ADVERSITY: WHICH PATHWAY WILL YOUR PERFORMANCE TAKE?

How often do you have a day where every event planned for that day is actually experienced according to the plan? 

Personally, I have very FEW of these days. On more days than I would like to admit, I find myself facing and adjusting plans according to the obstacles and detours.  Sometimes the “detours” can be welcome surprises. For example, a phone call from a friend I haven’t heard from in a very long time.  I feel excited and loved when this happens.  These types of unexpected events are welcomed because they charge me and give me the energy I need. Then there are other “detours” that are frustrating and distressing.  You can probably relate to feelings of frustration when there is an accident or back up of traffic preventing you from reaching an important appointment on time. The ‘welcome surprises’ are events that I like to refer to as “challenges”.  They are events that we infuse us with a positive and focused energy that frequently lead to improved performance.   The second type of  “detours” is understood to be adversity.

Adverse events happen all the time, especially for performers who are seeking to push their physical (and mental) limits.  Charles Carver, Professor of psychologist at the University of Miami argues that there are four possible performance pathways while experiencing adversity: Succumbing, survival, resilience, and thriving.


  1. The athlete can succumb to the adverse event and performance is significantly diminished.  For example when an athlete has a serious injury, such as an ACL tear, during play.  This type of injury usually prohibits activity without major intervention (surgery and several weeks/months of physiotherapy).
  2. The athlete can survive the adverse event with performance affected by slight impairment.  A good example of this type of adverse event is self-doubt.  Sport science researchers have consistently demonstrated a strong relationship between low self-confidence (confidence is the belief that an individual has about his or her ability to meet the demands of a situation) and a reduced sport performance.
  3. The athlete can be resilient during adversity with little to no change in performance following the adverse event.  This performance pathway is typically associated with a positive shift in how the event is perceived.  Recently, I learned about a Canadian national team athlete who passed over by his sport federation to be predicted as a potential contender for the overall champion of the World Cup competitive season.  This was frustrating and irritating to the athlete for two reasons.  First, he had come runner up World Cup Champion the previous season. He felt that the federation must have viewed that accomplishment as some sort of fluke and not a legitimate result that could be reproduced or improved upon.  Second, his training and preparation for the upcoming season had been of the highest quality. Consequently, he felt that he had the potential to be even stronger and faster than the previous year.  The athlete let the comments of the federation impact his preparation for his workout. He was thinking about what a loser he must be rather than what the upcoming workout was about and what he needed to accomplish it with a high degree of quality.  When he realized what he had been doing, letting the adversity get the better of him, he quickly changed his mind set determined to use the energy towards ‘proving the federation wrong’ in its prediction. In this story, the athlete used the adversity to his advantage.  He redirected the adversity so that his thoughts focused on only that which was necessary for producing a high quality workout.
  4. The forth possible performance outcome following adversity is thriving. Thriving is defined as an elevation in performance in direct response to adversity.  Thriving is best exemplified by the heroic efforts that are produced by athletes.  At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Thérí¨se Rochette, the mother of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette, passed away suddenly on the eve of Joannie’s first short program event from a sudden heart attack.  With the assistance of friend, family, and her sport team, Joannie channeled her adversity into a brilliant performance, earning her a podium finish.

Surviving, being resilient, and thriving during adversity shares one common element: Choice.  In these latter three pathways the person to whom the adverse event is happening often has a choice about how to think about and act with the energy that the adverse event brings.  Indeed, an athlete facing an adverse event has a choice whether to be at the whim of the “obstacle” reducing his or her performance (surviving) or to redirect the “obstacle” towards actions that are necessary for achieving success (resilient/thrive).

WE CANNOT DIRECT THE WIND, BUT WE CAN ADJUST THE SAILS.” (Dolly Parton)

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