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Compassionate resilience - a fresh view of the high performance mindset

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

(First published in The Association of Coaching magazine - Coaching Perspectives, 2022)

The world of high performance sport has entered a period of reckoning. The traditional approach, centred around a result-focussed, win-at-all-costs culture has led to shockingly frequent cases of abuse and inhumane treatment of the athletes. Some of the world's most elite sporting systems have achieved incredible success but at the cost of the humans doing the performing. British gymnast and Olympic bronze medallist, Amy Tinkler, said that she would give her medal back if it meant she didn’t have to go through the brutal system that led her to it.

There is something awfully wrong with the culture of sport, so detached from its true, humanitarian values, when the medals and results are valued far above the health and growth of the people doing it.

The effects of this approach are plain for all to see - burnout, dropout, identity crises during periods of transition and a high prevalence of mental health issues among elite athletes. The toll on the athletes, and in many cases also the coaches, is elite sport’s enduring shame, but it also represents a huge inhibitor on achieving the potential within the system. When one athlete drops out of their sport early due to overtraining and under-support, their years of development and the impact of their continued engagement are suddenly lost. Talented athletes are rarely replaceable, like-for-like, and the immense investment in their athletic development goes to waste if their relationship with their sport is burnt irredeemably. The results they could have achieved are no longer on the cards. Their impact on those around them and that come after them is immediately lost. The unique personal growth that accompanies a long career in sport, is cut sadly short.

The same trends are evident in businesses where ambitions are high and performance and results matter. Stress-related illness and sick leave is at an all-time high. Companies are struggling to motivate and hold on to their top talent. Younger generations arrive with different expectations for their working conditions than previous generations. They are impatient to make an impact in the world and are driven more by connection to a higher purpose than by the traditional remunerations. The embedded culture of gritting your teeth and just getting on with the job through thick and thin holds diminishing sway with today's workforce. In both sport and business, traditional notions of mental toughness and resilience are being proven to lack substance. Those athletes and employees who do attempt to just ‘push on through’ in the face of increasing stress and pressure, end up suffering the backlash.

The problem is that our definitions of these terms - mental toughness, resilience - are outdated and no longer fit for purpose. We know more now about the psychology of performance and of dealing with pressure. We have a host of new ideas about how to develop people and create environments that encourage thriving rather than just surviving.

There is a paradigm shift coming in elite sport, centred around the creation of just these kinds of psychologically informed environments. An understanding of motivational theory, positive and performance psychology provides the foundation of cultures where people are supported rather than brutalised. Teams that are adopting this approach are opening up a whole new frontier to performance gains, as athletes and coaches are trained to focus more on the process than the results, encouraged to be true to themselves, supported through the inevitable turbulence of an elite sport career and motivated to stay longer in their sport. Some businesses are also following this path, and there are great potential gains on offer for those that are open to embracing this new deeper approach.

The concept of resilience, too, is being reconsidered. Through my experiences as an Olympic athlete and then supporting others at the highest levels of sport, I have come to an understanding of the term that can best be described as compassionate resilience. This is a far cry from the ‘toughing it out’ mentality that most people ascribe to the world's top performers, and perhaps is more like the polar opposite of it. This definition is founded on what are often regarded as ‘softer’ skills which, in fact, when put under the microscope, turn out to be the toughest of all.

There is a Buddhist parable that illustrates this nicely. The zen master asks his pupils ‘what is tougher, the brick wall or the blanket?’. His pupils respond, the brick wall, of course. ‘And what happens to the wall when I throw a stone at it? It will chip. What happens when I throw a stone against the blanket? It absorbs the blow without damage.’

As with the wall and the blanket, so goes for our mindset. The hardened mindset can withstand some stress but each blow will chip away at it, leaving it ever more unstable and over time, liable to collapse. The more pliable mindset can absorb blow after blow without suffering any substantial damage.

So what are the building blocks of this more pliable mindset that can lead to resilience of a deeper kind? Among them are self-compassion, mindfulness, gratitude and walking the values-driven path i.e living with integrity. This foundation of resilience represents our best understanding of psychology combined with wisdom from the ancient philosophies. There is now prodigious scientific evidence to support the fact that these ‘fluffy’ concepts, which are so usually derided in hard-nosed performance contexts, are precisely what will help us achieve our goals, individually and in teams.

Self-compassion - essentially treating yourself with warmth, kindness and forgiveness as you would do a close friend or family member - has been proven to mitigate the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans. It has also been shown that self-compassionate people are more likely to pick themselves up and try again after experiencing failure. Self-compassion offers a deep sense of identity and self-worth from a place of security and acceptance, allowing for all the inadequacies and failures that come with being human.

Mindfulness is, simply put, being aware of your experience in the present moment without attaching judgement to it. It is the starting place for treating yourself with compassion in times of suffering and not being swept away in destructive emotion or in rumination. In a performance context the practice of mindfulness is invaluable for developing greater focus and emotional control, which are at the core of dealing effectively with pressure. Mindfulness meditation has long been an integral part of the mental training of top sports teams and athletes such as the famous Chicago Bulls team of the 80’s, Novak Djokovic, Kobe Bryant and the Seattle Seahawks. Psychologist, Viktor Frankl, in his awe-inspiring book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has the following quote - “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Mindfulness is the practice by which we can more skillfully navigate that space between stimulus and response.

Gratitude is an emotion, but also a thought that can be practiced and a behaviour that can be expressed. It is a mental skill that can be trained over time and has been proven to be a buffer against stress, to decrease levels of depression and to enhance feelings of social connectedness and positive emotions. On the physiological side, gratitude can have benefits to the cardiovascular system and to sleep, and has even been linked to greater neuroplasticity in the brain. It is not about just thinking positively, but rather gaining a sense of perspective that can help you view challenging circumstances differently and in a way that helps you learn from them rather than be struck down by them. Australian researcher and author, Kerry Howells, has shown us how gratitude is also the antidote to resentment, the most toxic of emotions. Gratitude is a profound concept that can help us deal with the biggest hardships in life, heal broken relationships and live a more fulfilled life.

Living by your values and with integrity is advice that has been expounded ever since the ancient Roman and Greek philosophers. A building with integrity can withstand the storm. Similarly a person who builds their character on a foundation of integrity, being true to themselves and what they value in life, will be better equipped to weather the storms of life. It is a simple yet profound exercise to explore what your values are and how you can live and breathe them in your daily existence. They can help guide you in decision-making and bring a sense of inner stability and security. A lived sense of integrity means you will have clearer boundaries, and will not so easily be drawn outside of them to behave in ways you later regret. This all speaks to what is essential preparatory work for any person or team that aspires to become more resilient.

Putting this all together we can begin to grasp the enormous potential impact of this new, more humane approach to developing resilient people and teams. The ‘soft’ approach turns out to be the most impactful, helping people access deeper reserves of self-worth and to connect more meaningfully with others and with their sense of purpose in the world. In sport we are seeing teams and athletes using this approach to perform far beyond expectations - from the all-dominant New Zealand All Blacks rugby team cultivating a powerful sense of belonging and purpose, to then 18 yr old British tennis player, Emma Raducanu who prioritised her mental health in pulling out of her last 16 match at Wimbledon. She then came back just eight weeks later and, harnessing a joy-filled focus on the present moment, pulled off one of the greatest achievements we have ever witnessed in sport by winning the US Open from qualifying, without dropping a single set along the way.

All the evidence points to the fact that through a relentless focus on the process, and by enabling the human behind the performer to thrive, we can achieve results that we never dreamed possible.

Businesses and leaders who are committed to high performance should take note. The traditional results-focussed approach is being shown up as severely lacking in the world of elite sport, and the exact same goes for the workplace. A new frontier for performance gains lies in the unleashing of human flourishing. This work, however, cannot be done in a single workshop or a single day. It requires greater time and energy commitment from all parties, and that means true appreciation and prioritisation from the organisation's leadership. Those who are willing to commit to this path will reap the benefits - a more resilient workforce who suffer less from stress and can do better, more creative work, as well as higher motivation, greater retention of talent and an overall spike in performance in both individuals and teams.

The path to get there may be more complex and messy but once you start down it there is no way you would ever choose to go back.

For those now wondering how they might get started down this path, let’s use the two sporting examples above as inspiration. Evoking the legendary culture of the All Blacks, you may start by considering how the onboarding process in your business can make people feel like they truly belong there. Can you show them, in vivid language, how their contribution will connect to achieving the higher purpose of the organisation? This calls to mind the now famous anecdote of President Kennedy on a visit to NASA. Along his way he meets a man in a white coat and asks him what he does at NASA. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, sir”, replies the man. Kennedy discovers then that the man is in fact a cleaner. That cleaner was in no doubt that by keeping the station and the equipment clean of dust and dirt, he was fulfilling a vital role in sending a man to the moon.

(In 2021 I organise a very unusual pre-season weekend for nice Danish national team athletes when I was the Performance Director of the Danish Fencing Federation. We visited Kings Jelling, Denmark's historic birthplace, and spent time exploring deeply what it meant to those athletes to represent their country. You can see the video we made about that weekend here.)

Turning to the incredible example set by Emma Raducanu, perhaps you can be on the lookout for those moments (and in our current workplace climate you can guarantee there will be no shortage) when giving your team or an individual employee a break might be the step back they need in order to make a big leap forward later. In sport we are abundantly aware of the importance of rest and recovering, and of the threat of over training. We are taught that our efforts in the gym only become gains with healthy recovery, which is why recuperation is planned into the schedule. How do you plan recuperation into the schedules of your employees? And finally, Raducanu showed us that a teenager competing at only her second major could come through qualifying, winning every set on the way to outright victory by embracing her love of the sport and focussing on each shot, each rally, one at a time. If you want your team or business to reach higher than ever before, then you could think about how to unleash more of their intrinsic enjoyment of the work they do and especially how to get every team member focussed on the process of their performance, with little care for the result.

I’m sure that all sounds near impossible for many reading this, but then again, true high performance is reserved for those willing to try and to fail.

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