Adversarial growth

It is commonplace for athletes, coaches, and others in the high-level sport environment to refer to resilient athletes as those who not only adapt successfully to threats in the sport environment but emerge better than they were before. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously suggested, that which does not kill us only makes us stronger (Nietzsche, 1889). A modern description of Nietzsche’s insight was offered by several researchers in the 1990’s, who began exploring the potential for positive personal outcomes due to stress and trauma (Park, Cohen, & Murch, 1996; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). And although both resilience and growth represent adaptive responses to adversity, they are not the same. Whereas the resilience trajectory is characterized by a brief period of minimal distress followed by a return to baseline psychosocial functioning, adversarial growth implies psychosocial enhancement due to individuals’ experience with adversity (Bonanno & Diminich, 2013; Westphal & Bonanno, 2007). As Westphal and Bonanno (2007) argued, people who are resilient have little need or opportunity to grow from adversity. I now provide a brief overview of theories and models of adversarial growth (aka posttraumatic growth, stress-related growth), followed by a review of the literature on adversarial growth in high-level athletes.

Two theories have been particularly influential in explaining how individuals might be improved by adversity. The functional-descriptive model proposed by Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995) posits that the process of growth is triggered by “seismic event” which challenges individuals’ fundamental beliefs about the world. As individuals experience automatic and intrusive thoughts (i.e., ruminate) about the issue, they begin to self-disclose through by talking to others, writing, and praying. Self-disclosure promotes a sense of social support, which in turn leads to reduced distress, and more intentional cognitive processing characterized by the formation of new narratives about their adverse experience and life in general. It is because of this more deliberate ruminative activity that growth occurs in one or more areas. Specifically, based on extant literature and their own clinical practice, Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996) suggested five domains of growth: (a) increased appreciation for life (e.g., “I am more grateful for the little things”), (b) closer relationships with others (e.g., “I now know who my real friends are”), (c) increased personal strength (e.g., “I know now that I can handle more than I believed”), (d) identification of new possibilities (e.g., “Because of what my physical therapist did for me, I want to do the same for others”), and (e) spiritual growth (e.g., “I have a stronger faith in God”). An important element of the functional-descriptive model is the recognition that growth does not necessarily preclude distress. In fact, Calhoun and Tedeschi suggest that some level of enduring distress may even be necessary for sustained growth.

A second theory of adversarial growth was proposed by Joseph and Linley (2005), who drew from positive psychology to propose their organismic-valuing theory of growth (OVT). Like Calhoun and Tedeschi’s (1995) assertion that the process of growth is set off by a “seismic event,” in OVT growth can only occur when an event is significant enough to shatter individuals’ assumptions about the world. Individuals are then driven to integrate new information with their preexisting understanding of the world, which happens through a mix of cognitive and emotional processing. The extent to which individuals’ social environment satisfies their needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness will determine whether they experience growth. In support of Calhoun and Tedeschi (1995), Joseph and Linley noted that whereas individuals who experience growth may emerge wiser and more appreciative (i.e., eudaimonia), it is not essential that individuals experience positive emotions such as joy or happiness (i.e., subjective well-being). I now highlight several such investigations of adversarial growth in high-level sport.

Although growth was noted as an outcome in a study of season-ending injuries in skiers (Udry, Gould, Bridges, & Beck, 1997) and the aforementioned investigation of resilience (Galli & Vealey, 2008), Galli and Keel (2012) were the first to systematically explore the phenomenon in high-level athletes. Interviews with 11 collegiate athletes who reported at least a moderate degree of growth due to their most difficult sport stressor in the past six months, as measured by Tedeschi and Calhoun’s (1996) Posttraumatic Growth Inventory, informed the development of a conceptual model of adversarial growth in athletes. The model illustrates the process of growth reported by participants, in which a combination of struggling to work through their stressor and social support were instrumental in facilitating personal growth in the form of a new life philosophy, self-changes, and interpersonal changes. Athletes’ sociocultural context (e.g., family dynamics, race/ethnicity) and personality characteristics (e.g., passion, achievement motivation) both framed and shaped the process. The results support several aspects of Tedeschi and Calhoun’s (1995) functional-descriptive model, including the important roles of social support and cognitive processing, as well as the domains of growth.

Since the initial investigation by Galli and Reel (2012), researchers have examined growth in Paralympic athletes (Day, 2013), female athletes (Neely, Dunn, McHugh, & Holt, 2018; Tamminena, Holt, & Neely, 2013), and Olympic swimming champions (Howells & Fletcher, 2015). A consistent finding across studies is the importance of meaning-making and social support in setting the stage for adversarial growth. Unique to Day’s (2013) study was the importance of physical activity in laying the foundation for growth in Paralympians who had acquired a traumatic disability. Specifically, the athletes noted how sport allowed them to acknowledge both their limitations and their possibilities, and the ability to take risks and accept responsibility for their actions.

Howells and Fletcher’s (2015) study of adversarial growth was unique in that they analyzed content from the autobiographies of Olympic swimming champions. As interpreted by Howells and Fletcher, the story arc of the swimmers tended to show a pattern of initial adversity (e.g., congenital impairments such as dyslexia, abuse, depression), followed by a process of transition characterized by an attempt to maintain a sense of normality through swimming, questioning the win-at-all-costs culture of elite sport, a search for meaning, and social support. The transition ultimately allowed swimmers to experience growth in several realms, including performance, relationships, and spirituality. The longterm narrative accounts of adversity and high-level sport participation offered by swimmers’ autobiographies allowed the researchers to obtain a “landscape” view of the growth process not usually available in traditional research designs.

The most developed line of research devoted to adversarial growth in sport is led by Wadey et al. (e.g., Salim, Wadey, & Diss, 2016; Wadey, Evans, Evans, & Mitchell, 2011), who have conducted a series of quantitative and qualitative investigations to understand the process and outcomes of growth in injured athletes (i.e., sport injury-related growth; Roy-Davis, Wadey, & Evans, 2018. In his initial study, Wadey et al. (2011) analyzed interviews with ten high-level athletes to understand the antecedents, mechanisms, and growth outcomes in each phase of injury recovery. For example, growth due to injury onset was spurred by emotional responses, prompting athletes to self-disclose and seek support from others, and resulting in an enhanced ability to understand, express, and regulate emotions. One intriguing finding was athletes’ perception of enhanced resilience as an outcome of the return to sport process, suggesting a link between the two constructs that awaits further investigation. Wadey et al. quantitatively identified pathways to growth, such as the mediational effect of emotional support seeking and positive reframing on the relationship between hardiness and growth (Salim et al., 2016). Wadey, Podlog, Galli, and Mellalieu (2016) found preliminary support for the OVT as an explanation for growth due to sport injury, as growth mediated the relationship between need satisfaction (i.e., competence and relatedness) and subjective well-being.

Roy-Davis, Wadey, and Evans (2018) recently conducted the most in-depth investigation of sport-injury growth to date. After an impressive 70 interviews with 37 athletes conducted over 24 months, the researchers developed a comprehensive grounded theory of sport-injury related growth (SIRG). Many of the components of the theory supported extant research on resilience and growth, including the important roles played by positive personality, meta-cognition, previous experiences with adversity, social support, and effective coping in facilitating growth. Further, the various domains of growth (e.g., increased personal strength, enhanced social relationships, increased pro-social behavior) noted by athletes aligned with previous studies of adversarial growth in sport. Novel findings included the influence of cultural scripts, or narratives of triumphing over adversity portrayed in the media, as inspiring participants to do the same. Most importantly, the grounded theory of SIRG represents the most complete sportspecific theory of adversarial growth to date, and an ideal starting point for future research in the area.

Promoting resilience and growth in high-level athletes

Given the threats to psychosocial health inherent to the high-level sport environment presented in Chapters 4—8, the promotion of resilience and adversarial growth should be a high priority for sport leaders. Research and theory from within and outside of sport offer insight for how athletes can bounce back from such threats, and perhaps realize growth because of them. Two frameworks, one from the study of high-risk children, and another specific to performers, are particularly informative for promoting resilience in high-level athletes.

Benard’s (1997) resiliency framework provides guidelines for creating an environment in which individuals’ innate capacity for resilience is activated. Within the framework, three envirosocial protective factors are highlighted: (a) caring relationships, (b) high expectations, and (c) opportunities for participation and contribution. The three factors are interactive, such that the presence of each maximizes the benefit of the others. Individuals exposed to environments supportive of these conditions are more likely to display social competence, a strong sense of identity, problem-solving, and optimism (Benard, 1991). Although Benard’s framework was not designed with the high-level sport environment in mind, it is easy to envision how a collegiate, Olympic, or professional coach might consider these three protective factors for building a resilient team. She might work to create a team setting wherein athletes trust and respect one another and feel safe discussing concerns with the coaching staff (i.e., caring relationships). The presence of caring relationships would provide the foundation for the coach to rely on athlete strengths for goal achievement and athletes sense a belief from their coach that they have the capacity to meet her high expectations. Once athletes feel cared for and understand the coach’s expectations for their effort and attitude, she would ideally provide frequent opportunities for them to live up to these expectations in practice and games. An important aspect of such opportunities is the opportunity to fall short of expectations and learn from those disappointments. When the three conditions of caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities are consistently present, athletes will be better equipped to tap into their innate capacity for resilience when handling the sport-specific threats discussed in this text.

A second framework for fostering resilience is Fletcher and Sarkar’s (2016) mental fortitude training model. Based on research on stress and resilience in sport, Fletcher and Sarkar identify three essential factors for promoting resilience in high-level athletes: (a) personal qualities, (b) a facilitative environment, and (c) a challenge mindset. In brief, the authors posit that athletes’ internal protective factors (e.g., personality traits and psychological skills) are maximized when training and competing in an environment which balances support with challenge. The byproduct of the bidirectional relationship between personal qualities and a facilitative environment is a challenge mindset, characterized by functional appraisals of sport-specific threats by athletes. Athletes are more likely to positively adapt to threats when they view them as opportunities, and recognize the unique personal qualities that can help them to succeed despite adversity.

Thus, like Benard’s (1997) framework, Fletcher and Sarkar highlight the environment as critical for the expression of personal protective factors in the presence of sport threats. And while it is likely that in-born personality traits cause some athletes to have a wider “resilience bandwidth” than others (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016), sport leaders can ensure that athletes reach their resilience potential by teaching athletes psychological skills such as attentional focus and emotion regulation and allowing opportunity to practice these skills within challenging yet supportive sport environments. Although Fletcher and Sarkar’s model seems most applicable to performance-specific threats (i.e., performance pressure) rather than threats further removed from the performance setting (e.g., abuse, transition), as the only sport-specific resilience training program, it warrants consideration from researchers and practitioners broadly interested in building athlete resilience. Randomized controlled trials will allow for an understanding of the effectiveness of the program for promoting positive psychosocial as well as performance outcomes in response to a variety of the threats discussed in this text.

In terms of proactively setting the conditions for adversarial growth in sport, we can learn from extant research and theory. According to the OVT, environmental conditions that meet individuals’ needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness provide the energy for growth. Wadey et al.’s (2016) study of growth due to sport injury partially supported the OVT, as athletes’ perceptions of competence and relatedness were linked to growth, which in turn predicted subjective well-being. Thus, at least as it relates to injury, sport leaders should work to promote a sense of proficiency as athletes recover, highlighting the attainment of milestones and improvements along the way. Further, keeping injured athletes involved with the team at some level would enhance perceptions of relatedness, which offers a second potential pathway for growth.

The issue of promoting adversarial growth after difficult events have occurred is somewhat controversial. In the non-sport literature, clinicians caution against expecting that clients achieve growth through their struggles, and instead be vigilant about listening for signs that they are recognizing potential enhancements themselves (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2012). As suggested by the functional descriptive model of growth, the process of growth partially stems from the kind of social support and opportunity for cognitive processing often provided by psychotherapy. Although not all athletes will require or use psychotherapy, emotional disclosure of thoughts and feelings about their struggles remains a viable avenue for growth. Indeed, Salim and Wadey (2018) found that previously injured athletes who engaged in four 20-minute sessions of verbal disclosure about their injury into an audio recorder reported significantly more adversarial growth than participants in a control or written disclosure group. Despite this finding, the authors noted the challenge faced by sport organizations to de-stigmatize efforts by athletes to talk about their struggles, problems, and concerns. That is, the narrative around emotional disclosure should be changed from one of weakness to one of empowerment for growth. By providing physical space and trained support staff to facilitate emotional disclosure, sport organizations would send a message to athletes that it is ok, and even encouraged, to verbalize their personal struggles (Salim & Wadey, 2018).

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