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  • Writer's pictureAlex Loh

What Competitive Sports taught me about Resilience and Mental Toughness

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

I always thought resilience and mental toughness meant the same thing. Both terms have actually been used fairly interchangeably in some conversations that I have had a chance to be involved in, until I sat down to research to write this article, and realised they should not be used interchangeably!

By definition, both resilience and mental toughness are developed through experiential learning and life’s experiences. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. Mental toughness is the ability to see challenge and adversity as an opportunity and not a threat, and having the confidence and positive approach to take what comes in your stride.

Mental Toughness = Resilience + Confidence + Positivity

It is good to know that if you are mentally tough, you probably also have resilience. But if you have resilience, you need not necessarily have mental toughness, because you may be lacking in confidence and positivity to complete the equation.

If Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, The Outliers, wrote that “10,000 hours (of training) is the magic number for greatness”, could we apply the same rule to say that “10,000 hours of (failure) is the magic number for resilience and mental toughness”?

This topic is very close to my heart because I have failed multiple times in my professional as well as personal life and I have reflected and realised that I displayed mental toughness and resilience amidst every crisis to always bounce back for the next challenge and opportunity.

I want to give thanks and attribute this to my years of training as a high-performance athlete, representing Singapore in the sport of Water Polo. And breakdown what competitive sports taught me about resilience and mental toughness.

Embracing Failure

"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life.” – Michael Jordan, GOAT and NBA All-Star

I’ve seen and heard this quote many times over when I was a student growing up and the message was always that “if you try hard enough, and if you fall hard enough and pick yourself up every time you fail, you will eventually succeed”. Nobody ever told me it was because we were building resilience and mental toughness. It was always an understanding of probability, and that ONE day… just ONE day, it will be MY turn to succeed. So happy to bring greater meaning and relevance to this quote after 40 years of my life!

In the four years that I was training 11 times a week for water polo, every day was an opportunity for failure. We failed when we did not meet the swim set times; when we did not score a goal in a training game; when we did a bad pass in a crucial game and a goal was conceded (or worse… that we lost the game); when we overslept and did not wake up for training; and the list goes on.

Some failures had more significant repercussions than others, but the important thing was that every failure was a learning experience and they were all part of the hours added to build resilience and mental toughness.

I have managed to embrace every failure I have experienced since retiring from competitive sports. Some more trivial and some life-changing, but I have been able to bounce back swiftly enough to move on after each situation.

Understanding that not Everything is within my Control

Have you heard that you can plan and prepare as best as you can, but something could still go off plan and the situation end up not as ideal as you would have expected it to be?

In sports you can train and prepare as best as you can, but on the day of the competition, there are variables that are not within your control. It could be anything from the weather to other environmental factors, or just that the other team was more “on form” and fired up. There are some who will worry unnecessarily about these uncontrollable factors, and there are others who will acknowledge and understand that not everything is within your control and be confident that the hours of blood, sweat and tears will show the results.

This is not an excuse to make up for one’s failure and abilities, but an awareness that in my opinion contributes to creating the right foundations for building resilience and mental toughness.

Today, I am very conscious of the number of hours and effort put in for a particular task, project or role, but I am also acutely aware of the uncontrollable. So much so that if things go awry, I show resilience and mental toughness to push through and am not left handicapped and put down.

Focusing on the Goal

Competitive sports allow you to focus at the light at the end of the tunnel. You know that there is a finite amount of “suffering” and discomfort that you will need to put yourself through to be able to see and experience the fruits of your labour. There were always moments of self-doubt and questioning of “is this worth it?” or “why am I putting myself through this?” but having that laser focus on the end goal was always the force that helped to navigate my way through these trying times.

The question to ask oneself is, “have you honestly done all you need to and can do (within reason and ethics), to achieve your goal?”

I have always had my eye on the prize and have always been cognizant of the fact that long term goals will only be achieved with many hours, over many years, of training and hard work. Resilience comes very naturally to being able to recover from the setbacks, so as to continue on the road to the final destination. Mental toughness is developed because every new setback is anticipated and is understood as getting closer to the focused goal.

Appreciating that Sweetness is in the Journey

The journey is sweeter than the victory itself. As someone who has had multiple failures, and also stories of success, I remember the journey of each more than the end result. Appreciating what the journey has done for you or can do for you builds resilience and mental toughness.

I had to retire prematurely from a prolapsed L4/5 and L5/S1 disc injury in 2002, when I was at the peak of my competitive sports journey. The injury left me with excruciating lower back pain and I could not feel my leg from knee down. It was so bad that you could prick me with a needle I would not know! I was out of action for four years before a very difficult period in my personal life brought me back to training water polo with the National Team again.

After two years of intense training with the team and juggling a full-time job, I did not make the final cut. I was one of the last two players to be excluded from the final team of thirteen that were chosen for the 2007 SEA Games. Failed... but the journey was sweet!

By channeling the positive energy from the experience of the journey, you are able to better accept adversity, setbacks and challenges because you know that the journey is always a well-worth-travelled one and the take-aways priceless.

Celebrating the Small Wins

Life is a marathon and a combination of smaller races and sprints along the way.

In competitive sports, you fail all the time, but you also have many small wins along the journey that lead you on to the final destination. Improving your score percentage during the game is a win; bettering your swim time by a tenth of a second is a win; lifting 10kg heavier for your deadlift is a win; and gaining 1kg of muscle mass is a win; and the list is endless.

Celebrate with a cheer; with a beer; with an indulgent meal; or with anything that suits your fancy. A small win means that you are that much closer to your goal, and a small win means that you are that much better than you were yesterday. Research has shown that celebrating small wins help to intrinsically motivate us to continue working towards the light at the end of the tunnel and gives us reason to continue striving towards the intended goal.

Celebrating smalls wins is something that I practice even today and could be something as simple as having a glass of wine at the end of the day to celebrate a good day at work. Celebrating small wins help to add that positivity to the situation however bad the circumstance might be and contributes to building resilience and mental toughness.

Developing Confidence

The countless opportunities to fail in competitive sports has helped me shape my mental model to see problems and adversity as opportunity and not threat. This is in line with the definition of mental toughness and grabbing the bull by the horns in whatever and whenever the situation calls for it. The psychological mindset of having done something before or having tackled a challenging task on hand before, gives me the confidence that I will be able to do it again.

Because I used to wake up at 4.30am for training and had to put in 11 sessions a week training at the gym and in the pool, I understand that it takes hours of failure and training to build greatness. And because I know I emerged physically, emotionally and psychologically stronger, I have the confidence to know that there is no amount of hardship that I will not be able to bear to attain my goals.

This confidence has translated into every other area of my life and it has helped me build authentic relationships. This confidence is also a piece of the equation where mental toughness resilience plus confidence plus positivity.

Expanding Pressure and Stress Threshold

This leads on to the fact that because I have overcome adversity and challenges many times before, I know I will be able to do it again and again and “survive”. I am sure there could be hours, days, and even weeks of feeling down, just like I have experienced in my professional and personal life, but I will be able to bounce back again eventually.

I also feel that my ability and threshold to handle pressure and stress expands with every challenge, and this coupled with the confidence to be able to withstand and overcome the adversity and challenge, inadvertently builds resilience and mental toughness.

In all my times of failure and being down, there is comparison of which might have been worse than the other, but one constant that remains is that my mind is tuned in to believe that because I have experienced similar or worse, there is nothing more I cannot undergo.

Risk-taking is a “Mind Stretch” Exercise

There is a difference between risk-taking and gambling. Risk takers embrace failure, whereas gamblers are unfrazzled by failure. To put it simply, gambling is taking a shot in the dark whereas risk-taking is attempting a calculated shot taken in the light.

During a game of water polo, we take split second calculated risks all the time. We get better the more we do it because although each situation and experience is unique, there are similarities that our brain draws from to naturally decide to make the pass, take the shot (or not), swim this direction instead of that, or defend (or not) against the opponent.

This risk-taking exercise is training for the mind to be able to transfer this process to other areas of my life and it has proven to be extremely useful with the clarity of thought in leadership, people management, entrepreneurship and even making decisions for my family.

Risk-taking builds brain muscle memory to increase resilience and mental toughness.

Learning to Lean on my Immediate Support Structures

Being involved in a competitive team sports for more than half my life taught me not just about teamwork and camaraderie, where we celebrate victories and endure pain and defeat together; the good times and the bad. But more importantly, it was that we were never alone and that as much as we always had support from teammates, family and loved ones, we were also always there for teammates that needed the support. From lending a listening ear, to that shoulder to cry on, to that motivational pep talk, to that much needed slap-in-the-face wake-up-call, I learned that it is the support you have and the support you give, that builds resilience and mental toughness.

Knowing that there is someone with you in the same struggles, and having someone to share them with, make the difficult times a lot easier to bear, and contributes to that inner strength to see past the bad, and work towards the good.

Final Words

I am sure that there are many other ways that one can build resilience and mental toughness through other interests and life experiences.

Competitive sports made a difference for me in character building and in building resilience as well as mental toughness. I hope that sharing my story brings some relevance and meaning to you.

If you have a story to tell about how your life experiences helped you build resilience and mental toughness, I would love to hear it too!

About Alex Loh

I am a consultant and coach in the fitness, health and wellness space, business owner, loving husband and doting father.

My compass is guided by the desire to help people. I help individuals and business owners to find purpose. Together we unlock fruitful solutions, experience growth and achieve targeted success. Having successfully built and maintained communities over the years, my focus is to help businesses and organisations harness community as the vehicle to connect, and build credibility, trust and authentic relationships.

Come speak to me about Developing Wellness Strategies, Finding Purpose, Building Communities and/or in Optimising your Life!


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