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Resilience in rowing

It’s safe to say that life has changed exponentially since the beginning of the year. Not only are societies still enduring the effects of an unprecedented global pandemic, but for the first time since World War II, the Olympics were postponed.

Of course, 2020 should have been a summer of sport. But as we come to terms with these cancellations, there’s one particular topic that’s been at the forefront of every athletes’ minds: resilience and overcoming adversity.

With that in mind, we caught up with Olympic rower John Collins, who gave us the lowdown on adapting to changes, bouncing back, and how he and the British rowing team stay resilient through adversity.

Turning threats into challenges

Resilience is a form of mental toughness.

To use a sporting metaphor, people often approach difficult situations by taking a ‘mental backswing’ first; but being resilient is about having the capacity to whack the ball without needing to take that backswing.

In athletics, as with anything, life will throw a mixture of ups and downs at you. Depending on your mindset, failures can weigh heavy, or you can use them to move forwards. The key is in turning a downward spiral around. It can even come down to something as simple as the language you use. If you look at failures as opportunities, or threats as challenges, it can make a huge difference to your mentality – as well as your physiological response. It’s easy to sit on the start line and worry that that single race will affect the rest of your life; but really, it’s just another race. By keeping things in context and rationalising situations, you can turn a stressful situation into an exciting one – and by embracing this change in mentality, you can then modify how you approach obstacles going forwards.

Sometimes curveballs can actually improve things. I faced a situation where the order of my boat was swapped around, and it took me by surprise; but it was actually a fantastic change, and my doubles pairing went from strength to strength. Change doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.

Putting up a fight

Sometimes the biggest opportunities for personal growth come from the biggest ‘failures’. When something really hurts – for example, if you are expecting to win a medal, but you come fifth – it’s easier than dealing with the disappointment of a near miss because you feel so far from achieving what you thought you could that you’re actually more motivated to do things better the next time around.

The key to staying resilient is to roll with the punches, dust yourself off, and keep going. Recognise the opportunity to improve and regain that momentum. But if you know you’re facing an unavoidable negative outcome, change your mentality. Stand up to it and recognise that it doesn’t matter if you fail, as long as you put up a fight.

When you’re an athlete, you can experience small failures every day, whether its an off-moment in training, deviating from your diet, or losing at an event. What helps you bounce back is thinking about it as a victory every time you overcome a failure. To really fail, you have to let the minor setbacks get the best of you. If you can pick yourself up and keep going then in many ways you’re already winning.

Adapting to change

The most successful people are usually those who lack a fear of failure.

Most people are put off by failing, and ironically, block their own success by trying to avoid failure at all costs. Of course, you can’t succeed at everything, every time. But by being tenacious, and trying again and again, you dramatically increase your chances of succeeding. It’s about rediscovering a willingness to take a dive over the edge; pushing limits to transcend what you thought was possible. And that’s how you break barriers. To overcome adversity, you’ve simply got to change how you view it. After all, nobody ever looks at another person and thinks they’re failing; they see someone who’s trying hard.

The pandemic has, of course, forced us all to adapt to a new normal. As athletes, we’re no different. Personally I’ve been combining steady training and hard training through lockdown; making the easy stuff easier, but doing more of it; and really going hard at the more difficult things. It’s about trying to find limits, and nudge past them – and I’ve found that my limits are a little bit further than I previously thought.

However, when it comes to resilience as an athlete, you also have to recognise that motivation is not a consistent thing. Some days, it’s difficult to get motivated; and that’s okay. But when you have motivation, use it to do more. That way, the quality of your training will stay the same. It’s about adapting to a new situation – to a new environment – and recognising that it’s impossible to stay too rigid when you’re in a completely unprecedented situation.

Putting a positive spin on things

Of course, we’re all disappointed that the Olympics has been postponed – and as an athlete, this can be a real blow if things have been going well. But at the same time, lockdown has definitely presented opportunities. Athletes can experiment with the way they train, using methods that work specifically for them rather than being coaxed into more universal training approaches – and they can try new things without an audience.

Amongst athletes, the universal feeling is that this lockdown has been a big opportunity. An extra year will make us a lot stronger; it’s a massive learning experience and a chance to reflect on what works for us individually as well as a team.

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