Dealing with major setbacks: lessons from an Olympic athlete

Tips on resilience from Olympic rower, Dr Cath Bishop.

Reading time: 4 minutes

Resilience is essential for all of us as the demands grow on a personal and professional level. On a bigger scale, the environment needs to be resilient, our national security relies on it, and our economy’s performance depends upon it. But what is resilience really about?

No one has it easy. Sports stars lose big games in front of the gaze of thousands watching. Business leaders see their results take a dive and reported on the pages of the newspapers instantly.

HR directors find themselves facing constant human crises on the frontline, whether it’s making redundancies, managing bullying or providing vital mental health support, as well as dealing with the direct fallout from any of these and the consequences that quickly ricochet around an organisation.

Every day brings new challenges for us all, whether as sportsmen and women, parents, CEOs or HR professionals. That’s a given.

We can do very little to prevent those challenges, but what we can do is practise, develop and improve the way we respond to those moments of challenge by developing the way we think, feel and then act, and thereafter learn and adapt in order to be better prepared next time.

In the world of Olympic sport, athletes dedicate regular time to developing their mindset, beliefs, behaviours, habits and overall resourcefulness to manage the inevitable challenges that will come, whether in the form of injury, early retirement or a losing run.

Olympians develop a performance mindset by which success is not solely defined by whether you win or not, but by whether you have maximised the gains you could make on a daily basis, whether you have improved every performance ingredient – from strength, to fitness, to technique, to beliefs and behaviours – from one day to the next.

It’s a relentless focus on reviewing performance, not just results, which forms the foundation of resilient thinking.

Athletes review and learn whenever they can – not just when they race, not just when they lose, but every interaction, thought and experience on the training ground is an opportunity to learn and improve.

As an Olympic rower I would never have won those medals if I hadn’t lost, and learned a ton of lessons along the way

Whether you win or lose, there are always things that you’ve done well, and things that you need to work on to do better next time.

In the workplace, a culture of regular review would help support all those managing the unpredictable world of human resources.

Every early exit, mental health crisis or headcount reduction is an opportunity to get to know your workforce and think about how to create the best experience possible for those staying and those leaving.

Results can’t be controlled any more than the human crises that occur inside business organisations. But your openness to learn and listen to those around you can be controlled and developed and will make a huge difference to your experience of those inevitable crises.

It’s that openness, willingness to listen and learn, and as a result grow and change, that is critical in resilience.

There used to be an old-fashioned belief that resilience was about being tough and strong and unyielding. Years of research across healthcare, trauma victims, the military and elite sport have shown that resilience is about the exact opposite.

It’s our ability to flex as the situation changes around us, to grow and adapt that is what allows us to emerge from adversity in a different way that will help us to act more effectively next time.

Asking different questions is a great tool for helping develop adaptability: what could I do differently next time? What else could I try? What might create a better experience for employees, and how can I get their thoughts and input into this?

Posing these questions is a critical part of starting to think differently and leads to reframing these ‘crises’ into useful learning opportunities.



The ability to reframe a situation in order to maximise the learning and performance analysis is a critical skill that Olympians use.

I know that when I was training as an Olympic rower, I would never have won the medals I eventually won if I hadn’t lost, and learned a ton of lessons along the way.

Every time I lost, I knew that there were areas that I could change and improve that would make me go faster next time and be more likely to win.

I also knew there were some good things within every losing race which I made sure I recognised and continued to build on. I certainly would never have had the powerful impetus to learn, and ideas of how to change without those tough losses.

Resilience depends on a constant learning mindset, a readiness to adapt, grow and change, an ability to reframe crises as opportunities, and a flexibility to try new things.

It is not enough simply to bounce back to repeat what we’ve done before – that way leads to burnout in the end.

We need to go way beyond bouncing back to adapt, grow and thrive, ready and looking forward to the next challenges heading our way.


About the author

Dr Cath Bishop is senior performance consultant at Will It Make The Boat Go Faster


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