Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Olympic Gold Medalists and Raising Resilient Kids

Recent research on how elite athletes succeed is useful to parents who want to r

In an article in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar report on their interviews with Olympic gold medalists and how they cope under the incredible stress that accompanies elite level sport. There are some good lessons here for us parents who want to help our kids achieve the resilience they’ll need when life dishes them up some extreme challenges. Of course, there is one big difference between an Olympic athlete’s resilience and a child who must endure cancer, or whose family tumbles into poverty after a parent loses her job. Olympic athletes “actively seek to engage with challenging situations that present opportunities for them to raise their performance level.” While our children may not choose the challenges they endure, it’s good to remember that coping under stress is a skill that we can coach our children to be better at.

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Reaching peak performance, it seems, requires the psychological discipline to remain positive despite setbacks, the ability to maintain inner motivation, be confident even when you feel unsure of yourself, an enduring focus on achieving one’s best, and perceived social support. While the list may sound obvious, there are some not so obvious ways that gold medalists succeed at keeping themselves psychologically resilient.

1) The advantages of setbacks. As odd as it sounds, most of the study’s participants said that while serendipity (being in the right place at the right time) sometimes helped them get a chance to show what they could do, it was life’s challenges that provided them with the motivation to push a little harder. Without some setback, most would not have reached their full potential. The experience of failure brings with it opportunity: the chance to say with certainty whether one wants to give everything one has to achieving one’s goal. Sometimes, those personal challenges were as simple as a bad performance or being denied a spot at a qualifying competition. But personal milestones also played a factor. The loss of a parent, a divorce, a personal injury all caused these athletes to pause and reconsider their commitment to success.

What does this tell us about raising resilient kids? Don’t shelter them from every challenge. Let them fail! Let them experience the bitterness of having not measured up so they can consider what they will have to do to succeed. When things come too easy for those who are gifted, they can become too complacent. A little failure, in manageable amounts, may actually produce a child who can endure life’s setbacks better than a child who is sheltered from failure.

2) The advantages of getting control over one’s thinking. Also known as meta-cognitions, elite athletes control their thinking. There has been an enormous amount of focus on mindfulness training to help people with mental health problems think about how they are behaving in order to help them control those behaviours. It’s like an observer floating above us, watching what we think and do. Elite athletes control their self-talk, know what their goals are, and notice when they are talking themselves out of being able to win.

What does this tell us about raising resilient kids? Help kids think about thinking. Ask a child who is anxious about an exam what he thinks will happen, then offer him some new ways of thinking about the challenge before him. Are the consequences really as bad as he thinks? And is a less than perfect score really the tragedy the child is making it out to be? Ask a child to clarify his goals: what grade does he need to succeed? Learning to control our thoughts is as simple as giving them voice, though terribly complicated to change if we fail to recognize that we can talk ourselves into a panic or a depression.

3) Have a positive personality: Elite athletes tend to be open to new experiences, conscientious, innovative, extroverted, emotionally stable, optimistic and proactive. They seek opportunities to take on challenges and make the most of those opportunities for personal growth.

What does this teach us about raising resilient kids? It is very difficult to change personality types. An Eeyore-like child who is eternally pessimistic may never want to see the world as being full of possibilities. But that doesn’t mean the child can’t be encouraged to try new things by a parent or teacher. Most kids are naturally curious. As caregivers, we can provide kids with the security they need to launch themselves with the confidence they’ll need if they stumble. I liken this to encouraging a child to try out for the school play or basketball team even when she thinks she is good at neither acting or sports. We can train a child to take chances by giving her a push in the right direction and a soft landing when she fails. Optimism can, in fact, be learned.

4) Self-confidence needs others to believe in us: We may think that elite athletes have endless self-confidence, but many Olympians told stories of their self-confidence lagging at critical moments in their careers. At those times, it was their teammates, coaches and family members who provided the external sources of support they needed to maintain their belief in themselves. Those perceived social supports are enduring reasons why elite athletes can train as hard as they do.

What does this teach us about raising resilient kids? Our kids can succeed even if they lack self-confidence as long as those around them maintain a belief in the child’s ability to succeed. As caregivers, we matter a great deal. Being resilient is not something that is necessarily reliant on individual qualities alone but can be awakened by a supportive environment. A child who hears “You can do it” is more likely to succeed at times when he is unsure whether he has what it takes.

5) The goal has to be optimal performance, not the medal! Elite athletes rarely focus on the medal. They focus on doing their absolute best, exploiting every ounce of their energy and passion. That’s what is satisfying. That is what convinces them they are truly worthy of the prizes they win.

What does this teach us about raising resilient kids? We need to focus much less on the medals and accolades and much more on encouraging children to do their best and fully use their abilities. I worry about Tiger Moms and other types of push parenting that insist that good enough is only achieved when the child comes first, which leaves most kids feeling like losers. I admire children who strive to do their best. That’s what I want to applaud, genuine effort rather than another trophy on the wall or admission to some special academic or sport program that brings status to the child (and often the parent). Being resilient means striving to succeed in ways that are meaningful. A student who completes high school and becomes a mechanic is every bit as worthy of my praise as the concert pianist. That’s something Tiger Moms seem to overlook, except when they need their cars fixed. Why would we push the mechanically inclined child into university or the musically inclined to become a doctor? Let’s help children be their best.

I’ve always loved the poetry of the Olympics. These are rare world-class performances that inspire us to be our best. They can also, it seems, teach us something about what makes children resilient.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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