#5: Sport and Resilience with Boris Cyrulnik & Mark Milton

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Meet Boris Cyrulnik and Mark Milton, two of the world’s most experienced experts on adversity and resilience.  Boris Cyrulnik is known as ‘The Pope of Resilience’ for bringing this word to our attention.  They reveal why sport can provide us with such powerful opportunities to learn how to overcome adversity and the importance of having role models throughout our lives. Boris Cyrulnik highlights the importance of having multiple identities based on who we are, what we want to do and who we want to be at each milestone of our lives.


  • Resilience
  • Sport
  • Role Models
  • Identity
  • Security
  • Safety
  • Wellbeing


Sport et Résilience directed by Boris Cyrulnik and Philippe Bouhours


Tarzan created by Edgar Rice Burroughs


‘Humour is the Politeness of Despair’ 
~ Boris Vian


Read Full Transcript

LifeWise Podcast #5

Welcome to the lifeWise show, we are going to explore the things in life that can make you feel truly alive. Today I am in Lausanne at the youth Olympic games with two of the worlds most experienced experts in adversity and resilience, Mark Milton and Boris Cyrulnik.
Boris Cyrulnik, has written many popular science books on resilience including ‘Talking of Love at the Edge of a Precipice’ and ‘Resilience – How Your Inner Strength can set you free from the Past’ and his latest book is called ‘Sport and Résilience’. He is often referred to as ‘The Pope of Resilience’ for bringing this word to our attention. His motivation to understand human behaviour began when, as a 6 year old Jewish boy, he escaped capture by the Nazis, whilst both of his parents were captured and murdered. He is a doctor, a psychiatrist, neurologist and ethologist, and a professor at the University of the South Toulon in France. At a human level, he is someone who really goes out of his way to come and speak ‘to all of us’ through his books, and personally at important public events like this one.
Mark Milton, is the founder of ‘Education 4 Peace’ through which he has offered ground breaking expertise to national and international sports federations to officially introduce self-awareness, and listening skills to pave the way for resilience and healthy relationships. He has written a chapter in Boris Cyrulnik's new book - Sport et Résilience.
Tania: A very warm welcome to you both, Boris and Mark, and sincere gratitude for taking the time to speak to me today in advance of your presentation this evening on Sport et Résilience / Sport and Resilience.
Boris I would love to begin with you, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to meet you in person, yet I’ve listened to you on many occasions and what has really shone through for me is your sense of humour. After all you’ve been through, where does this very positive side of your personality, this ‘joie de vivre’ come from?
Boris: I think that humour is a way that we protect ourselves from suffering. If I were to tell you about the horrors I have experienced, you would grimace with pain, and I would feel ashamed. If I make you smile whilst sharing what happened to me, you will think better of me. That is why ‘humour is the politeness of the desperate’.
Tania: You often brought to our attention that in the process of resilience the verbal process is often forgotten and that this is essential. Is this the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what is possible?
Boris: It is always possible to become resilient even when you are older. That is to say, that we use what works for different people. we help them use their physical, mental and social resources, to then activate a process of resilience.
Tania: Mark, we met about 6 years ago when we were involved in helping Cindy Burwell at a conference called ‘The Inside game’. A conference for sports coaches based on John Wooden’s saying ‘A good coach can change a game, and a great coach can change a life’. After our first meeting, I sent you some of the MovementWise films, true stories of how patients of mine, including elite athletes, have overcome health and performance challenges, to do things in their lives they previously believed impossible. I was surprised when you came back to me and said, ‘Tania all of these films are on resilience!’ And I knew the word, but then I questioned if I really know what resilience means. What does resilience mean to you?
Mark: So very simply, resilience to me means to be able to face adversity and to be able to overcome adversity. So, learning to become resilient is to also be able to observe the way we are interacting with adversity and being able to rebound and go forwards.
Tania: Boris is there anything you would like to add to that? What resilience means to you?
Boris: Resilience is a new way forward that develops after a physical or psychological trauma. There could not be a more simple, silly or simplistic definition. Scientifically it is to discover those building blocks of resilience, which allow us neurologically to continue to develop in a positive way, to feel emotionally secure, to enable us to psychologically express ourselves in order to be able to understand what has happened to us and to explore the best way in which we can express ourselves socially. This is to say that resilience is so multifactorial that scientists are obliged to have to work together as a team to enable it.
Tania: Thank you. Now sport and resilience. Why is sport such a great arena in which to nurture resilience?
Mark: What I observe is that the wonderful thing about sport is that you actually have an opponent. An opponent being an adversary. So actually it’s a fantastic way to observe what our intention is towards our adversary/opponent, are we trying to put this person down and run over them to win or are we actually trying to do our best and to succeed in our goal, whilst at the same time honouring and respecting our opponent. So in that sense the great thing about sports is that we can practice our resilience in an environment which is meant to be fun, which is meant to be healthy, and actually bring that experience into our day to day life where adversity is definitely waiting for all of us and observe this ability that we have to be resilient facing adversity in our day to day lives.
Tania: Boris is there anything you want to add to that? In terms of sport and resilience and why sport is such a great arena to nurture resilience?
Boris: Because within our culture, we have forgotten how the body plays a part in resilience. The body releases tranquilisers. When we make a physical effort, the body releases endorphins that are euphoriant and our sedentary culture is in the process of poisoning lots and lots of people, and many people have forgotten that their body is a very efficient tranquiliser. The second tranquiliser is being in a secure relationship. If I get along well with Marc, simply his presence makes me feel safer; if I don’t get on with Marc, simply his presence makes me feel unsafe. This means that the emotional bond is the second tranquiliser. The third tranquiliser, is society and social structure. Society and social structure needs to give us, as a teenager, a child or an adult - direction. It’s worth the effort to become a good athlete, to work at a good job, to be nice to your friends and children – it makes sense. Therefore, biologically – the body , emotionally – the relationship, psychologically – the verbalization, and socially – sports teams, clubs and local events, are where I can make sense of my misfortunes so that I can activate a good process of resilience.
Tania: And the life skills that we can learn through doing sport, are there some key life skills that we feel that we have the opportunity to learn?
Mark: I think that the most interesting life skill is that we can learn in sports to practice resilience is the one around starting to observe our reactivity because when we are interacting with our sports with our opponents or with our team our behaviour our mindsets our emotions can become sometimes aggressive, we can sometimes react, and that’s going to be a very interesting space to start to learn about life skills. One of the key ones is about learning how to listen/to develop our active listening.
Tania: So, it’s about building relationships, and building relationships is about communication and an important part of communication is listening?
Mark: Absolutely, it’s really a great place to start to learn / to bring more attention to observing how we are communicating with the others and with ourselves. And to develop this self-awareness around how am I interacting with myself, others, my teams and to become a master of this communication so that our emotions are not dominating us, but we are staying on the top.
Tania: Boris do you feel that in sport we have this incredible opportunity to learn about building healthy relationships?
Boris: Sport is a perfect opportunity for us to discover how we can build emotional, friendly relationships and move forwards together towards a goal. That is to say, it pays to work together to win a match. But this is not enough. Sport is an opportunity to discover your strengths and weaknesses and to accept them. We are very able to develop our competencies, but also accept our incompetencies. In both instances I will be happy, if I win or if I lose. And it is only through sport that we learn such a lesson.
Tania: That seems to support the common feeling now around mindset, that we need to recognize that failure is part of success and is really an opportunity to learn.
Boris: Absolutely, failure is a part of life. In Western culture, we tend to teach our children that they are wonderful and that they will never fail in their life. Wrong! They are actually wonderful; they have a lot of competencies and these competencies need to transform into performance. And during this time they will experience failure which is a normal part of life.
And at that moment, they will experience an element of resilience, then another failure, then they will be unhappy and they will experience another element of resilience, and then have another failure, and at the end of a 100 years lived, of course we will live 100 years! We will, in spite of everything, have been happy, and able to live well with our failures.
Tania: To put a spotlight on sport being a pathway of personal growth and transformation I would like to share a quote from Zinedine Zidane, the former French national team football player, this is out of your book Mark ‘Master of your emotions’, he said ‘during my first year at the training centre I was not in control, I was 13 years old, alone, and felt a terrible sense of void. In the end it was when I confronted my fears that I learnt who I was and how to develop my self-confidence. One day something clicked, I thought right that’s it, I’m going for it now’.
What do you think Zinedine meant by ‘something clicked’ and what was it that helped him to transition from someone who found it hard to manage his emotions, head butting a player when insulted, to someone who is now a very well-respected coach of Real Madrid?
Mark: I think there were two things really important with what happened for him. One was in relation to what Boris was saying about success and failure. He was very fortunate to have parents that didn’t put pressure on him and invited him to do his best but without any pressure and he always felt that he would be accepted and loved the way he is. When this click happened what I understood is that there were many things that happened for him then, because that was when he met his wife, who he is with today and had his children with, but one thing that happened for him is that suddenly he realised that he didn’t have to nurse that doubt anymore, so there was really a mindset of understanding that he could offer the best and be the best and not leave space for doubt.
Tania: Do you think that having that secure attachment, meeting his wife, was significant for him?
Boris: Receiving and creating an attachment makes you feel secure. We have kept the English word secure, because secure does not mean safe. To feel safe as a child, I need the person I am attached to, to be there. When I am close to someone, I feel safe and still feel secure whether they are there or not because they are still present in my mind. Therefore, we kept this English word ‘secure’, to differentiate it from the French word securisé, to feel safe. And I think that all our lives we need someone who makes us feel safe. It can be our wife, our husband, our priest if we have faith, a coach, a sports coach if we like sport, they are our ‘tuteur de résilience’, our resilience tutor. It can be a movie star because many teenagers identify with them – ‘I wish I was like him or her’. Therefore, the star becomes a role model. When we are old, we keep this identification. I, as an old person, still need to have the presence of someone around me who makes me feel safe, my wife, my friends and now my children.
All our life we need a secure attachment even when we are old. An insecure attachment is obvious – I don’t dare speak; I don’t dare look. It’s not necessarily a form of pathology. If I am brought up in a family where we don’t speak, as a child I will learn not to talk a lot. An ambivolent attachment is if my attachment figure, for example my mother, talks to me partially about things. I can’t understand and this causes me to feel anxious: Why is she never talking to me about the country I come from? Why is she never talking to me about her first husband, my father? What is this silence? Silence provokes anxiety. A disorganised, confused attachment is clearly pathological.
All these types of insecure attachment can be overcome, and children can catch up. If we provide them with an alternative means of emotional support most of them will develop their resilience. But if we give them nothing and leave them alone, they will not develop. Therefore, those who are suffering need ‘resilience tutors’.
Tania: Something that I found very interesting that you just said Boris is that we all see the world through different eyes and experience different realities, the words you used were ‘we don’t see through our eyes we see through our thoughts’: what do you mean by that?
Boris: We all have a different perception of what is real. Depending upon our brains, we select different information about colour and objects. If I was a dog, I wouldn’t see the same world as if I was a cat or a human being. If I was a dog I would see a world in pastel colours, and structured around smell. As a human, I see the world in colour as processed by the human eye, and a brain shaped by my personal experiences. If I feel safe, I will be confident, and perceive objects to be beautiful and people to be kind. That’s how I will see them. If I feel unsafe, I will be afraid of your presence and perceive another world, just as real as the other, yet totally different. So we see through our thoughts even more than with our eyes.
Tania: Here at the youth Olympic games, there are lots of great athletes doing sport, yet we all have the opportunity to be athletically minded, when we look at the journeys of many great athletes you begin to see that being athletically minded means embarking not only on a physical journey but also on a mental and emotional one. To separate the physical and mental part of our being is a very dualistic way of thinking, are we not all an embodiment of our thought’s feelings and emotions?
Boris: Separating the physical from the mental part of our being is ‘lazy thinking’. It is of benefit at a scientific level because you can dissect the body and see how it works yet this has harmed psychological thought because, according to Descarte’s dualism, the soul has no substance/matter or contours and cannot be studied. But now, we think of the body and mind as one entity. In other words, the relationships I experienced as a young child shaped my brain and led me to have my own perception the world. If another child’s brain has been sculpted by a different environment, during ‘preverbal’ childhood, this child will perceive the world differently. These two worlds are real and yet totally different from one another.
We now know that the body selects information, and that we perceive the world through our brain knowing that our brain is shaped by our relationships. In other words, our emotional and social relationships shape the part of our brain that affects how we see the world.
I worked in Japan for two years where the Japanese have two systems of writing. The Western script system and the Asian ideographic writing system. When a Japanese person suffers a stroke, affecting the left temporal lobe, they lose their speech, writing and reading in our writing system but they are still able to read and write in their own ideographic system - because their ideograms are pictures interpreted by the visual centre of the brain, the posterior part of the brain, that interprets images. Therefore, we have the proof that the brain is shaped by images. The world I perceive is created by my brain, which itself has been sculpted by my relationships and by how I have learnt to read and write in my culture.
Tania: Fascinating.
Now when we talk about managing our emotions such as anger, fear, discuss, jealousy, it would be really helpful for us to clarify that managing our emotions doesn’t mean supressing them? Could you give us some ideas about what is the key to managing our emotions? How do we do this in a healthy way?
Boris: The human or mammal brain, I think, does not function on its own. For it to work it needs another brain, another person. When I am little it is my mother, then my father; then when I am a teenager it is the teacher at school, it’s my class mate, a priest, a singer.. When I am an adult it is my wife and my friends. I always need another person to become myself. All alone, my brain stops, my brain ceases to function – I need someone else to become myself.
Tania: Mark is there something you would like to add to that?
Mark: That’s indeed the question of the impact of our outside world, which as Boris was saying if it wasn’t there we would probably simply die. What I find interesting in the journey of becoming master of our emotions, so you said yes how do we not supress them, of course that’s essential because if you supress them there’s one thing you can be sure of is that they’ll come back. But I think there’s another dimension which is interesting that’s what do we mean by ‘mastering our emotions’. Mastering our emotions could seem like I’m controlling them in a way that they are going to obey to me, but actually its more subtle to that, it’s how can I be the respectful master towards my emotions. So that I’m keeping the lead but I’m recognizing my emotions even if it’s fear or sadness or difficult emotions, but I actually learn how to create a relationship with my emotions where we can have a dialogue. Which brings to dis-identifying ourselves to our emotions so that when we have a very strong emotion, what usually happens when it’s very strong /intense is that we blend with it we believe that that’s us. The first thing is to really have the intention to be the master of our emotions but a respectful master and then to build a relationship where we can start to tame the relationship/get to know it so that the next time there’s a really difficult situation I can actually be in a situation where I’m not just going to be reacting, but I’m going to create a zone where we can start to dialogue / I can take over rather than my emotions.
Tania: It’s almost developing a skill where you can become an observer of your emotions?
Mark: Yes. And it’s the same with our thoughts. Once we understand that our thoughts are our way of seeing things but are not the truth, only our reality, we can start to create another space where we are again dis-identified from these beliefs / emotions and there’s a relationship that starts to begin.
Tania: In terms of needs, I think this question about needs is very interesting, Mashall Rosenburg who developed non-violent communication said that behind every negative emotion there is an un-met need. What are our most essential needs?
Mark: If we had continued the question of how to master your emotions, a very key component is indeed to understand that all our emotions - not only negative, I like to talk about uncomfortable emotions rather than negative because if I call something negative, I’m already going to stop a relationship, it’s going to be a judgment. But if I talk about an uncomfortable emotion it’s going to allow me to keep a connection with for example that anger or that fear. So indeed, what he pointed out, that Carl Rogers had already talked about, is that behind all our emotions there are basic fundamental needs. Abraham Maslow with the Maslow pyramid mentioned that as well. Once that we understand that our emotions are actually a colour, they’re giving an indication of if it’s comfortable/uncomfortable, pleasant or unpleasant and that that is the explanation of something underneath it, which is essential for me which are human basic needs that are in me (like love, compassion, affection, the need to play, ...) and not outside me. Those outside me are very different and we would rather call them strategies because we can touch them/we can do something. So, I would say that the most important needs are around human connection, it’s about what we are talking about in resilience, it’s about connection, feeling secure.
Tania: Boris, how important is it to have role models in our lives?
Boris: As a boy I was fond of Tarzan - do you know who he was? When the war ended I was a small kid, I was weak with no family just like Tarzan. Tarzan was an orphan and the only relationships he had were with animals. He then became the savior of animals who were his only source of affection. Then he became the ‘King of the Jungle’ and protected all the animals against the evil human westerners who wanted to kill them. I identified with Tarzan. I said to myself that ‘when I grow up, I am going to be big and strong and protect the animals from the wicked human beings’. Later I read ‘Sans Famille’ (Without a Family) by Hector Malot in which Rémi, the little boy, was driven out of his home, sold by his family to someone who performed street shows, Mr. Vitali. This same Mr. Vitali was arrested by the police and the boy Rémi found himself alone again. Since the age of 10 or 11 – he performs street shows with dogs and monkeys, earning a living throughout Europe. And I thought this was marvelous, and I said to myself in my child’s mind, there is always a way through! When I was a teenager, I admired Dr. Schweitzer and Cronin, a footballer and writer. I told myself that later I would become a footballer and a writer but I was terrible at football so I wasn’t able to! As I got older, I always had someone I admired who acted as my guiding star. The guiding star was Tarzan, Remi, Dr. Schwietzer…. people I admired and gave me a direction to follow. This fantasy helped me become resilient because I strived to be like them. This guiding star gives you a direction in which to go.
Tania: I’d like to talk more about identity. We may think of role models as people we identify with or want to be like yet many athletes who don’t achieve their goal/don’t achieve their gold medal but then what? Because some of their identity is so within what they do that when they stop they no longer know who they are and this can send them into a downhill spiral of depression. How can we best avoid this ?
Boris : I think that identity is a psychological process that is both necessary, and dangerous. It is necessary because I need to know who I am, to know how to behave. I need to know who I am, to know how to react. If I lack identity, I submit to whoever commands me, to anything. Therefore, identity is necessary and yet it’s a dangerous process because it limits our possibilities. I could have been, I am, I was a doctor, I could have been a laborer, a businessman or a thousand other identities. I chose one that fits my direction. It’s dangerous because it narrows our possibilities when we believe that we can only be one thing, a single personality, and risk becoming totalitarian. Meaning that there is only one way, one truth – the way of my God, or the way of my Boss. Identity is necessary to give me a course of action through which to express myself. It is dangerous because we may believe that there is only one truth.
Tania: Is it perhaps more important for us each to find a way of expressing ourselves? I have a saying that ‘lack of expression leads to depression’ that whether its through sport or through art that we may begin by having a role model but we then need to find our own way of expressing ourselves.
Boris : Yes, the ego is an alienation. That is to say that when I take on an identity, I put aside what other potential I may have. This is the case with children. Children can take so many different directions but nevertheless they only take one, due to environmental pressure. Therefore, identity gives us a way to express ourselves – but we must not become enslaved by this identity. I can be a Christian and a Footballer, A Muslim and a Singer, I can handle several identities and also have a cultural identity that resides deep inside of me. It is therefore important, but it can cut us off from other ways of expressing ourselves.
Tania Cotton: Thank you so much Boris Cyrulnik and Mark Milton. This conversation is to be continued! I really enjoyed your company, thank you so much.
Boris Cyrulnik: C’est moi qui remercie
Mark Milton: Thank-you, Tania.

Tania Cotton
Thank you for joining us on the LifeWise show. An original French version of this Podcast with Boris Cyrulnik is also available, and you can access both French and English transcriptions on the movementwise.org website.
In Episode 6, I will be talking to Louise Ansell about the skills and strategies we can use to minimize stress and maximise performance and how looking after our mental health and wellbeing can enable us to perform at our best even in the most challenging situations.
I look forward to meeting you there.

Meet Tania Cotton

Tania Cotton avatar

Tania Cotton is a Movement Analyst and Chartered Physiotherapist with over 25 years' experience helping people overcome pain, injury and disease to lead a happy and fulfilling life. After 12 years as a consultant for the Swiss Olympic Medical Centre in Geneva, Tania began making films on health and human performance to show people what is possible and to inspire them to take action.

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