As a Marriage and Family Therapist, NLP Practitioner, and Sports Performance Consultant in private practice for many years, I’ve noticed that more often than not that an athlete’s person’s mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual resilience determines how successful they’ll be in whatever athletic endeavor they choose to take on in life. Their resilience is that X factor that separates them from their peers. It’s that athlete’s never-say-die attitude, their stubborn defiance to never give up or surrender in the face of overwhelming odds, and their unrelenting drive to stand their ground and keep fighting until the end that paves the way to achieving greatness. Interestingly enough, resilient athletes who refuse to back down or go away during a competition sometimes lose. Their tenacity, however, almost always pays off in the end. They may lose the battle, but their opponents will remember their undying warrior spirit, and in turn they will eventually surpass their rivals and win the ensuing wars.
Resilient athletes eventually catch their rivals and win the proverbial war because their relentlessness eventually wears their opponents down. Their unbreakable mindset and unshakable presence breaks their opponent’s will. Much like zombies that rise from the dead time and time again after being shot at dozens of times, resilient athletes simply refuse to go away as well. Each time they lose, they get right back up, and work even harder to chase down their opponent and finish them. These athlete/zombies feel more positive and more determined than ever over time rather than discouraged. They get up from defeat, dust themselves off, and vow to learn from their past mistakes. By doing so, they get better and better.
Just when their rival thinks his or her opponent has been left in the dust for good, they can see their vanquished opponent in their rear view mirror yet again, and this leaves them reeling, wondering if their rival will ever go away. Finally, when it becomes clear that their losing rival has every intention of chasing them to the ends of the Earth to catch them, they feel themselves starting to mentally crumble. To them, it’s like being hunted down in the woods by FBI trained German Shepherds or blood hounds. They simply can’t outrun them or out maneuver them in the long run, so eventually they fall to the ground, hands behind their back, and turn themselves in. Although they were in the lead at one time, they eventually choose to turn around and throw in the towel.
One elite athlete that comes to mind that embodies this type of never-say-die resilience is tennis’ Rafael Nadal. In 2011, Rafael Nadal was in the midst of losing seven consecutive meetings-along with the No. 1 ranking, to his arch rival, Novak Djokovic. All of those heart-breaking matches came in finals, three at Grand Slam tournaments; Wimbledon and the U.S Open in 2011, and at the Australian Open in 21012. Clearly Djokovic had a strong mental and tactical edge back then. If Nadal were like most athletes, he would have mentally folded whenever he played Djokovic in the months and years to come. Nadal, however, is not like most athletes. On the contrary, he is supremely resilient, and therefore his 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win in this year’s 2013 U.S. Open finals made him 6-1 against Djokovic in their last seven encounters. It also raised Nadal’s lead in the head-to-head series to 22-15 and made him 8-3 in their match-ups at Grand Slam tournaments.
So what changed in the competitive dynamic between these elite tennis players? According to Nadal, a lot had to do with the four-set loss to Djokovic in New York in 2011. After dropping the first two sets, Nadal won the the third in a tiebreaker. He said afterward, ” A very important moment for me. I was able to change the situation, to fight more than I had in the previous matches against him, and see a way for me to play…Run for every point. Fight, fight for every ball. And play aggressive. And that’s what I did in the third set.” In other words, Nadal harvested from him loss optimism and confidence. Rather than wilt from yet another defeat, he decided to become even more resilient, more mentally tough, and more mentally and emotionally resourseful.
Their next match was the Australian Open final in January 2012, and Djokovic won that one too. They played five sets that stretched over nearly six hours, making it the longest Grand Slam title match in history. Although Nadal lost that epic match, he said afterward, ” I finished that match in Australia very happy, because another time I was able to change the dynamic.” The next time they played, about three months later in the final at Monte Carlo, Nadal won in straight sets. Having learned from his previous losses, this time he played closer to the baseline and looked to attack more when possible. “After that victory, mentally, you feel more confident when you come back on the court against him, ” Nadal said.
The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry is a true testament to the power of mental and emotional resilience. Nadal was better at the start of their careers. Djokovic did what he needed to do to edge ahead. Then, summoning his resilience, dogged determination, and unwillingness to be daunted by previous losses, Nadal regained the upper hand again. Together, they have won 12 of the past 15 major titles.
There’s an old Japanese proverb that says, “Fall down 7 times, get up 8.” As a Marriage and Family Therapist and Sports Performance Consultant, I’ve found that this is what elite athletes do. They remain fearless, undaunted, and supremely resilient. Ultimately, this extraordinary brand of bullish tenacity and unwavering spirit eventually causes their rivals to mentally and emotionally break. Their resilience, mental toughness, and unwillingness to go away paves the way to their greatest successes and triumphs both in sports and in life.
If you’re an athlete who tends to fall away when the going gets tough or when you’ve lost to your rivals time and time again, I invite you to tap into the zombie spirit inside of you and stick around through thick and thin. Become defiantly resilient, and refuse to back down or surrender, however bleak things may appear in the moment. In the end, your fierce determination and never say die attitude will wear down your opponents and your arch rivals, and you will eventually emerge victorious in the end.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog!! I hope that you found it useful.
John Boesky,LMFT # 39666
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Sports Performance Consultant