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Anatomy of a Comeback: How Exceptional Athletes Bounce Back

Is there a special quality shared by top athletes who triumph over great challenges? And can anyone acquire it?

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Join us for an exclusive member Q&A on Dec. 9, 6 p.m. MST with Matt Fitzgerald as he shares the stories of top athletic comebacks from his new book, The Comeback Quotient, (excerpted here) and gives you some tools (and inspiration) for your own comeback—in sport or life.

Because sports are hard, it takes more than physical ability to succeed in them. Mental fitness is also required. While physical fitness enables an athlete to do hard things, mental fitness enables an athlete to deal with hard things, and no athlete realizes his or her full potential without both.

But what exactly is mental fitness? I define it as the ability to make the best of a bad situation—and in sports it’s almost always a bad situation to some degree. The agony that athletes experience when training hard and competing is really a best-case scenario, or the worst that happens on a good day. And good days are somewhat rare. Most days, athletes are dealing with something beyond just garden-variety suffering, whether it’s injury, illness, aging, overtraining, menstruation, the wrong diet, a bad workout, a bad performance, burnout, stagnating fitness, life stress, time pressure, weather, living in the wrong damn place for the lifestyle you’ve chosen—the list goes on.

Some athletes deal with this stuff better than others. Some time ago, I asked my Twitter followers—most of whom participate in endurance sports—to self-rate their mental fitness. Among the poll’s 371 respondents, 13 percent confessed that their mind was “a major limiter,” 28 percent rated their mental game as “average at best,” 48 percent selected the “good, not great” option, and the remaining 11 percent claimed to have “Eliud Kipchoge level” mental fitness (a reference to Kenya’s legendary marathon world-record smasher, renowned for his psychological fortitude). If my Twitter followers are representative of the broader athlete population, then nearly 90 percent of us are aware that the contents of our head are more of a liability than an asset, and given the well-known tendency of people to overestimate their aptitudes (83 percent of drivers rate themselves as more careful than average, for example), it’s safe to say that just about every athlete other than Eliud Kipchoge himself could stand to improve in this area. Most athletes have a pretty good idea how to improve their physical ability. It’s a simple matter of following proven best practices in training. But very few have a clear understanding of how to improve their mental fitness. Some hire sports psychologists. Still others read books on the topic or practice visualization or journaling or use some other mental training tool suggested by a coach or peer or internet influencer. Still others just keep grinding along, hoping it happens on its own. Which way is best? And why does it matter?

Before we answer these questions, let’s take a moment to consider why the path to physical improvement is so much better understood. Beginning in the early 2000s, exercise scientists began to rigorously study the training practices of elite athletes, particularly endurance athletes, eventually discovering striking consistencies across sport disciplines and geographical regions. Among these shared patterns is the 80/20 ratio of intensity distribution, where 80 percent of weekly training time is spent at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to high intensity. Such consistencies are taken as evidence that, through generations of trial and error, elite endurance athletes have hit upon the training methods that are most effective in developing aerobic fitness in humans. Subsequent studies involving amateur athletes have determined that the same methods work equally well for mere mortals. It stands to reason that what’s true for physical ability is true for mental fitness, as well. If some ways of dealing with bad situations work better than others, and if one way works best, it seems likely that those athletes who deal with bad situations most successfully do so by means of the same, superior method—the psychological equivalent of the 80/20 rule, if you will.

Suppose it were your job to identify this method, if indeed it does exist. The obvious approach would be to replicate the process exercise scientists used to identify best practices on the physical side. Step one would be to collect a number of notable examples of athletes making the very best of the very worst situations. Step two would be to look for common themes among them. There’s certainly no shortage of material to work with. Sports lore is rife with famous comebacks—stories of athletes overcoming tremendous challenges to achieve great things. Is there a thread that ties together all achievements of this sort? To find out, you must do more than just review the tape, so to speak. On their surface, these events reveal little about the underlying how. An athlete falls, gets back up, and wins. Resilience! Well, sure, I suppose. But to draw any kind of usable lesson from such examples, you need to dig beneath the surface and look at what was going on inside the athlete’s head. Mental fitness is exercised within the mind, after all.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Lucky for you, I’ve already done it. Ever since Joan Benoit achieved that gritty win in Olympia, I’ve been fascinated by comebacks. Later, when I became a professional endurance sports writer, I enjoyed numerous opportunities to talk to the athletes behind other great comebacks, get inside their heads, and learn more about how they had experienced them from the inside.

These interactions alone did not yield any great epiphanies, however. It’s often difficult to perceive a feature that is ubiquitous in one group unless you’ve got another group to compare it against. For me, that group has been the recreational endurance athletes I’ve coached since 2001. Two decades of working with everyday athletes in the morning and writing about exceptional athletes in the afternoon, as it were, has taught me that, in most respects, the two groups are similar. Both are passionate, tough, and intelligent. But there is a key difference between them.

Simply put, athletes who fail to make the best of a bad situation turn away from reality, whereas athletes capable of achieving great comebacks face reality squarely. I know what you might be thinking: Huh? And believe me, I get it. Of all the possible psychological discrepancies between everyday and exceptional athletes I might have noticed, this isn’t the one I expected, either. But, having noticed it, I can’t unnotice it.

When athletes with less than Kipchoge-level mental fitness find themselves in a bad situation, all too often they fail to accept it as real; or, having accepted it, they fail to embrace that new reality; or, having embraced it, they fail to do what’s necessary to address it. In fact, failure to make the best of a bad situation never happens for any other reason. Every time an athlete I work with fails to make the best of a bad situation, I can trace the cause back to one of these three steps not taken.

Athletes capable of achieving great comebacks are different. Some of them work with sports psychologists, and some don’t. Some read books on mental fitness, and some don’t. Some practice techniques like visualization and journaling, and some don’t. But every one of them faces reality in bad situations. This three-step process of accepting, embracing, and addressing reality is the sine qua non of great athletic comebacks—the one thing that athletes with the highest level of mental fitness do to overcome major challenges. For the rest of us, gaining mental fitness entails nothing more and nothing less than getting better at this process by following the example set by these “ultrarealists.”

Flowchart of facing reality

Anatomy of a Comeback

When a situation turns bad, the first opportunity an athlete is presented with is the opportunity to accept or not accept the reality of it, and it’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss. Acceptance is absolutely essential to making the best of the situation. Why? Because to accept a bad situation is to perceive it in a way that preserves your ability to make choices. But acceptance isn’t always easy. Failure to accept reality, on the other hand, is quite a bit easier. It happens in two ways. The first is panic, where a bad turn of events is perceived as so unacceptable that instinct takes over and the athlete acts reflexively, allowing the situation to control them instead of making free choices on how to deal with it. A somewhat milder version of panic is catastrophizing, where an athlete perceives a bad situation as worse than it actually is or decides it’s all over before it really is. The second way of failing to accept reality is the exact opposite of panic/catastrophizing: denial, where an athlete minimizes a bad situation or pretends it doesn’t even exist.

We’ve all heard the expression, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This homespun wisdom is really just another way of saying, “When you find yourself in a bad situation, acknowledge it and make the best of it.” Accepting reality means recognizing that life has given you lemons—nothing more, nothing less—and not wasting time and energy on wishing it hadn’t.

Not every athlete who accepts the reality of a bad situation takes this next step. Acceptance of an unwanted reality often leads to demoralization or apathy—a “What’s the point?” attitude. When a situation turns bad, it is natural to wish that what is happening were not happening. Too often, though, we get stuck in this state of mind, thereby sealing off any possibility of making the best of the situation, whereas ultrarealists quickly pivot from wishing things were different to resolving to make them different, even if their original goal is out of reach.

Returning to our lemons-to-lemonade metaphor, the third step in the process of making the best of a bad situation entails actually making lemonade from the lemons you’ve been given. Getting through the prior steps does not, after all, guarantee that something drinkable will be produced. Athletes who get this far are frequently derailed by failures of effort and failures of judgment—two more ways of turning away from reality.

Science has demonstrated that some athletes have a higher tolerance for pain and suffering than others do, and that those who have a higher tolerance are more accepting of these sensations. It’s not that they feel them less; rather, they avoid compounding their pain and suffering by wishing they weren’t happening, a rejection of reality that adds a layer of emotional unpleasantness to the raw physical sensations. The same willingness to face reality that allows certain athletes to accept a negative turn of events also helps them bear what must be borne to address the bad situation.

Addressing a bad situation is not all about tolerance for pain and suffering, however. Judgment plays a role as well. Bad situations are problems, and not every problem can be solved by brute force. Identifying the right solution to a problem often requires an athlete to let the bad situation they’re in talk to them, to be receptive to their present reality’s textures and contours and willing to improvise in response to what they receive.


Adapted from The Comeback Quotient by Matt Fitzgerald, with permission of VeloPress.