Rethinking resilience with paralympians


In the second of our series on resilience, Katherine Bond, one of our Human Performance Experts and Consultant Performance Psychologist to ParalympicsGB, shares some thoughts on resilience from her 12 years of working with Paralympians.

I’ve had the good fortune to work as a psychologist with Paralympic athletes since 2004. Rio will be my 4th Paralympic Games. It’s a privileged position to work with highly talented, world class athletes, and in many cases phenomenal and inspirational human beings who embody resilience. It’s taught me much, both professionally and personally, and continues to shape my thinking about the human spirit, mindset and capacity to perform.

Paralympic resilience

We tend to use the word resilience to refer to our ability to bounce back from setbacks – rejection at work or in our personal life, or some kind of loss. It’s seen as the ability to bounce back quickly, stay strong and retain inner belief. It’s also about keeping your performance standards high when conditions are tough and daily life throws its normal dose of trials and tribulations at you!

One thing I’ve noticed is that many of the Paralympic athletes I’ve worked with are supremely good at this. They have more than their fair share of daily challenges – try spending a few hours with a wheelchair user in London or any city and you’ll soon understand! Their ability to just deal with whatever is thrown at them is remarkable, and in my experience, surpasses the ability of Olympic athletes.

A root cause?

Where has this ability come from? Well, partly having overcome significant challenge, there’s no doubt. Some Paralympians have had a major event or trauma to deal with. Others – with congenital disabilities – have had continual challenge to overcome from birth, which will typically include physically not being able to do some things, and, sometimes more damagingly, being told that you can’t do some things!

It’s easy to simply say that Paralympians (and others who’ve experienced and overcome significant challenge in their lives) are more resilient because of that. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?! But while exposure to challenge helps you be stronger, it’s not enough or sufficient to make you stronger and resilient – and in some instances it can create the opposite effect.

A resilient mindset

One thing I’ve noticed – and been inspired by – is the choice of Paralympians to focus on ability, not disability. Their focus is pretty consistently on “what can I do” and “how do I do that with what I’ve got”. This mindset is a key to resilience. It’s a mindset that’ll not only help you deal with setbacks but be constantly engaged in exploring ways to be better, to push boundaries, to deliver more with less. And in a performance arena, it equates to tremendous resourcefulness and innovation. If you’re in any doubt, check out Matt Stutzman, a US archer who was born without arms and won silver at London 2012!

A choice

There’s much we can all learn – as I have – from our Paralympians. In the end, it comes down to choice – a choice of mindset and behaviour. Choose your attitude. Accept the reality of the world you live in. Deal in possibilities, not impossibilities. Explore opportunities to push the boundaries. And treat setbacks as little hurdles and great opportunities to learn and increase your resilience!