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Battling Adversity Is Key To Success Of Top Athletes

Tennis star Andy Murray overcame tough losses and personal strife to reach No. 1

Andy Murray holds up the ATP World No.1 trophy in November 2016. (Andy Rain/EPA)

For a second year in a row and the third time in total, Andy Murray has won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. This caps a fantastic year for Murray, who won Wimbledon, Olympic gold in Rio, and the ATP World Tour Finals. In addition, he ends 2016 as World No. 1, above Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer. But it’s been far from a straight path to success.


After his third successive Wimbledon semifinal defeat in 2011, former British No. 1 Tim Henman suggested that Murray needed to deal with adversity better to become a grand slam winner, saying:

Mentally, I think his attitude has been fantastic on the court and he has been more in control. The trouble is dealing with adversity.

Before the 2012 London Olympics, Murray had been in four Grand Slam finals. He lost them all—and three in straight sets.

Interestingly, these crushing defeats seemed to provide a catalyst for his subsequent performances. He won a gold medal for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympic Games against Federer, the man Murray lost to just a few weeks earlier in the 2012 Wimbledon Final. Murray went on to win his first Grand Slam at the 2012 US Open, beating Djokovic and then his second by winning Wimbledon 2013, again beating Djovokic. He became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years.

The science of adversity

Andy Murray during a break at the 2011 Australian Open. (Image via globalite via Wikimedia Commons)

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that adversity-related experiences are vital in the development of superior sporting performance. In one of our research studies last year, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 10 Olympic gold medalists from a variety of sports. The findings indicated that the participants encountered a range of sport- and nonsport-related adversities that they considered to be essential for winning their gold medals. These included repeatedly not being selected for international competitions, significant sporting failure, serious injury, political unrest and the death of a family member.

Like Murray, the majority of the participants had encountered at least one significant sporting failure during their athletic career before their gold medal victory. Examples of this included disappointment in a major championship, under-performance at a previous Olympic Games, or losing in an early round in an Olympics that they ultimately succeeded in. One participant described her team’s failing at a major championship just a couple of months prior to winning gold:

The European Championships (were the) test run for the Olympics … and it was a disaster, but it was a good thing it was a disaster. Because there were team harmony issues that had to be sorted. We had to take a long hard look (at ourselves and) … we were disappointed that we didn’t perform, but that was a massive learning curve. It was the kick up the backside (that we needed) … so it made us work that extra bit harder over the next two months.

Two adversities identified by Olympic champions in our research were related to nonsporting situations. For example, some of the gold medalists were exposed to political unrest and terrorism during their athletic careers, and they felt that these negative circumstances were important in igniting their motivation to perform at the highest level:

Very often … I’d be traveling into (name of town) and bombs would be going off as I was actually progressing into the town centre. And that was … very scary because you could see the plumes of smoke going up as you were going into the city on the bus. But you … just had to do it. You had to be determined that it was important to get your training session in … I just single-mindedly wanted to achieve my dream despite what was happening … I wanted to please (people), and particularly because we were going through such dreadful times … I wanted to bring some good news back.

Interestingly, Murray attended Dunblane Primary School, and was present during the 1996 Dunblane school massacre. There, Thomas Hamilton killed 17 people before turning the gun on himself. Murray has been reluctant to talk about it in interviews but in a 2013 BBC documentary Murray said he hoped that his tennis success has helped his hometown to recover from that ordeal. “It is just nice being able to do something the town is proud of,” he told Sue Baker.

Dunblane Primary School. Dave Coustick/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The experience of adversity is, of course, not enough on its own to guarantee sporting success. As indicated by the above Olympic champions, traumatic experiences appear to have positively influenced athletes’ subsequent performances in sport by igniting motivation and stimulating learning. Indeed, adversity may sometimes be required for reflection, opening up dialogue, frank communication, enhancing relationships, gaining perspective, humility, and forging a new beginning.

Indeed, the sayings “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” and “every cloud has a silver lining” are particularly relevant here. As Murray indicated himself, “Failing’s not terrible … learning from my losses is something I’ve done throughout most of my career”.

Andy Murray’s ability to use adversity to his advantage has certainly been important for his success. This is nicely summarized by journalist Paul Hayward in the following quote:

Murray’s special selling point has been a refusal to become discouraged by humiliating defeats in earlier grand-slam finals. It was easy to imagine a malevolent voice taking up permanent residence in his psyche. It would have told him to give up on his fantasy of joining the gilded age of men’s tennis, alongside Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Instead, Murray assimilated his setbacks calmly and rationally. He gained in strength and conviction.

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