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Stone Olympic rings on a hill representing 9 ways Olympians develop resilience

5 ways that you can develop resilience like an Olympian

4 min read
  • Business
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • Sport psychology

The Olympic motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ or ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ refers to the psychology needed to be an Olympic Champion. After London 2012, we analysed the gap between Gold and Silver medallists in each event. The results? The average difference between first and second place was less than 1% difference.  

So what makes an Olympic champion successful? Researchers have found that Olympic gold medallists believe that their resilience plays a key role in their success. Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States of America, once noted that “nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent”.

The Olympic champions interviewed said that this gold medal winning resilience developed over time. So how did they develop their resilience (and how you can boost yours as well):

How to develop Olympic resilience

View your decisions as active choices, not sacrifices

This helps maintain a high sense of control over the situation, which is something that the brain craves. If you view your decisions as sacrifices, you will always be focusing on what it is that you have given up. By viewing them as active choices, you focus more on what you need to do and what you stand to gain by doing it.

See setbacks as opportunities for growth

Failure, disappointments and setbacks are inevitable at some stage. In fact research suggests that they are a vital part of the process. The challenge is not in never failing, but learning how to fail better. This can be done by asking yourself simple questions such as ‘what could I do differently next time’ and ‘what have I learnt’? Other strategies that help someone fail better are to actively seek out feedback, avoid common mistakes when requesting it, and then not to get defensive when receiving it.

Develop a positive personality

This includes being open to new experiences, being optimistic, competitive and conscientious. Another key part of this was being pro-active and not waiting for things to happen in the hope that they fall into your lap.

Use the support available to you

Asking for help is the hallmark of a resilient performer. This has been found to act as a stress buffer and improve coping, as well as improving mood. This is why the NHS urge people to connect with others in order to improve their well-being. As 17th century poet John Donne once said, “No man is an island”. The more we isolate ourselves, the more we brood over bad decisions which increases our stress and frustration. 

Not only does asking for help make you feel better, but it can also help you perform better.  In a study of over 300 people, researchers have found that having deep and meaningful relationships with the people you work with improves performance. They found that colleagues who had good personal relationships had more trust, support and pride in their work.  As Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore said in his acceptance speech, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

What’s your why?

Olympic champions developed their resilience by identifying what their motivation for succeeding was. This could be wanting to make their family proud, achieving something no-one has ever done before or the quest to be world number one.  If you can identify why you are trying to achieve your goal, this will help boost your motivation and determination, especially when you have a setback or your goal seems far away.

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Can this be applied at work?

Can we apply these lessons learnt in sport to the workplace? Absolutely. The same researchers that investigated Olympic champions also studied the resilience of other high achievers, which included successful people from sport, business, law enforcement, medicine, media, education and politics. They found that many of the above strategies were consistently mentioned as ways these people developed resilience.

Studies have shown that many work based programmes have helped employees develop their resilience. The authors of one of the largest reviews on this found that ‘resilience training can improve personal resilience and is a useful means of developing mental health and subjective well-being in employees’. As we enter an era of economic uncertainty, this resilience could be more important than ever. By viewing decisions as active choices, failing better, using support around you and having a clear sense of purpose, you can develop Olympic resilience too.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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