Overcoming Adversity: Advice for parents of sporty children!
By Holly Bradshaw, pole vault British record holder and 2-time Olympian
‘The greatest lessons you could ever learn in life are born from failure' (1)
Do you want to know how to overcome adversity? Has your child already faced adversity and you want to know more? This article will help you understand some of these things:
• What is adversity, in the eyes of an athlete?
• How can an athlete best deal with adversity?
• In what ways can an athlete grow following adversity?
‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ (2). This well-known statement could actually be true: according to research (3),adversities that cause trauma can ultimately have benefits.
The post-traumatic growth model (see below) was created to show how positive change can occur as a result of struggling (4).
The post-traumatic growth (PTG) model
3. Social support, reflection, new goals
There are countless real-life examples of very successful people who have experienced adversity: Einstein didn't speak until he was four, Oprah Winfrey was told she 'wasn't fit for television', and record labels told the Beatles they didn't like their sound and they had no future (5).
What is adversity?
We all feel stressed from time to time – it’s a normal part of life. Experiencing stress as an athlete is also completely normal, very common and nothing to worry too much about. However, as soon as a stressor becomes too hard for an athlete to overcome, this is when it becomes adversity (6). As a parent of an athlete, it is good to be aware of the types of adversity you can expect your child to experience on their sporting journey (7, 8, 9). Some are listed below.
• missing championships
• sporting failures
• changing coaches
• loss of form
• funding issues
As you can imagine, these experiences are troubling for most athletes; therefore, initial responses to them are likely to be very negative (10).
Here are some Olympic athletes’ responses to adversity (11):
• ‘For the next year, I’d cry at the drop of a hat.’
• ‘I was devastated. There’s no other way to put it … I was embarrassed.’
• ‘My brain kept returning to that negative tape playing over and over.’
Growth following adversity
You’ll be glad to hear that your child can grow, develop and become a better athlete after experiencing adversity – providing they have access to appropriate support.
Andy Murray has appeared in 11 Gram Slam finals throughout his career, with only three of them ending in victory. In an interview, Murray said that ‘failing is not terrible’ (12): he described how each of his defeats against Novak Djokovic or Rodger Federer had contributed to his success and ‘learning from my losses is something I’ve done throughout most of my career’.
It is through the process of struggling with adversity that changes may occur that propel an individual to a higher level of functioning (13) (physical, mental and personal). How an athlete grows following adversity has been extensively investigated, and research suggests there are three main areas of growth: intrapersonal, interpersonal and physical (14).
An improvement in an athlete’s mindset is the most noticeable area of growth. An athlete often gains knowledge and learns more about their sport following adversity: specifically, increased mental toughness and mental resilience, a realization of opportunities, improved problem-solving and sport-related intelligence (14). An increased motivation towards sport and healthier emotions such as confidence, optimism, happiness and gratefulness are also witnessed after adversity:
‘I appreciated every minute I got to play after that, every bit of training.’
‘I looked at it in a positive way, instead of dwelling, looked at different roads to explore’ (15).
There are also positive day-to-day changes in how athletes interact and approach others following adversity. Greater appreciation for others, being able to speak out, and enhanced relationships with family and friends are the changes frequently identified (14).
‘I felt wonderful, realizing that I had never loved my family as much or felt closer to them as I did in my life. The incredible thing was they had been there all along’ (11).
Athletes can become physically better! You may think that suffering trauma, such as an injury, would result in physical deterioration, but this is not the case. It has been noted that better athletic functioning, superior performance and increased strength and fitness are often achieved after adversity (14).
‘I did a lot of strength work.’
‘I came back a much stronger runner than before’ (16).
Simply experiencing adversity isn’t enough for growth to occur; what is more important is how we deal with adversity.
What do we know so far?
Research in this area has identified a secondary response to adversity called the ‘transitional response’ (11),whereby negative responses to adversity are transformed into growth through utilizing multiple personal (searching for meaning, positive outlook and reflection) and situational (social support, access to sport, physical and informational resources) coping strategies (14). The majority of elite athletes seem to possess the ability to naturally adopt some of these strategies: however, younger, more inexperienced athletes will need a helping hand to apply these strategies in daily life.
When someone asks an elite athlete, ‘Who was your role model growing up?’, you will hear Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and David Beckham mentioned, but you know who else is very common? PARENTS! You are massive role models in your children’s lives, and by addressing their concerns, sharing their lives and maintaining a constructive perspective, you can contribute to their growth and development and play a pivotal part in helping them to overcome adversity (17).
The chances are, your sporty child may need a little extra help in adopting these coping strategies, and your role as a parent is to support them where appropriate. Here are some tips to help your children work through adversity to grow (18).
1. Be encouraging. Encourage your child to face their problems and help them to find solutions.
2. Provide opportunities. Help them get involved in their sport and promote volunteer work in that community. Children feel empowered by helping others and it gives them a sense of responsibility.
3. Be positive. Promoting positivity can help them see the good in a situation and push them forward even when it may seem difficult.
4. Set goals. Celebrate their achievements every time they reach a goal. Point out the hard work they have put in and the decisions they have made along the way.
5. Be approachable. Be there for them – provide support, show empathy and tell them that you understand their situation. It is important that your child feels comfortable coming to you for help.
Hopefully, now you as parents know:
• what sporting adversities your child may face and the negative emotions associated with them,
• that adversity isn’t necessarily bad, and
• that your child can develop positively following adversity. Using the PTG model, you can help facilitate this growth in your child.
Holly wrote this article as part of her masters degree in psychology. Read the full article at https://adversityin.sport.blog/2019/12/04/overcoming-adversity/
1 5 reasons why everything happens for a reason in life. [online]. Wanderlust Worker [viewed 1/12/19]. Available from:
2 Collins, T. (2017) Setbacks really DO make you stronger: Athletes who have experienced some adversity in their lives perform much better under pressure. Mail Online [online]. Available from:
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4728212/Athletes-experienced-adversity-perform-better.html [Accessed 06/11/2019].
3 SPA EXPERIENCE (2017) Overcome your adversity and increase your happiness! In: better [online] [viewed 27/11/2019]. Available from: https://www.spaexperience.org.uk/about/blog/detail/our-blog/2017/09/21/overcome-your-adversity-and-increase-your-happiness!
4 Tedeschi, R.G. and Calhoun, L.G. (2004) ‘Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence.’ Psychological Inquiry, 15(1),1–18.
5 Famous Failures (2012) [YouTube]. Directed by motivated success. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLYECIjmnQs&t=36s
6 Fletcher, D., Hanton, S. and Mellalieu, S.D. (2006) ‘An organizational stress review: Conceptual and theoretical issues in competitive sport.’ In: S. Hanton and S.D. Mellalieu (eds) Literature Reviews in Sport Psychology. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science, pp. 321–374.
7 Fletcher, D. and Sarkar, M.A. (2012) ‘A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions.’ Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(1),669– 678.
8 Sarkar, M., Fletcher, D. and Brown, D.J. (2015) ‘What doesn’t kill me…: adversity-related experiences are vital in the development of superior Olympic performance.’ Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 18(4),475–479.
9 Howells, K. and Fletcher, D. (2016) ‘Adversarial growth in Olympic swimmers: Constructive reality or illusory self-deception?’ Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 38(1),173–186.
10 Athletics Weekly (2019) ‘Research report: Holly Bradshaw on overcoming adversity’ [online] [viewed 06/11/2019]. Available from: https://www.athleticsweekly.com/performance/research-report-holly-bradshaw-on-overcoming-adversity-1039920055/
11 Howells, K. and Fletcher, D. (2015) ‘Sink or swim: Adversity and growth-related experiences in Olympic swimming champions.’ Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 37–48.
12 BBC Sport (2016) ‘Andy Murray: Wimbledon champion says ‘best tennis is ahead of me’’ [online] [viewed 06/11/2019]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/36760511
13 Linley, A. and Joseph, S. (2004) ‘Positive change following trauma and adversity: A review.’ Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17(1),11–21.
14 Howells, K., Sarkar, M. and Fletcher, D. (2017) ‘Can athletes benefit from difficulty? A systematic review of growth following adversity in competitive sport.’ Progress in Brain Research, 234, 117–159.
15 Galli, N. and Vealey, R.S. (2008) ‘Bouncing back from adversity: Athletes’ experiences of resilience.’ The Sport Psychologist, 22(3),316–335.
16 Roy-Davis, K., Wadey, R. and Evans, L. (2017) ‘A grounded theory of sport injury-related growth.’ Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology, 6(1),35.
17 Bloom, S. (2018) ‘The importance of parents as role models.’ Livestrong.com [online] [viewed 1.12.19]. Available from:
18 Christine (2018) ‘How to help your child work through adversity.’ In: Families of character [online] [viewed 1/12/19]. Available from: