Resilience and Adversarial Growth

Serena is a high-level golfer with aspirations of playing professionally. A native of Guatemala, she moved to the U.S. a few years prior in search of more opportunities to advance her game. As expected, the transition away from friends and family and into a new country was difficult. Finances have also been a source of stress. Early success in tournaments allowed her to secure some small sponsors, but these have mostly disappeared as she has struggled with her game. Having to work full-time while still devoting the necessary hours to developing her game has been extremely challenging. At the same time, a nagging back injury has hindered her ability to practice and play. Despite all of this, Serena maintained her resolve and a positive attitude. Her friends constantly marveled at her optimism, and the passion she continued to show for golf. Her hard work finally paid off when despite all her struggles, she finished in the top five against a strong field of competitors. When interviewed by a local reporter about her journey, she credited her family for instilling a strong work ethic and providing the opportunity to pursue a career in golf. The discussion turned to the tragic death of her younger brother several years prior, and she explained that although she will always miss him, the experience of working through his passing has strengthened her to handle any obstacle she might face in or out of golf.

Implicit to the discussion of psychosocial “threats,” “prevention,” and “treatment” is the notion that adverse experiences are necessarily harmful for athletes and should be avoided at all costs. Although the evidence presented in this text confirms the potential for a host of deleterious psychosocial outcomes due to common threats in the sport environment, this does not preclude the possibility that athletes will either: (a) soon return to a pre-threat level of functioning, or (b) emerge from their experience with the threat in some way better off than they were before. Indeed, high-level sport is filled with examples of athletes who have successfully overcome extremely challenging circumstances, and in some cases reported personal benefits because of them. For example, there is the story of U.S. speed skater Dan Jansen, who after falling short of gold medal expectations in three Olympic Games, and enduring the death of his sister shortly before the 1988 Games, broke through in his final race to earn a gold medal in the 1994 Olympics (Giblin, 2018). Or Irish gymnast Kieran Behan, who despite briefly losing the use of his legs at the age of 10 due to complications from a surgery, and then sustaining a serious head injury in training at age 15, went on to become only the second ever Irish Olympic gymnast (Full Twist, 2012). And Muslim American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed, who overcame a host of racial, gender, and religious biases to become the first American woman to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab (Kaplan, 2016).

Whereas the preceding examples illustrate the tendency for high-level athletes to achieve their goals despite obstacles, others have described the transformative impact of their struggles. One case in point is professional basketball player Shaun Livingston, whose career was in serious doubt in 2007 after he suffered a gruesome injury resulting in a dislocated kneecap, sprained medial collateral ligament, torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn posterior cruciate ligament, torn lateral meniscus, and fractured leg (Poole, 2018). He missed an entire season, and then bounced between eight teams over the next six seasons. However, since 2014, he has played a valuable role for the three-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors, and credits his late-career success with the difficulties he experienced beginning with his injury:

Honestly, it couldn’t have worked out any better for me, in terms of my career and the trajectory of everything and how it came about. Being on seven or eight different teams in a matter of six to eight years, it was a lot. A lot of movement. A lot of travel. But it also was a growing experience.

(Poole, 2018, para. 8)

In this final chapter I consider the other side of threats to athletes’ psychosocial health—resilience and adversarial growth. Both concepts fit conceptually with the notion of psychological well-being, which includes personal growth as one component, and is related to individuals’ ability to successfully navigate stressors (Ryff, Love, Essex, & Singer, 1998; Sagone & De Caroli, 2014). First, I consider the concept of resilience, including a summary of its scholarly history outside of sport, and more recent advances within sport. Second, I transition to a similar discussion of adversarial growth. Finally, based on extant research and theory, I offer recommendations for the promotion of resilience and growth in high-level athletes.


Long before it was the focus of sport researchers, scholars in the realm of developmental child psychopathology were intrigued by what they observed in longitudinal studies of children born into high-risk conditions (e.g., poverty, parents with psychological illness). Rather than struggle as might be expected, many of the youth developed into well-adjusted and high-functioning young adults (e.g., Rutter, 1985; Werner, 2004). As the scholarly field of resilience expanded, so too did the number of definitions and conceptualizations (see Aburn, Gott, & Hoare, 2016 for a recent review). At the core of the discussion was the extent to which resilience was best measured as a dispositional trait, an outcome, or a dynamic process (Rutter, 2000). Masten, Best, & Garmezy (1990) offered one of the more complete definitions of resilience when they stated that it refers to “the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances” (p. 425). Central to this and other definitions of resilience are three criteria: (a) adversity (e.g., poverty, acute trauma) (b) factors buffering individuals from long-term difficulties due to the adversity (e.g., personal and environmental factors), and (c) successful adaptation despite the adversity (e.g., lack of psychological disorder, degree of psychological adjustment).

As data accumulated in support of seemingly “rare” instances of positive adaptation to chronic stress, Masten (2001) coined the term ordinary magic to characterize how the capacity of individuals to successfully adapt to stressful circumstances, although remarkable, results from the presence of personal and environmental factors that are actually quite common. Indeed, resilience is the most typical response among adults who have experienced acute trauma (Bonanno, 2004). Research since the 1980’s has revealed several personal and environmental factors related to positive outcomes despite the presence of high-risk situations for youth (Werner, 2000). Personal protective factors for resilience include strong emotion regulation, social competence, positive selfconcept, and an internal locus of control (Dahlin & Cederblad, 1993; Werner, 2000). Common environmental protective factors include the presence of caring relationships, positive role models, high expectations, and opportunities for leadership (Werner, 1995). Subsequent research has resulted in lists of protective factors and their link to positive outcomes in specific sub-groups of children and adults (e.g., Bonanno, 2004; Hamby, Grych, & Banyard, 2018;Jocson, Alers-Rojas, Ceballo, & Arkin, 2018; Schaefer, Howell, Schwartz, Bottomley, & Crossnine, 2018).

Because high-level sport is by nature filled with challenges and obstacles for participants, it is a natural context from which to examine resilience. Despite recent advancements, the study of sport resilience continues to be plagued by a lack of consistency in the conceptualization, operationalization, and measurement of the construct (Galli & Gonzalez, 2015; Sarkar & Fletcher, 2013). Nonetheless, a handful of studies have made useful contributions to researchers’ understanding of the protective factors and positive outcomes experienced by high-level sport performers. In the remainder of this section I highlight the results of sport resilience studies most relevant to this text, which include those focused on high-level athletes who have adapted well cognitively, emotionally, socially, and/or spiritually to threats/adversities in the sport environment. Further, because of inconsistencies in measurement, and problems associated with labeling individuals as “resilient” vs. “non-resilient” noted by Luthar and Cicchetti (2000), I emphasize studies operationalizing resilience as an outcome or process rather than a self-reported aspect of personality.

Much of the research on resilience in high-level athletes conducted in the past decade has focused on protective factors most relevant for promoting positive outcomes despite threats in the sport environment. Researchers studying injury, organizational stress, and burnout in sport have found support for several factors, including social support, coping skills, and positive coach behaviors (Smith, Smoll, & Ptacek, 1990; White & Bennie, 2015). In their comprehensive review, Sarkar and Fletcher (2014) identified additional protective factors from the literature, including positive personality (e.g., adaptive perfectionism, optimism, competitiveness), motivation, confidence, and focus. As compared to earlier research with high-risk youth, socio-environmental protective factors are notably less prominent. Although this may be due to the difference in adversi-ties/threats and outcomes of interest between the groups, it could also be due to the pre-conceived notions of resilience by sport researchers as a personal ability rather than one arising from a mixture of personal and environmental factors. Fortunately, researchers have begun considering the role of important others in the sport environment, such as coaches, in the promotion of resilience in athletes (e.g., Kegelaers & Wylleman, 2018).

Several of the protective factors discussed in Sarkar and Fletcher’s (2014) review arose from two qualitative studies of resilience in high-level athletes. Both studies also shed light on psychosocial outcomes resulting from protective factors. The first of these studies was by Galli and Vealey (2008), who interviewed ten current and former high-level athletes regarding the most difficult adversity that they ever experienced in their athletic career (e.g., injury, transition). The authors analyzed the results both deductively according to Richardson et al.’s (Richardson, Neiger, Jensen, & Kumpfer’s, 1990) Resiliency Model, and inductively based on athletes’ perceptions of their experience. The results informed the development of a conceptual model of sport resilience, in which sport adversities faced by the athletes resulted in a process of agitation characterized by unpleasant emotions and mental struggles, mixed with cognitive and behavioral coping strategies. This process influenced positive outcomes such as increased learning, increased motivation to help others, and a broadened life perspective. However, positive outcomes were also a product of pre-existing sociocultural (e.g., social support) and personal (e.g., achievement motivation) resources. The Galli and Vealey (2008) model has since been adopted and supported in studies of athletes with acquired disabilities (Machida, Irwin, & Feltz, 2013) and survivors of the 2014 Boston Marathon bombings (Timm, Kamphoff, Galli, & Gonzalez, 2017).

Thus, similar to high-risk youth, when athletes possess adequate personal and environmental protective factors they are able to successfully navigate many of the threats to psychosocial health discussed in this text. Furthermore, and as I delineate later in this chapter, the process of negotiating threats may bolster preexisting protective factors, or even foster the development of new resources to handle future threats.

The second qualitative study of resilience in high-level sport was by Fletcher and Sarkar (2012), who undertook a grounded theory study of psychological resilience in 12 former Olympic champions. In the theory that emerged, psychological resilience was conceptualized as an overarching concept which framed the athletes’ responses to sport stressors. Multiple psychological factors, including having a positive personality, motivation, focus, confidence, and perceived social support, influenced performers to appraise stressors as challenges rather than problems, and evaluate their own thinking (i.e., meta-cognition). Challenge appraisals and meta-cognition led to facilitative responses such as increased task engagement, which then led to optimal sport performance. As Fletcher and Sarkar (2012) acknowledged, one weakness of this study is that participants won their gold medal as much as 40 years prior to their interview, making recall bias of greater concern in this study. Further, as mentioned previously, the proposed model offers little reference to the influence of socio-environmen-tal factors on athletes’ ability to positively adapt, which have been suggested as important in other qualitative studies of resilience in sport (e.g., Galli & Vealey, 2008; Machida, Irwin, & Feltz, 2013), as well as by scholars who advocate for a process-view of resilience (e.g., Vanderbilt-Adriance & Shaw, 2008; Windle, 2011). Despite its limitations, the Fletcher and Sarkar study was an important step for resilience research in sport, as it introduced meta-cognition as a viable part of resilience for athletes, and offered the first context-specific definition of resilience in sport- “the role of mental processes and behavior in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors” (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012, p. 675).

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