she said. “If I had four, it would have been even better. But, two inches was still pretty good because I have my shoulder blade and whatnot.”

World-class athletes are fundamentally optimistic about what’s right around the corner. When they think about what’s next, even in the face of a devastating injury, they still think it’s possible to succeed. I would be hard-pressed to find a performer on the world stage who holds a fundamental belief that things won’t work out for them.  They may have concern about not regaining their body’s functionality, but they don’t entertain that storyline long enough to make it part of their psychological framework, part of their belief system.


Build connection

When high-performing athletes get injured, it’s a common experience, particularly in team sports, to feel like they’ve fallen out of the tribe. They are no longer in all the meetings. They don’t participate in team workouts. In the pain and hurt, they don’t actively pursue engagement and feel isolated at a time when they need the support of others more than ever.

There’s a euphoria that comes with feeling connected to a larger team and purpose – and a dark side when the bond is ruptured by injury. It applies even to more isolated activities such as running or swimming because runners and swimmers are still part of a social group or community. Relationships, therefore, are extremely important in the healing process. To counterbalance isolation in the wake of injury, recognise the isolation trap, assert yourself and actively look to connect with your environment. Look to create moments of interaction.


Name that feeling

The recovery process can be charged with emotional responses an athlete might not know how to manage. Research suggests that the simple act of labelling an emotion can discharge the potency of the feeling. While there is a lack of agreement on predictable stages of emotional response to injury, there are a handful of emotions that can be part of the recovery process: irritability, sadness, despair, frustration, anger, anxiety and even embarrassment, to name a few.


Know thyself

High performers in any area of life can fall into an identity trap where their sense of self is defined by their achievements or their craft. I’m a partner at Goldman Sachs. I’m an Olympian. I’m a mom. I’m a football player. Labels are great for branding and giving people an easy way to think about themselves, but they can be limiting when identity gets fused to that label. When an athlete suffers an injury, it can feel like a death because the survival of the identity linked to their sport is in question. But it can also be a tremendous opportunity to explore who they really are.

Decoupling who we are from what we do can be extremely freeing. The simple awareness that we matter because of who we are, not what we do, can create a perspective shift that liberates us from the shackles of identity.


Find a purpose

Above all, anchor your recovery process in purpose. Austrian psychiatrist Dr Viktor Frankl, who devoted his life to understanding meaning, wrote, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, only by lack of meaning and purpose.” His dictum could easily be applied to recovery from athletic injury. The road back from injury can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. Go way upstream to remind yourself not what you are doing (healing), but why you want to get better. Saying, “I want to get back on the bike”, or, “I’d like to run again without pain”, are legitimate goals, but they don’t speak the to the deeper purpose. Look for an orientation beyond oneself. The greater purpose might be providing for your family. Or honouring the promise you made to your grandfather to persevere during hard times. Or getting your body healthy so you can participate in your child’s athletic life.

Big-wave surfer Mr Mark Mathews captured the power of purpose in a conversation we had on the . Between the ages of 17 and 18, Mr Mathews was living with his mother, who had fallen mysteriously ill and unable to work. The thought struck him, “I’m going to have to take care of my mother for the rest of her life if this keeps going on.” During that time, he got invited on a trip to have surfing photos taken of him that were going to be published. The waves were five times bigger than any he had previously surfed. Rather than discouraging him, Mr Mathews’ newly found purpose drove him to take on the challenge, and it changed the course of his life.

“I’d never really at all wanted to be a big-wave surfer,” he told me. “I didn’t think I really had that in me, but it was as if I had this unbelievable drive to be a successful professional surfer because I knew that if I could get that working, I could help take care of my mum. It was this perfect storm that helped me find out what I was capable of – I had that reason that was beyond just myself, wanting to help a loved one. I think that’s where you find that ability to push yourself through that fear.”

Having a purpose that transcends ourselves enables us to push through difficult challenges, including injury. When purpose is bigger than pain, purpose wins out. The contrary is also true: when pain is bigger than purpose, pain wins. When we anchor our recovery process in purpose and meaning, the noise quiets down. We have a greater sense of control. We have more resilience in the face of challenges, more gratitude, a deeper connection to others and a greater overall sense of fulfilment in life.

Illustration by Mr Jack Bedford