Resilience, stress and ultimate success

Darlene Harrison is head of performance coaching and leadership at the Australian Institute of Sport. She has worked in coaching at the AIS since 2009 and before that held a similar role in the UK for almost a decade.

In the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Harrison worked to support and develop over 100 coaches and performance directors, those people essential to helping athletes succeed.

" It is important to... not measure success by outcome only, but by learning and what that offers us to become better people."
Natarlie Kierce, Contributing editor, BlueNotes

On the eve of the Rio games, Harrison shares with BlueNotes her tips for career success and what she’s most looking forward to at the Olympics.

Natarlie Kierce: You’ve worked with a wide range of athletes in your roles with UK Sport and the AIS. In your mind, do successful leaders alter their leadership style to individuals or is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach more effective?

Darlene Harrison: It is definitely not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when working with high-performance athletes and coaches.

Successful athletes and coaches clearly have some key attributes in common which support their success - they are highly competitive, focused and driven. But most importantly they have a strong ability to learn, soak up new ideas and apply through experimentation and exploration.

NK: Not every athlete wins every event they enter. As a coach and leader, how do you advise people to handle disappointment and recover effectively from this? How can this advice apply in a workplace scenario?

DH: This is a great question. The High-Performance Sports System is highly competitive and creates interesting dynamics when looking at process versus outcome (Gold Medals) or winning and losing.

It is important to attend to the journey, the struggles and the successes along the way, and not measure success by outcome only, but by learning and what that offers us to become better people.

An emerging area of interest at the AIS is the concept of resilience which for us is the ability to perform repeatedly under stress while adapting and learning from that stress. 

We know in high-performance coaching there are clear differences in cognitive performance under stress in experienced coaches compared to their less-experienced counterparts. This is also significantly better in elite athletes versus recreational athletes.

Have they learned this resilience or did they reach higher levels because they possessed it? What underlies this? Is it genes? An ability to perceive stress in a different manner? Can we teach it and enhance it?

There are a number of possible applications for the workplace, from recruitment strategies  - how do we select people who arrive with more of this attribute? - to development strategies - how developable is this attribute or how is it best leveraged for specific roles?  How self-aware are we of our strengths and how do we support ourselves  - and others - in moments of disappointment? And research - how is our resilience expressed as leadership and how is cognitive performance maintained under increasing stress?

Stress is without a doubt always present at high-level performance but it can have large implications for our health and wellbeing. An increasingly important part of our work is understanding how both personality traits and behavioural expressions are weaved into this resilience.

Recent work with surgeons shows taking stress responses into account can facilitate better training and longer-term technical outcomes.


Shona’s story is just one among the many female leaders who are driving success across the Australian Olympic and Paralympic Teams.

You can click here to read more inspiring stories from the #RioRoleModels in the lead-up to the Games.

NK: There’s only a couple of days before everything kicks off in Rio, what are you most excited about at the Olympics? 

DH: I am looking forward to the Rio Games starting – it has been six long years since Rio was announced and I am excited about what is possible for the Australian team, having seen first-hand the commitment to development and growth the coaches and leaders have made in preparation for Rio.

I can’t wait to see how our coaches and athletes will capitalise on their intensive shared and collaborative preparation.

Natarlie Kierce is a contributing editor at BlueNotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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