My soul has made its greatest growth as I have been driven to my knees by adversity and affliction

~ Marion G Romney

My research seeks to explain the famous maxim ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger’. I am curious as to whether there is any rigour to growth experiences, and whether there is truth in the growing body of positive psychology literature that provides evidence that there is.

I am studying a group of British Olympians to explore the mechanism or ‘modus operandi’ of growth through, and beyond, adversity. 33% of the Olympians in my study have experienced childhood adversity and have arguably gone on to be very successful in their lives – so, my question is whether this early adversity can explain a part of the relationship between the success of an individual athlete and their performance.

My exploration of adversity, success, and performance fits within the marginal gains approach to sports-based science.

Talent development systems within sport seek to alleviate challenge and create a smooth journey to the top. However, for those athletes who have experienced naturally-occurring high-challenge environments I’m interested in the skills, attributes and experiences they develop from their experiences and take into performance environments – and how this compares with athletes who don’t necessarily have a similar natural experience of challenge.

Negative life events clearly shape our lives, personalities and responses to life stimuli, and I am fascinated with which people thrive and those who unfortunately do not. My research is exciting because it has cross-discipline impact: understanding and explaining this mechanism will lead to better support being provided to athletes, but will also add knowledge to counselling psychology, sociology, and sport psychology literatures. The sheer number of variables that are interacting upon multiple pathways is as exciting as it is daunting.

Researching in the midst of Covid-19 is, of course, difficult. There is a danger that the standard of research being conducted will drop, and social scientists need to be particularly careful of underestimating the skew in self-report measures as individuals are inevitably affected by Covid-19. It is not enough to accept this as a limitation and plough on: therefore understandably, a lot of research has had to be delayed including my own.

My best tip for staying focused in your research is to try to be rational in your thoughts and expectations. This will lead to being kind to yourself, and in turn improving your wellbeing. For example, I often become irritated with myself because of the new working environment I am in. My initial thought might be: “I can’t work in this, I’m rubbish and can’t adapt”. This is somewhat irrational and untrue if looked at it logically. A more logical and kind self-talk adaptation would be: “I am finding it hard to be as efficient and to focus, maybe I need to adjust my own expectations, my circumstances are causing this, not me.” I also find that if you are not making headway with one task and you are becoming frustrated, you can switch to a different task to re-motivate yourself and make some progress before returning to the former task.

I’ve noticed that, since Covid-19, I have had more people than ever ask me about my wellbeing- whether that’s on Zoom or actually as part of ongoing research studies. Taking care of your wellbeing, including allowing yourself to fully decompress and breathe out, feel settled and balanced, is extremely powerful to anyone who is feeling overwhelmed at the moment. I have started to do more meditation and yoga as part of my exercise routine, or at random points through the day when I can feel my mind straying to maladaptive irrational thoughts. This helps me to reset when my mind becomes cluttered or anxious about day to day stressors and hassles.

A research degree is a personal crusade into knowledge creation. Like anything, the road can be very difficult, but this always makes the rewards more satisfying. The higher the mountain, the better the view. I have friends who are conducting research that will help organisations, people, communities and governments to make a better world for us to interact with. In my mind a research degree is just one way to change and guide the complex world we live in and if you have deep rooted desire for a better world, completing a research degree is a way to fulfil this desire.

Personally, I was drawn to study with a university that champions inclusivity in higher education and a vision to re-balance clear educational poverty in low socio-economic communities. Manchester Metropolitan has a clear strategy and desire to improve the quality of its research output. More specifically, there has been a huge recruitment drive to attract the best academics in social sciences and the chance to interact and work with these people on a day-to-day basis is one that I couldn’t turn down.

Daniel is a second year PhD student investigating adversity driven growth experiences in British Olympians – his work straddles the disciplines of psychology, policy and sociology.

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