You don't have to win to be a winner

Sergio Parisse has an unenviable sporting record. The captain of the Italian rugby team has played for his country 135 times and been on the losing side in over 100 matches. To stretch an Americanism, he is the most ‘losingest’ player in international rugby history.

And yet.

By almost any other assessment Parisse is a winner. One of the best players in the world in his position he keeps coming back for more when many others would have quit. What drives him on and what can we learn?

There are some powerful clues in recent interviews. Here is a selection of what he had to say and my interpretation of how that helps him bounce back defeat after defeat. What makes him resilient.

He said: “Every time I put on the Italian jersey it’s really important to me that I feel I’m representing the history of the team, the culture” and “I do want to leave a legacy for Italian rugby, not because others should copy me as an individual, but for what I hope I represent.”

There is something deeper to him here than just playing rugby. There is a real sense of connection and purpose in what Parisse is doing. Indeed, he frequently talks about the work that coach Conor O’Shea is doing in building for the future. We know the power of purpose and its effect in driving us on, even through short term obstacles.

He also says: “Sometimes you play well, sometimes you play badly, but every single time I put on a jersey it is a moment to enjoy.” and “I don’t get excited when people say: ‘Wow, what a good player’, or ‘You’re playing well’, and I don’t get down when people say I played badly.”

Here he is clearly grounded in the moment, not getting too hung up on the past or the future. How often do we find ourselves stuck in a rut about something that we (think) we did badly and seem unable to let go of? This ability to be fully present enables us to make the most of the situation we find ourselves in.

Parisse also has a reputation among his team mates of being a player without ego, a man who puts himself at the service of the team in whatever way is required, somebody who is very forgiving of others limitations (and his own). How often do we see the star player getting stroppy with their less able team mates? Not Sergio, he is there to support and encourage.

Sergio Parisse is a true winner. Saluti Sergio.

Resilient thinking

Watching slalom skiing over the holidays I was struck by two very different mindsets on display when athletes missed a gate. For most skiers, a missed gate meant the end of their chances in the race, and they stopped before slowly skiing down to the finish.

However, with Marcel Hirscher, something different took place. Highly placed after the first run (slalom skiers get two runs, the second being in reverse order and the combined time deciding the final positions), Hirscher missed a gate and ended his chances of a podium, a top 10 or even top 25 finish. However, undeterred by this setback he walked back up the steep slope to go around the gate correctly and continue on the course. Why?

By the next checkpoint he had lost lots of time but then it started to get interesting. At the next split he had lost no further time, he was going as fast as the leaders and then over the final part of the course he set the fastest split time of all. He was still last in the overall results but in his mind had ‘won’ the last section of the course which he could use as confidence for his next competition.

What was on display here is what I call a resilient mindset. Hirscher was realistic about his situation: ‘I’ve missed a gate and I can’t finish on the podium’ and he was also positive about what he could still achieve: ‘If I continue I can still ski the fastest final section’. So that is what he did.

There are many opportunities for us each day to demonstrate this element of a resilient mindset, we just have to commit to taking them.

Resilient performers

Sally Pearson, Adam Gemili and Dina Asher-Smith are three athletes who came into the recent World Championships off the back of major injury setbacks. All three had different circumstances but picked themselves up off the floor to perform at their absolute best when it mattered. What can we learn from them?

For Sally Pearson, an Olympic Gold in London 2012 must have seemed a lifetime ago. Longstanding wrist and hamstring problems had left her a shadow of her former self in recent seasons and her last major championship was in 2013. But coming into 2017 she managed to stay healthy even though her early season races were short of her best from years previously. What Sally could do tap into was the wealth of experience she had acquired. She and the team around her know how to prepare and be ready when it matters. "I've got the most tight-knit little squad, I call them Team Pearson - my friends and my mum and my husband and my training partners, (although) I've only got two of them," she said. Pearson stayed patient, kept on improving and when pre-race favourite Kendra Harrison made mistakes under pressure Sally was there to take the Gold.

Adam Gemili didn’t scale the same heights in 2012 but as a teenage breakthrough performer he was clearly a future star. His progress has been a stop start of injuries and outstanding performances, including a 4th place in the Rio Olympics last year. Early in the season he broke down and had a lengthy period of rehab. Still short of fitness at the British trials in July he wasn’t selected for the individuals 200m but was included as a relay team member. Frustrated, angry and disappointed, it would have been easy for him to take his foot off the gas and just make up the numbers in the worlds or even write off his season completely. In the event he did the opposite and went full tilt knowing there was nothing to lose. After his trials disappointment he said “I’ve just got to accept I am part of the relay team and focus on that”. Come the World Championship final he ran a stunning back straight relay leg in 9 secs in which he goes past the competition as if they are standing still and sets up the British team for a national record. The outcome, World Championship Gold, when many athletes would have been on the sofa still bitching about their bad luck and the unfairness of the selection process.

Dina Asher-Smith was another young athlete making rapid progress in recent years. For her, this was the first major injury of her career. Arriving in London less than fully fit after fracturing her right foot and having screws inserted, she took the competition one race at a time with a focus on just performing to the best of her fitness. As each round of the 200m progressed Dina got faster and faster, ending up 4th in the final just 7 one-hundredths of a second away from a medal. But that wasn’t the end. With another 2 races in the 4x100m she was able to continue racing herself fit and ended the championships with a Silver medal in the 4x100m final. Reflecting on her performance she said “Arguably, this injury has done more for me in the long term mentally than having an easy season and getting a medal would have,” she adds. “That sounds crazy as a medal would have been fantastic, but when you are young you have to go through trials and tribulations to realise what real problems are. I’d rather get all my learning experiences now – so when I am older I have got that mental prep to do the business when I am physically at my peak.”

With resilience skills like those you wouldn't bet against Pearson winning more medals and Gemili and Asher-Smith being on top of the podium at a major championship in future.

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