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Inspiration from Athletes Who've Come Back from the Brink


IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2018, storied professional golfer Tiger Woods won The Tour Championship by a two-shot victory – his first win in five whole years. During that "dry spell" – and longer, actually – it wasn't only his golf game that he lost; there was much more. There was a marriage that ended in public ruin, for example, numerous battles with spine and knee health, and an embarrassing DUI arrest. You might be wondering, after all of that: How's it even possible for anyone to come back from the brink of such a disaster? Well, it's a thing I like to call the victorious spirit. The good news is, it's in every single one of us – no matter where life leads.

Woods helps provide a famous and very public example of the victorious spirit in action. By numerous accounts, he is the most accomplished athlete in the history of golf. But it's the attributes he has exhibited through his struggles that really set him apart. As an orthopedic surgeon who has treated numerous elite athletes, I can't begin to describe the enormous pressure these individuals are under, primarily after they've sustained an injury. With predictions and speculation splashed across countless sports news headlines, it has always fascinated me how these men and women overcome disastrous obstacles that would have ended the careers of most athletes. Sure, it's undeniable that they possess innate talent. But that won't get you all the way there, especially if you've got to return from injury. No. They succeed because they have ambition, perseverance and they work incredibly hard. They also find opportunity in adversity.

Yes, adversity – just a fancy word for misfortune – can be an engine for incredible opportunity. Personal and relationship issues notwithstanding, Woods' greatest physical troubles have been the issues with his knee and his spine. As many of my fellow sports medicine colleagues can attest, it isn't easy to help an athlete get back in the game after such significant injuries, even at age 22, let alone Woods' current age of 42. Simply put, as we age, the less vigor we have in rehabilitating and re-training, in our range of motion and in the speed of recovery. And yet, here's Tiger Woods showing us it can be done. So how?

Woods typifies some fundamental characteristics of a victorious spirit, and he harnesses them to propel him forward:

1. Nutrition and exercise. Woods is legendary for his workouts and diet regimen. It has been reported that he completely avoids junk food, opting instead for seafood and lean meats, plus a significant amount of fruits and vegetables.

2. A sunny outlook. In recent writings, Woods didn't deny setbacks, but he intensely focused on the positive growth he was seeing, especially when it came to his physical strength and putting skills. He used words like "optimistic" and "encouraging" in his writing, which helped shape his focus and attitude.

3. Up for a challenge. Woods seems to embrace the roller-coaster ride that is life as an accepted daily challenge. Because it is, honestly. For all of us. But we can practice using optimism every day to overcome mental, physical and emotional struggles.

4. Focusing on relationships and mentors. Woods has always been reported to have had a strong relationship with his dad, who remained actively involved in his son's career. Woods has referred to his father as his "best friend and greatest role model." A healthy home is also crucial to life success. And when Woods' marriage tumbled and ultimately ended, he took a break from the game of golf, as well. It's tough to have one aspect of life excel when others are crumbling.

5. Character and values. When news of his marital infidelities ultimately disrupted Woods' career and character, he acknowledged that he had departed from the values taught to him by his parents. Character isn't about perfection. It's owning up to mistakes and striving not to make them again.

If you've lived long enough, you've found a professional athlete or a few to admire. I've come to realize that we appreciate an athlete's achievements even more when we see that they are human, just like us. Because we all have an athlete inside us, the genetic code to be the fittest survivors of the fittest. Each of us has probably felt it at one point or another, but in some cases, it takes the experience of adversity to reveal it. No matter how it happens, let it – and embrace it.

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