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Is Adversity the Key to Athletic Success?

Olympic gold medalists have something in common: They've all struggled at some point.

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Want to win an Olympic gold medal? You are going to have to fail at some point, according to a new study called “What doesn’t kill me… Adversity-related experiences are vital in the development of superior Olympic performance.”

Researchers from the UK found that overcoming adversity was a common trait among Olympic champions. “The athletes experienced numerous negative events during their development and prior to their gold medal victory,” says Mustafa Sarkar, one of the study’s authors and a research fellow at the University of Gloucestershire. “One of the most common adversities was significant sporting failure; the majority of athletes had underperformed at a previous Olympics during their athletic career before their gold medal victory.”

Crushing defeat, not qualifying for the Games, a career-threatening injury—all are effective tools for becoming a champion, Sarkar says. The reason comes from a combination of powerful negative emotion, motivation, and learning.

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An athlete who experiences failure will have to take a deep look at why they failed. They can use this as motivation to improve.  “Wanting to please other people or to prove others wrong left a deep-rooted impression on an individual’s identity and actually drove them on in their performance development,” Sarkar says. “The athletes became single-minded and obsessive for success.”

For the study, Sarkar interviewed 10 Olympic gold medalists who overcame a myriad of challenging obstacles, from the death of a family member, to a devastating injury, to political unrest.  While he is not able to release their names, he says these athletes come from a variety of winter and summer sports including track and field, rowing, figure skating, and curling.

But this phenomenon can be seen outside of the Olympic realm. Look at Michael Jordan’s failure to make his high school's varsity basketball team, or the death of Tiger Woods' father two months before a win at the 2006 Open Championships.

While adversity might provide an edge, it is difficult to manufacture, Sarkar says. “You don’t want the death of a family member to happen to anyone, but there are practical ways that athletes and coaches can train for surmounting challenge."

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Sarkar advises athletes to tackle challenging situations at the onset of their careers. “The earlier the better,” he says. That way they can learn from their mistakes and how to cope with failure.  He also recommends coaches expose athletes to regular pressure training and testing. 

“We know for a fact that during athletes' lifespans they will encounter adversity,” Sarkar says. “When they encounter setbacks, it’s about using those setbacks as a focus for learning and reflection.”

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