The limits of resilience
From Novak Djokovic to Simone Biles
The tennis bronze between Serbia and Spain is being disputed in Tokyo 2020. Novak Djokovic and Pablo Carreño are respectively representing their countries. Djokovic is furious, he has lost his world champion title, and this match is his last hope to put one foot on the podium.
The scoreboard is not favoring him, there is tension on the court. A few moments ago, he threw his racket into the stands (empty because of the pandemic). Carreño serves, and after exchanging the ball, Djokovic fails a shot.
Out of pure frustration, the Serbian tennis player hits the net post with his (second) racket and smashes it. After the match, there is a lot of conversations around his reaction:
“It’s not nice of course but it’s part of, I guess, who I am. I don’t like doing these things. I’m sorry for sending this kind of message but we’re all human beings and sometimes it’s difficult to control your emotions.”
A few days later, Djokovic withdraws from the doubles competition with a shoulder injury, leaving his teammate Nina Stojanovic without a chance to take bronze. No medals in tennis for Serbia at these Olympics.
Nothing symbolizes success better than a trophy or a medal. The climax of effort. The glittering reward at the end of the journey.
That’s what we all aspire to in life: to reach the final frontier of our merits, and it’s also what’s demanded of us. You start a career and you are expected to graduate with honors. You start a family and you are expected to have a house and maybe a couple of children. You practice a sport and you are expected to win a gold medal. Otherwise, maybe you’re not that successful, maybe you’re not as good as you think, maybe you shouldn’t call yourself a pro or a world champion.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics gave a lot to talk about. Among many things, they were the first Olympics to be postponed since 1896 (because of the Covid-19 pandemic). But if there’s anything unusual about this edition, it’s the permanent conversation about mental health that its athletes generated.
A lot has already been saying about Simone Biles, the American gymnast who withdrew from the individual all-around, and team all-around in gymnastics due to mental health issues. She failed as a gymnast, in the words of some. An opportunity to blow this mental health thing even more wide open, say others.
You know, it’s impossible not to create a buzz about this. The world-class gymnast, the high-performance athlete, resigning for her mental health. Impossible. There are no limits to resilience. You have to fight, ignore those voices in your head, and get through it. There are no excuses. Maybe many people can afford it, but not an Olympic athlete.
Days before losing against Pablo Carreno, Novak Djokovic commented that “Pressure is a privilege,” after being asked about Biles’ decision:
“Without pressure, there is no professional sport. If you are aiming to be at the top of the game you better start learning how to deal with pressure. And how to cope with those moments on the court but also off the court, all the expectations.”
Are you up to the challenge?
It’s a vicious cycle. You enter a competition or maybe you apply for a job and now you’re part of a system that rewards big winners, and you agree to carry a weight on your shoulders. You have to live up to expectations, yours and others.
Now, something is expected of you.
Times have changed. There’s increasing recognition of the importance of mental health in performance in general. It’s common to find more support resources in companies and schools, even within the Olympics. Now, all these competitions, all these systems, are more compassionate and full of understanding.
Also, the concept of resilience is more present now. It’s a powerful card to justify all kinds of exigencies, even the toxic ones. And if we don’t meet them, it also makes us feel guilty for those failures.
Dominique Moceanu, a competitor in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, shared her experience at the age of 14 with the BBC:
“Simone’s decision has made me think about that time, and how there was no compassion, no care, and absolutely no voice. I was not allowed to say I was in pain until I collapsed.”
Now we don’t just reward achievement and success, now we reward achievement and perseverance, success and resilience, internal struggles, the heroic juggling between our personal and professional lives.
Resilience is sacred and diligent. It has no limits, and it is infallible. You have Xanax and a therapist, that’s all you need. Don’t stop, you’ll tell us from the winner’s podium how you fought to get here.
The day Simone Biles decided to quit the competition, Google searches about mental health spiked, hitting their highest level in more than two months. Why did she give up? Why didn’t she fight? Where’s resilience?
A lot is expected of the Olympians. For or against Biles’ decision, the Olympics are a spectacle that we bet on and demand like gladiators in the arena, someone has to win, someone has to be the best. Where does this demand come from?
The Olympics happen every day
We don’t just expect a lot from high-performance athletes. Are you an entrepreneur? You better start a unicorn startup. Do you claim to be an artist? You must make a living at it and win some awards.
The Olympics happen every day for those who have to excel in the most important aspects of their lives. And the demands are at the same level as an Olympics.
There are, figuratively speaking, medals to hang around our necks. And you’re not allowed to give up. You can flank and be vulnerable, in fact, that’s good material for a reality show, it builds up the character. You can collapse, but you can’t give up.
Competencies, ourselves, and others define expectations, and those derive in a series of exigencies that ironically, interfere with these same expectations by generating mental health issues. It is a vicious circle hard to leave, to do so is to step outside the norm and be labeled as a failure.
We are perpetuating this culture of effort and the belief that resilience is THE universal remedy for any battle.
Resilience has boundaries, and they can vary from person to person and no system can define them. For this reason, we must be willing to include and understand how varied these limits can be.
There’s been a talk about healthy boundaries lately, and perhaps that’s the way forward. Although we should put as well on the table what are the consequences of doing what is better for us, and if that’s something we should also try to change. Like giving up on a gold medal for example. But what price is it worth?
Edited by Santiago da Silva Évora
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