Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sport Ethics: Resilience


Athletic competition grinds down everyone. Athletes lose and fail constantly. In baseball the best hitters fail two-thirds of the time, in basketball fine shooters miss half the time. Developing and elite athletes make mistakes, lose and fail often. The consistency of failure discourages and weeds out many would be athletes, but the ones that stick it out learn from their errors.  I believe that successful athletes and teams master a fundamental virtue of professional success—resilience.

Resilience is a foundation of successful individuals and organizations. It presents itself in two related ways. 

The first begins with a baseline of performance. A person or organization performs at a particular level, hopefully high. This performance grows from the unfolding of the commitment, skills, coordination, knowledge and practice in a competitive environment. This level of performance is earned and critical to the individual or group's success. The baseline of achievement represents one way to measure resilience.


Resilience emerges and is tested in a particular environment with a particular group of people. A group or person can be performing at this baseline and then confront  misfortune or  shocks. These impacts hit the person or team and throw them off. The impacts can be internal, injuries, or external, new challenges, and threaten the integrity of the performance. A person or team can fall apart quickly when facing these hazards. Resiliency helps the person or team return to its baseline level after staggering from a difficulty. They "bounce back." This form of resilience depends upon keeping intact the integrity of purpose and performance under new and challenging tests.

The second aspect of resilience involves adapting and changing while keeping integrity of purpose intact. This response transcends just recovering from a blow to return to the baseline. Here the person or team  don't just bounce back; they change and thrive through the challenges. These adaptations empower the person or team to increase their performance and get better in response to distress or turmoil. This suggests that integrity of purpose itself can grow in light of new knowledge and challenges so that direction and performance adapt but remain intact to purpose.

Resilience is critical to success because all individuals and teams fail, make mistakes or face traumas that can undermine their confidence and performance. Everyone faces surprises and resilience undergirds response to surprise. If not handled, the trauma of misfortune or surprise can undermine their emotional, cognitive and relational performance.

During a competition or season of competing, shocks and surprises will occur. External shocks involve changing the environment of competition. New owners, new coaches, new talent can reenergize competitors who suddenly start to win. New tactics, techniques or strategies can throw off individuals and teams stymieing their ability to succeed. This changed environment challenges the competitive equilibrium of the person or team. These changes can induce shock, surprise or paralysis. 

The shocks need not just be external. Internal trauma requires just as much resilience. An athlete may fail or not perform up to expectations. Personal misfortune can undermine confidence or slowing physical skills can lead to sudden and unexpected declines in performance. Players might fail, be traded, or benched which erodes well choreographed relations. Injuries take away critical actors and skills, and new persons  suddenly appear and have to be integrated into a cohesive pattern of emotional and cognitive responses. All these throw off the internal equilibrium or coordination that enabled the team to perform at a high level. 

Whatever the cause, the performing baseline can no longer be achieved and is often no longer sufficient. To find success requires that individuals on the teams create a new balance among relations and skills and achieve new coordination and commitment. They need to reassemble resources to restore integrity of purpose and performance. 

This demand to restore integrity of purpose and performance under stress suggests critical dimensions of resilience lie in imagination and learning. Resilient individuals and organizations can see new possibilities and adapt beyond simply replicating what no longer works. 


Resilient individuals and teams have to be able to absorb the consequences of the changes, the losses or defeats, without falling apart emotionally, cognitively or relationally. Failure, trauma, assault generate chaos and confusion out of which the individual and team generate resources to restore relations and performance. 

The counterpoint of resilience lies in brittle or fragile individuals or groups. The person or group may feel robust and successful. These persons or teams may be brilliant performers when things are going well. They succeed within a definite scope and set environment, but when faced with sudden changes that upset established patterns, they struggle. The point of being fragile or brittle is that stress breaks them. Individuals or organizations do not recover when misfortune hits them. 

Brittle or fragile individuals or teams collapse. Facing sudden changes or new challenges the emotional, cognitive and relational balance of individuals gets skewed; they cannot bring the focused attention and relational coherence to bear under the stress of competition and the new experiences.

Under stress relations  can explode with recrimination and anger when members turn on each other. Individuals turn on themselves and cannot grapple out of their slumps. They might also implode into a silent spiral of panic and despair where players and coaches keep trying harder and harder patterns that replicate and reinforce the failed approaches and do not adapt to the new internal or external circumstance. Sometimes, the resilient action may involve simply dismantling a team that has fallen apart, and beginning the process of rebuilding.  


More than a few superb athletes or professionals remain startlingly brittle when they begin to struggle. They have been so successful so long and are so used to success, that they have not developed the emotional or cognitive capacity to accept the breakdown, adapt and work through it in ways that permit them to succeed again. The key here for individuals and teams lies in not seeing integrity as a hard and unchanging core, but understanding that integrity builds outward from purpose and outward manifestations of performance can change but be consistent with inner purpose and integrity. This often means individuals must change  aspects of their style or approach. Often trades of individuals who thrived in one ecosystem of support or competition will result in degraded performance because the athlete no longer possesses the support system that sustained them. What looked like individual accomplishment had been sustained by team and culture.

The first aspect of resilience involves the ability to absorb without disintegration. The second requires the team or individual to adapt and grow from changes. This adaptation under press of competition really defines true competitive  resilience. Simply not disintegrating does not suffice. If an individual just continues to absorb punches and continues to fail; they might be resilient, but only in a limited way. At the core this requires individuals keep their attention and focus under control even when things go badly. This permits people to improvise, test and adapt under pressure.

Real resilience means individuals and teams learn from their failures and mistakes. This requires emotional and cognitive suppleness and abiding confidence. Resilient individuals or teams do not cannibalize their emotions with self-doubt or recrimination, but get down to business of analyzing what is not working, how it can be fixed. Such an approach depends upon both self-mastery and forms of team and self-leadership.

Resilient individuals and organizations keep their attention and  ask critical questions facing these challenges:


  1. What has changed? 
  2. How can I identify how those changes have impacted my style and performance? 
  3. How can I change my approach, training, tactics or strategy to respond to the new challenges of the environment? 
  4. How can I adapt my internal game and skills to adapt to new teammates? 
  5. What does the team need to do in terms of its commitment, training and roles to achieve the level of performance we lost and need to regain?
These questions grow from attention to common efforts as well as individual efforts. They shape reflection and improvisation and testing to find what works under the new conditions.



Modern professional and college sports entail incessant and often chaotic environmental changes. Free agency, trades and high injury rates lead to endless in season and game adaptations for teams. Individuals and teams have to reinvent themselves each year and sometimes several times during a season. Each year new classes arrive on college campus, old ones graduate and players now leave early. At the same time transfers and injuries make rosters much less stable. Successful teams and individuals must develop resilience.

In his book Eleven Rings Phil Jackson illustrates how teams can develop resilience and success in different ways. His early Chicago Bull teams won on the basis of a strong core of six or seven players who played together and grew into a remarkable “tribe” that played with trust, joy and skill. His later Los Angeles Laker teams built far more heavily around two players and a rotating caste of role players who came through the team. Both approaches worked but both required constant adaptation by the coach and the team as they had to work through the ups and downs and shocks of games and seasons. Jackson explains how the more resilient teams built upon a deeper set of relations and purpose that bonded the team members together. He also emphasized that resilient teams possessed  a wide range of experience and possessed several focal points of leadership who can step up and help teams reorganize and regain coherence. 

Organizations dependent upon just one star or leader are far more vulnerable to shocks, just like companies. 

This resilience grows into a cornerstone of successful professional and institutional careers in a chaotic world. Any learning process should build the capacity for resilience because growing and learning depends upon making errors, understanding why the mistake and then correcting the error, achieving success and moving forward. Ideally persons who learn in this process should develop an emotional and cognitive capacity to deal with failure and mistakes they make. Well played athletics  achieves this in a very powerful and sustainable way.

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