Why we love a comeback kid

When Tiger Woods was busy winning his first Masters championship in 1997, he presumably had neither the time nor inclination to read Donald Trump’s then newly published book, The Art of the Comeback. But consulting the 10 tips for rebound success, written by the man who would be president, one discovers a roadmap for Woods’s own improbable return to the top.

In the Trumpian playbook, tip number one is “Play golf”; number 10 is “Always get a prenup”. Woods’s fifth green jacket proves he has clearly been not shirking at the former, while in 2010, after his career and personal life had gone spectacularly awry, he divorced his wife Elin Nordegren. A figure of €115m was widely quoted to have been the couple’s agreed settlement.

Delving further into the list of Trump’s comeback commandments, they range from the strikingly mundane – “Stay focused” and “Be passionate” – to the two that appear to combine the author’s personal mantra: “Be paranoid” and “Get even”.

Following publication, the critics were unkind to Trump’s self-help tome, with one reviewer calling it a “pointless and ultimately ugly book”, and another “a cock-crowing elegy for his own lost relevance”.

Yet what he did manage to elicit was something perfectly encapsulated by Woods’s tap-in bogey on the Augusta green on Sunday to end an 11-year major title drought: the world loves a comeback kid.

Human history is littered with such examples. Take Olympian Katie Taylor, whose storied career looked like it was finished when she failed to defend her 2012 London Olympics crown at Rio 2016 – despite being favourite in the competition.

Sporting pundits wrote her off, but as Taylor said in the award-winning Ross Whitaker documentary, “I knew it wasn’t the end of my career but that’s when I knew I had to make changes.”

Instead of hanging up her boxing gloves, she moved to the US to train with Ross Enamait. A few months later, Ireland’s sporting heroine made the decision to turn professional, and has since won numerous world titles.

Olympian gold medallist James Cracknell (46) became the oldest ever Boat Race winner earlier this month. And let’s not forget Sarah, Duchess of York, who made a spectacular return to Royal favour last year via two Windsor weddings.

Rowan Hooper is the author of Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability, in which the New Scientist journalist, who has a PhD in evolutionary biology, interviewed those who have reached the peaks of human achievement in their respective fields. He says three characteristics are vital in any great comeback: intense laser-sharp focus, a clear goal, and an absolute passion for what somebody does. “To do something extraordinary requires those three elements ramped up to the max,” he says.

Hooper admits there may be something to Trump’s claims that a great comeback is best inspired by a sense of settling scores – but insists revenge is far from the most powerful motivation in the human psyche.

“Some people deliberately stoke their passion,” he says. “But I found a positive drive was better than a negative drive. The people I spoke to who achieved greatness were doing so for positive reasons.”

To this, Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, a lecturer in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology at University of Limerick, suggests a few observations of his own. “Resilience is key,” he says, “but first we have to understand what that means. “One of my PhD students is studying resilience and he has found out that it’s not a trait per se. It’s a dynamic process. In other words, you may be born with some personality factors which may predispose you to being more resilient but it’s better looked at as something situational.

“Tiger Woods went through trauma, family issues, personal life issues and injury, and he was able to maintain motivation through long periods of pain, discomfort and endless rehab. I wouldn’t say Tiger is a resilient person but I’d say he’s resilient now.”

Dr McIntyre adds that sporting comebacks are about self-realisation.

“Tiger said he was done with the game two years ago but he had this long-term self-belief that motivates him to keep going. It’s like Schumacher coming back into F1 as one of the richest athletes in the world. It seemed like he had nothing to prove. But, actually, he did. He wanted to be the weltmeister – to master his trade. It’s to prove that you still have this incredible ability to perform under pressure.”

Politicians represent a rich seam of comeback stories, popping up regardless of what knocks they take in the manner of the fairground game Whack-a-Mole.

One need look no further than Bertie Ahern who has risen, phoenix-like, from the cupboard of that infamous News of the World TV commercial, to the lofty perch of his new position as honorary professor of peace studies at Queen’s University in Belfast; or Mícheál Martin, who led the revival of Fianna Fáil, helping to change the public’s perception of the party and ultimately win more seats.

Fashion, too, boasts its own fair share of tales of phoenix rising from the flames.

In 2012, German designer Jil Sander announced her return to her eponymous label she had previously sold in 2004. (“She’s Back” ran the subsequent headline in Vogue.)

Dublin-born fashion designer Paul Costelloe will know exactly how she felt. He says his brand was given a shot in the arm by Dunnes Stores’ Margaret Heffernan after she agreed to their successful homewares collaboration.

Dunnes Stores itself is a case study in big business comebacks. A modern makeover has seen the supermarket group reinvent itself as an upmarket lifestyle emporium. It was a similar story at Apple. The firm is worth more than $1 trillion today, but central to its success was firing Steve Jobs, the man who co-founded it in a garage in Silicon Valley… before bringing him back years later to take charge of the company’s turnaround.

Kylie Minogue’s 2000 comeback with her single ‘Spinning Around’, meanwhile, was cemented by a pair of gold hotpants now firmly ensconced in the pop hall of fame.

Paul Mullan of Dublin’s Measurability has seen comeback stories in every professional field in his 17 years working as a career coach. Clients come seeking a way out of redundancy, career disappointments and professional setbacks and, time and time again, he sees them go on to “bigger and better things”.

“Within a setback are the seeds of something great,” he says, “but first the person has to take the time to realign and refocus.

“That’s when people realise that they might actually be in the wrong field or area,” he adds. “So they use that time to redefine their skills, and springboard back to success.”

Still, when confidence takes a knock, it can take some time to regain it, he adds. “I would work with clients who worry, ‘Am I past it?’ They are worried about their age and whether there is a younger, better model for their job.”

Of course, age is no barrier to a comeback – just ask “Comeback King” Marty Whelan (62), who has gone from the hallowed hallways of RTÉ to the dole queue and back again.

Mary Berry (84), has also enjoyed a second coming following her casting as a judge on the Great British Bake Off in 2010, in which she became a national treasure following decades spent off-screen running a cookery school.

There is a metaphor in Berry’s ascendancy, for those who wish to find it, in rising to the top. But, of course, the great joy of comebacks, is that nobody really stays there for long.

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