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Mistaking Strength for Weakness - Emma Raducanu's summer of '21

Resilience is perhaps THE buzzword these days. But I have noticed that most people, even those who offer to increase your resilience, tend to define it in a particular way. That definition would be akin to mental toughness, an ability to withstand continuous knocks and setbacks without bending out of shape or losing touch with your values. But if you look up resilience in the dictionary there is another way to define it – as a kind of elasticity. Just like an elastic band stretching to absorb pressure and then snapping back into shape.

For a practical example of what resilience as elasticity is all about, there is the story of British tennis player, Emma Raducanu’s summer of ’21. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest sporting stories of all time. At 18 years of age, having just completed her A levels and finished school, Emma Raducanu made a dream come true by getting through qualifying for the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Wimbledon. It got even better, going beyond her dreams, and she made it all the way to the round of 16. Then, with the entire, tennis-mad, nation watching her play on Court Nr 1, she started having breathing difficulties and ended up retiring from the match in the second set. She said later that the pressure and everything going on had been building and building and it came to a head during the match.

Incredibly, there was a significant outcry from sofa-commentators about how weak she was, and how she would never make it at the top level of sport. One, now famous, tweet by Piers Morgan read –

“Ms Raducanu’s a talented player but couldn’t handle the pressure & quit when she was losing badly. Not ‘brave’, just a shame. If I were her, I’d tell my fans to stop abusing McEnroe, & seek his advice on how to toughen up & become a champion like he was.”

There it is, the mistaking of strength for weakness in a nutshell.

8 weeks later, Raducanu was back competing at the famous US Open. She went through three rounds of qualifying and then proceeded to win round after round of the tournament proper, seven in total, culminating in beating Laylah Fernandez in the final to take the trophy. She did it without dropping a single set along the way and she became the first qualifier to win a major in the Open era.

What this magical story shows, without doubt, is that our common ideas around toughness and resilience need updating. Those who thought that Raducanu was not tough enough to make it in elite sport had another think coming (and were forced to make a comically swift U-turn). This should give us pause for thought about all the people out there that we are pre-judging for not having what it takes, or being resilient enough to hack ‘it’. Perhaps they do, and we just haven’t yet got the broad enough understanding of what resilience is. One thing we can be sure of is that there will always be people out there that show us how wrong our ideas were.

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