Lloyd Emeka is back with another sports psychology insight, this time into the role of resilience and how being vulnerable can be a positive experience.
“I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall”.
The above quote from Serena Williams is an example of the importance that is associated with having the ability to overcome adversity within a sporting context.
In our everyday lives, human beings experience a multitude of obstacles and challenges which varies from daily hassles to life-changing events, which has arguably been exacerbated by Covid-19. A combination of these factors has led to an ongoing narrative of resilience as an ideal human trait and skill to cope with difficult life challenges.
Although resilience is a frequently used word in society, it is worth clarifying how this word has been defined. We can trace the origins of resilience to the latin verb ‘resilire’ (to leap back) and it is considered as being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.
Bouncing back in running
Within the context of endurance running, resilience has positive connotations which is unsurprising when you consider that endurance is the ability to do or cope with something painful or difficult for a long time.
It has been suggested that resilience can be attributed to several personality characteristics (i.e., optimism, resourcefulness, flexibility) that enables individuals to adapt to the circumstances they encounter 1,2 and has the potential to result in human flourishing3 .
Although resilience is typically associated with overcoming adversity, we can also utilise this skill in positive situations such as being in the front pack of a race and digging deep to maintain a position within this group until the finish line.
The positive consequences of resilience has been widely discussed in sport and other aspects of life but is it always advantageous to be resilient?
Resilience is a dynamic trait
Firstly, it is important to recognise that resilience is not static and can fluctuate at different points in our lives, with influences from the culture and social environments we function and interact within.
In circumstances where people experience pain, suffering, ill-health and other adverse challenges, a societal narrative of the need to be resilient can lead to a ‘cancel culture’ whereby any voice that goes against this narrative is dismissed or not considered as important. A risk within this scenario is that an individual’s existing issues and challenges are reinforced and perpetuated.
The benefits of resilience are undeniable, and it has an important role within endurance running but how can we create space for alternative narratives to exist in tandem and what could that look like?
The experience of adverse circumstances does not always result in the capability to overcome or bounce back quickly, and it can be challenging to freely express negative emotions in our social environments when resilience is the dominant narrative. As we are unable to be fully in control of every encountered situation in our lives, it stands to reason that feelings associated with fear of failure or uncertainty will also be experienced.
Vulnerability is the experience of exposure to harm through challenges to one’s integrity4, and is also related to having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome5 .
Feeling vulnerable can be a positive experience
Despite vulnerability being a human condition that affects us all6 , it is typically regarded as a weakness in sport cultures7. Vulnerability can be a consequence of social interaction and has the potential to be a shifting experience which means that individuals can have moments of feeling vulnerable depending upon the context they are in.
Although it is not always the case, feeling vulnerable can be a positive experience that drives us to learn new ways of coping or open up new opportunities8. All individual experiences of vulnerability regardless of whether they lead to personal growth or not, should be treated equally with structures in place to provide appropriate support and care.
There is thus a need to create psychologically safe environments where individuals feel capable of being heard and listened to without judgment when they are feeling vulnerable. The sporting culture and types of social support that are available to an athlete has a vital role to play in this aspect.
What can we do?
For example, in situations whereby an athlete unsuccessfully completes a hard training session or under performs in a race, a coach can play an important role in supporting and encouraging athletes to openly express their feelings of vulnerability through the adopted style of communication and offering emotional support.
Running club colleagues can also reach out to athletes when they are feeling vulnerable and offer support through listening and empathising. In some instances, shared experiences of vulnerability can emerge when runners have previously encountered similar situations.
Equally, athletes can learn to practice self-compassion, which is to be kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical9.
Engagement with mindful self-reflection can also enable individuals to reflect on their experiences, thoughts, feelings and actions with curiosity and openness, which can also lead to deeper meaning and understanding of our experiences of vulnerability.
When considering how to prevent or overcome difficult situations, we should be careful to not position resilience as the only solution and avoid stigmatising people for feeling vulnerable.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. ‘Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness”.
- Development of a new resilience scale, Connor & Davidson (2003)
- The role of ego-control and ego-resiliency in the organization of behavior, Block & Block (1980)
- Teaching the Science of Human Flourishing, Unlocking Connection, Positivity, and Resilience for the Greater Good, Ekman & Simon-Thomas (2021)
- New perspectives on vulnerability using emic and etic approaches, Spiers (2000)
- Rising Strong, Brown (2015)
- The vulnerable and the susceptible, Kottow (2003)
- Is there an upside of vulnerability in sport? Hagglund et al (2019)
- Understanding Vulnerability, Heaslip & Ryden (2013)
- Self-Compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself, Neff (2003)