Resilience in sport4 Opinions
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About Ben Marks
BASES Probationary Sport and Exercise Scientist (Psychology), MSc, Passionate about Human Performance and currently working within Professional sport
In my experience, the term resilience is becoming an extremely prominent term used within sport, whether it is in relation to coaching, physiology or psychology. This is partly due to the rise and use of positive psychology and the benefits it can have on well-being and vitality within individuals (See Seligman for a full conceptualisation of positive psychology). The rationale behind positive psychology is to assist individuals in achieving happiness and allow them to flourish in their specific domain (Seligman, 2005). In its simplest form, the idea is to focus on the strengths of an individual and how these can benefit their performance. There are many other components to this phenomenon, for example, optimism, vitality and self-determination. Although resilience is considered prominent within positive psychology, it is also a key notion for Mental Toughness (Gucciardi & Gordon, 2009). This article aims to discuss resilience within sport and the benefits it can lend to individuals.
Overcoming adversity, rebounding and bouncing back are all phrases which have been used previously (and still are) within the coaching and psychology domain, with close relation to resilience. In positive psychology and mental toughness, all these phrases and terms could now be considered to come under the umbrella of resilience. Resilience has been defined as “a protective mechanism thought to emerge from specific personality features, such as self-esteem, or from aspects of social support and adaptive coping resources and strategies” (Mummery, Schofield & Perry, 2004). In essence, resilient individuals possess the ability to overcome adversity, bounce back and rebound. Resilience is a process which is built up by an individual over time through situations and scenarios which encourage them to overcome adversity, through developing coping strategies to deal with these situations and become a mentally stronger individual. As the individual experiences these situations, it is an opportunity for them to build on enhancing self-esteem and determination (internal factors; Richardson, 2002), while also building up a “repertoire” of strategies (Block and Block, 1980) to deal with adverse scenarios. By producing a portfolio of these skills, the individual gives themselves the best chance of a flexible approach to such situations, as they will have an array of options to choose from, best suited to overcoming adversity. In turn, this will install a resilient nature within the individual.
For coaches, resilience in their athletes is a crucial quality they feel is vital to their success. Seligman, Reivich & McBride (2011) have developed a MRT (Master Resilience Trainer Course) in conjunction with the US Military and believe there are six core competencies crucial to resilience. These are 1. Self-awareness (Identifying thoughts and emotions), 2. Self-regulation (Regulating thoughts and emotions), 3. Optimism (Noticing the good), 4. Mental Agility (Flexible and accurate thinking), 5. Character Strengths (Top strengths of the individual), and 6. Connection (Strong relationships). In the same programme, Seligman et al., propose specific techniques in order to train resilience. One technique is ABC which encompasses the individual to understand events and the emotions that this event can trigger – event activation, their beliefs of the event and the behavioural and emotional consequences. A second technique is explanatory styles and thinking traps, where individuals would “over-generalise” from one specific situation. Thirdly, the “Iceberg” technique which delves into deeply held beliefs and whether these beliefs are restricting a soldier’s progression. Seligman et al., also discuss a number of other techniques such as energy management, problem solving and cultivating gratitude. Even though this programme is based on empirically validated work by Seligman on positive psychology, in my opinion, with tweaking and fine tuning these techniques and methods can be used within a sporting environment to enhance resilience in athletes, or even to make athletes aware of their own resilience levels and what they could potentially employ in order to enhance these levels.
Two examples of resilient players in football are Gareth Bale and Giovani Dos Santos. When Tottenham Hotspur first bought Gareth Bale from Southampton, he was regarded as a future prodigy. Being young, he still had plenty of time to grow as a footballer, however his early days were clouded with criticism. He failed to live up to performance levels and to make matters worse Spurs had been associated with losing when Gareth Bale was in the team. Two to three years later, he is now a renowned world class player who has the capabilities and attributes to be compared with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. So what happened in that period of time? Although there is no documented evidence (which would be extremely interesting to have observed), the logical answer would be his psychological capacity is of great quality and he dedicated a large amount of time to improving his game. Over time Bale could have developed the relevant coping strategies to overcome those poor performances and any road blocks which were preventing him from achieving peak performance. It could be perceived Bale now has the mental integrity and talent to succeed at such a high level.
These two examples offer implications to both coaches and psychologists. The coaches must recognise the talent an individual possesses in order to improve performance levels, providing pressurised situations in training to help them develop their skills for when they are performing in a match. The psychologist’s role is to assist the players in understanding their emotion levels during specific situations within a match, and assist them with building up coping strategies to overcome any pitfalls they may encounter. Furthermore the two examples show the benefits for an individual possessing this attribute, specifically, overcoming adverse and tricky situations and being able to maintain high performance levels. This can be related back to Seligman’s resilience training which includes understanding emotions and the regulation of emotions, personal strengths and the mental agility of the individuals. From my experience, resilience is regarded as an extremely important quality for elite sports people to possess, therefore it would make sense to offer training scenarios and the support of a psychologist to assist with enhancing this within individuals.
From an educational perspective, to offer further insight into resilience, it would be extremely important to understand the underlying traits and specific components which amount to resilience. Future research needs to involve observation of large elite sports groups to obtain a more thorough understanding of resilience, to see if traits vary within different sports.