Sports psychologist Karen Lo reflects on her past life as a swimmer, developing resilience and the meaning of “toughen up”.
A parent recently called me about her son, who cried after losing tennis matches and making unforced errors on the court. She wanted him to stop his unsportsmanlike behaviour, telling me she didn’t mind that he was losing as long as he stopped wailing or breaking his racket in the middle of tournaments. She wanted him to toughen up and be more resilient in the process – after all, kids need to learn how to be unfazed by failure, and to bounce back as quickly as possible.
This got me thinking about my own teenage experience as a competitive swimmer. One of the most prevalent myths about resilience is that it equates to toughening up mentally – and colloquially we use these terms interchangeably. I still remember the moment my arm hit the touchpad at one of the more important swimming meets in 2004 – I was 0.5 seconds away from the Olympic cut. Sitting at the deck, my coach looked crestfallen. After our usual post-meet evaluation she mentioned casually that she felt I was “being too in my head”, that I needed to be tougher to handle pressures from bigger races, and that if I continued to swim without confidence my chances of making it to the next Olympic cycle were slim.
In retrospect, she probably tried her best to be encouraging, but I left the pool dejected and feeling as if it were the end of the world.
Eight years later, her words still echoed in my head as I embarked on my journey to becoming a sport psychologist and opened my own clinic. Are world-class athletes resilient because they power through, whatever the circumstances? Are they just tougher than I was? I was more curious than ever about how the mental game worked, what it takes to be mentally tough, and how differently life could have played out if I knew how to become a more resilient swimmer.
Almost a decade into practice, I now know that there are stark differences to these concepts. People react to adversity differently – some are avoidant, some instantly let go of expectations, others cycle through different emotional states as they come up with solutions to the mess they’re facing. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that the most resilient individuals don’t stop crying, they don’t grit their teeth and power through. Instead, they give themselves the space for novel and unsatisfactory things to happen, and are able to adapt and solve problems in different ways.
Part of the conversation with my tennis player wasn’t centred around learning how to suck it up; rather, it was learning to accept that less desirable situations in competitive environments aren’t fatal, to find ways of interpreting adverse situations that perpetuate constructive emotional reactions, and to ensure we have an alternative course of action. After a few weeks of observing his matches, as well as therapy sessions where we explored ways to assist him to better manage his emotions, my tennis player was much more in control of his game – to his mother’s relief.
Whether you’re a ballet dancer, a fencer, a golfer, a violinist, or a corporate professional, you’re constantly performing under pressure and facing adversities and setbacks in the process. The art of developing resilience lies not just in putting on our game face, but in our effort to adopt more flexible thinking patterns in the process. In making sure we have the right toolbox, we can then be more equipped to overcome mishaps in the best ways possible.
Karen Lo is a former Hong Kong national swimmer and a practising Sport and Performance Psychologist. She founded Inner Edge, a sports and performance psychology consultancy, on the belief that the mental game is equally as important as the physical. She is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, USA and a Registered Practitioner of the International Society of Sport Psychology Registry.