Sports comebacks come in infinite varieties. They range in nature from falling down during a race, getting back up, and winning despite the mishap to going off the rails with alcohol or drug abuse, cleaning up, and subsequently attaining new heights of performance. Underneath all of this apparent variety, however, lies a consistent pattern, which is this: Every athlete who overcomes a major setback or challenge does so by means of the same, three-step process of accepting, embracing, and addressing reality.
Or so I argue in my soon-to-be-released book The Comeback Quotient: A Get-Real Guide to Building Mental Fitness in Sport and Life. I wrote this book to address what I perceived to be the failure of existing efforts to explain what makes great comebacks possible for those who achieve them, hence what it takes for any athlete, including those who don’t yet have what it takes, to overcomes setbacks and challenges. The fatal flaw in these failed explanations, in my view, is that they focus too much on psychological attributes and not enough on behavior. They credit qualities such as resilience for making comebacks possible, but to me these explanations aren’t explanations at all but tautologies. After all, how does resilience manifest except through resilient actions? To say that resilience explains an athletic comeback is akin to saying that “soporific qualities” are responsible for a sleep aid’s effectiveness.
Also, what is an athlete to do with the knowledge that resilience or some other psychological attribute is responsible for other athletes’ great comebacks? How does this information help you overcome the next setback or challenge you experience? I don’t think it does you any more good than it does for a basketball player to know he would probably be a better basketball player if her were taller.
Far more instructive is the behavior of athletes who achieve great comebacks. In The Comeback Quotient I analyze a number of historical examples to show that such athletes truly are doing the same thing every single time, which is to fully face reality in three crucial steps: 1) accept, 2) embrace, and 3) address. Among these case studies is Kenyan runner Geoffrey Kamworor’s comeback from a fall at the start of the 2016 World Half Marathon Championship to claim victory in dramatic fashion. To pull off this remarkable feet, Geoffrey first had to accept the reality of his situation, then embrace it by committing to making the best of it despite, and then address it by putting himself through a world of hurt to catch back up to the lead pack and by then smartly swapping his normal front-running racing style with a patient sit-and-surge strategy.
Sounds simple enough, but I can assure you that very few athletes would have done the same in Geoffrey’s situation. Instead they would have failed to accept its reality by either panicking (a form of denial)–curling into a self-protective ball while they lay on the ground being trampled underfoot by other runners–or else catastrophizing the situation, deciding wrongly that their race was over before it even started. Or, if they did accept the reality of their situation, they would have failed to embrace (i.e., failed to commit to making the best of it), completing the race in a rattled or demoralized state. Or, if they did both accept and embrace the situation, they would have failed to address it as Geoffrey did, either through unwillingness to put themselves through the necessary suffering or in failing to be flexible in their racing tactics.
My name for athletes like Geoffrey Kamworor, who are able to make the very best of the very worsts situations, is ultrarealists, and they are rare. As the great modernist poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot tolerate very much reality.” Or, as the great endurance masochist David Goggins put it, “Believe it or not, most people prefer delusion.” Facing hard realities is, well, hard, and it is our nature as humans to avoid what is hard. Also, it is possible to get by in life by facing reality only to the degree that is absolutely necessary. But in sports the goal is not merely to get by but to excel, and to excel an athlete must face reality fully.
The good news is that any athlete can get better at facing reality. The most effective way to do it, in my experience, is to consciously emulate the behavior of the ultrarealists in bad situations. You don’t need to have a ton of resilience or whatever already to intentionally make your best effort to accept, and embrace, and address the next bad situation that crops up in your athletic life. And by going through this process in every bad situation, you will not only get better and better at making the best of such situations but you will also cultivate the general psychological qualities that support ultrarealism.
I want to make it clear that facing reality is helpful in more than just dire circumstances such as, say, starting over as an athlete following a major illness. At any given moment, most athletes are dealing with some sort of challenge that demands skillful mental coping, be it pain, menstruation, a bad workout, flagging motivation, life stress, time pressure, unfavorable weather—the list goes on. I’ll give you one timely example of how facing reality can benefit an athlete 365 days a year.
Imagine you’ve been training hard for a marathon that is canceled two weeks before race day due to the pandemic. Having known this might happen, you kept in your back pocket a fallback plan of running a solo marathon time trial in place of the real race. Now that you’ve been forced to activate this contingency, however, you’re finding it difficult to muster the same level of excitement for it.
Here’s what an ultrarealist will do in this situation: First, they will accept the fact that, although they would rather run a real race, they don’t have to run a solo marathon and are doing so of their own free will, because they want to. Next, they will embrace the project of making the best of the situation, perhaps by consciously challenging themselves to see how hard they can push themselves in the absence of the usual excitement. And finally, they will pull every available lever to make the best of the situation, levers that may include such creative measures as letting all of their local friends know when and where they’ll be running and inviting them to come out and cheer for them (with masks and appropriate physical distancing, of course) at some point if they so choose.
Now here’s what everyone else will do in the same situation: Failing to fully accept the cancelation of their race, they will go ahead and run the solo time trial but with a bad attitude, as though someone else were forcing them to go through with it even though, like the ultrarealist, they are actually doing it because they want to. They will brood and complain about their lack of excitement as if there were nothing they could do about it instead of accepting the emotion as natural and thereby gaining some cognitive distance from it and opening up the possibility of finding some productive use for it. And finally, because they are essentially running under protest, they won’t make the effort to set themselves up for success in every way possible, and they won’t respond well to the inevitable difficult moments that come in the back half of any marathon, and consequently they will perform poorly and come away from the experience with a bad feeling.
I know it seems I’m being rather critical of the majority of athletes who aren’t ultrarealists, but everything I’ve just described is perfectly natural, and it’s a path that’s almost inevitable to go down for anyone who wasn’t born with an ultrarealist mindset or hasn’t consciously worked to cultivate it. The good news, again, is that the ultrarealist’s response to the situation I just laid out is open to anyone who simply recognizes its possibility and decides they want it for themselves. And again, the situation I just laid out is merely a topical example. Opportunities to fully face reality present themselves to athletes every single day, and those who learn to take advantage of them will get much further in their athletic journey and have a far different, and better, overall experience of the sport they love than will those who keep muddling along hoping everything will always go their way.