The term ‘mental toughness’ is probably the most used psychological term used by pundits, writers, journalists, coaches and athletes alike. Yet the definition of the term is probably the most contested theory in sport psychology. As for myself, I feel that the term ‘resilience’ best articulates the underlying characteristics great teams and individuals possess to positively adapt to situations that significantly challenge them. With the Rugby World Cup coming to England in 2015, this article will look at what defines resilience using rugby union as an example.

What makes a resilient team? 

In rugby, there is no linear line to success. It’s a roller-coaster of peaks and troughs, swings and roundabouts, ups and downs. It’s how the team copes with these changes that defines resilience. Experiencing the ride of the rugby roller-coaster opens up psychological processes that protect the team from certain negative effects by filtering out the stresses and anxieties of performance.

A resilient team are aware of the stresses and take responsibility for their actions when faced with adversity. This adversity can either be used as excuse for under performance (e.g. “the other team are unbeaten this season, they will probably beat us”) or it can be seen as a challenge (e.g. “the other team are unbeaten this season, I look forward to testing my skills against the best”). It’s easy to see which one is more beneficial. With challenge comes responsibility, with responsibility comes effort and with effort comes development. A combined effort allows a team to adopt a mindset focused on growth and development from both adversity and success to guide future performance.

What are the characteristics of team resilience?

1. Structure

A team needs order. Without order, there would be chaos. A team with clear goals, a positive culture and structure is a high functioning team. This include optimising collective resources by having team members in their optimal positions allows for the effective use of each of the individuals resources. This also includes shared leadership within the team with a core set of individuals, usually 2 or 3, that are able to lift a team, listen, decide and lead by example.

Resilient teams share values and norms that allow the group to reflect on their purpose within the team. When facing adversity, these values guide the team on what is important and what are the agreed behavioural principles needed to overcome difficult times.

Communication is the glue that holds this structure together. Having frequent, positive, open and honest communication channels leads to a greater understanding and perspective on where the teams is and where they are looking to go. Communication on and off the field allows the group to grow and learn how to bring their resources together to deal with set backs and develop.

2. Growth mindset

A growth mindset allows the team to learn from both positive and negative performances. A resilient team focuses on personal development and what is important to the team. This means having effective responses to setbacks and adversity. For example, being fully prepared for a setback in team such as a player going to the sin bin through simulation training. This could also be done through sustaining effort throughout the game, digging in when faced with challenges and accepting setbacks and moving on.

When seeking out challenges, it’s difficult to plan for what might happen next. A team must therefore be able to adapt to what is in front of them to maximise performance. This might be difficult at first but when you have mindset that promotes learning, you can reflect on setbacks and see how they can be dealt with in the future. These reflection can then guide what you can do in training to cope with similar setbacks.

3. Relationships

Experiencing this for myself, rugby doesn’t have much of a problem when it comes to forming emotional bonds, loyalty, trust and friendship in times of need. These are key to allow members of the group to lift others up when faced with adversity. This sense of togetherness and cohesion allows individuals to feel comfortable enough to seek out emotional, tangible and informational support when needed without feeling judged. This links back to the growth mindset. This will hopefully lead to a no blame culture where the team takes responsibility for their development and view setbacks as an opportunity to learn. This positive view will then allow the team to participate in selfless exchanges and frequent positive interactions.

4. Collective beliefs

Finally, if a group tells themselves they can’t overcome setbacks or perform when needed, then they won’t. It is therefore important for the team to gain confidence from past success, where they have grown and developed as a team in the face of adversity. This belief can also come from the knowledge that your team fight for each other and that all of your fellow players will commit and challenge themselves to make each tackle, pass and kick count. Furthermore, to make this belief stick, communication though social persuasion can allow individuals to elicit positive team behaviours, communication and thoughts to enthuse and gain momentum during performance.

What team will win the Rugby World Cup 2015?

Team resilience doesn’t appear overnight, it is built up over months or even years. I believe the team that will go on to win the world cup will demonstrate all four characteristics in both the run up to and throughout the tournament. One team comes to mind when looking at who has an overall collective belief in their ability, are cohesive, can thrive in challenging situation and have a clear vision of what they want to achieve. Any guesses who I think this is? Yes, the All Blacks. However, with England having an experienced squad with a relatively low average age they are on the way to building a mentally resilient team in time for the World Cup.

Article inspired by BPS DSEP workshop titled ‘Developing mental strength: Applying positive psychology in sport’. Based on Morgan, P. B., Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Defining and characterising team resilience in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(4), 549-559.