Well Being


Mental Health and the Whole Athlete  The mental health epidemic among adolescents has been causing us to really become aware of how to prevent these issues for the future generations. NYS having mandated mental health education and social emotional education among schools within the past year, brings us to a better place if handled effectively. […]

Mental Health and the Whole Athlete 

The mental health epidemic among adolescents has been causing us to really become aware of how to prevent these issues for the future generations. NYS having mandated mental health education and social emotional education among schools within the past year, brings us to a better place if handled effectively. Therefore, providing a facility that focuses on the whole child in conjunction with their athletic motives for success is imperative.

To reach total wellness for both adults and adolescents, we need to target fitness, the mind, and their social emotional behaviors. This delivers a necessary mind-body connection leading to self-awareness of the individual. Once an individual can achieve self-awareness, accurate self-perceptions and self-confidence is gained leading to responsible decision making in all aspects of their lives.

Adolescents often act on impulsivity due to the brain not being fully formed. Therefore, the mind-body connection is often disconnected and leads to them lacking the self-awareness skills to identify their feelings. They are in need of that reconnection and in order to do that they have to become a work in progress athletically, in their mind, and socially. Within our facility, we draw the adolescents in based on their desire to become better in their sport, but even that is not possible without fully developing the whole child. Yes, they may experience athletic progress toward their goals, but to make it consistent and above all of the rest, it is completely necessary for them to find that mind-body connection. With this connection, their ability to achieve a growth mindset, self-motivation, and self-confidence to overcome any obstacles that come their way during their athletic journey can now be achieved.

Meet Gabby. A 14-year old softball player and consistent member of my athletic performance facility. She came in as a strong softball player looking to achieve strength and perform better in her sport. However, she has had underlying mental health issues that have been creeping in on her. She was unsure of what she had been experiencing, but having had the exposure to the relationship between fitness and mental health, allowed her to continue her athletic journey and achieve. “I never really knew how serious you were about how working out and being active helps your mental health until I stopped.” Gabby, like most teenagers was learning to manage her time with school, sports, and training. She took a break from training for about a month and unfortunately, experienced the disconnection between her mind and body. As she has been predisposed to mental health issues with a family history of them, she had found that they were creeping in. “I wanted to thank you because when I look at it as a whole you really are the reason I started to step back and say to myself “are you okay” and I wasn’t.” Due to her ability to be self-aware and her exposure to the mind-body connection, she took the necessary steps to help herself and get her through the hard time eventually leading her way out of that athletic training break. Gabby was recently diagnosed with adjustment disorder and anxiety and is now working on identifying those feelings and developing additional coping skills. She realizes that the mind-body connection is a necessary part of her lifestyle and overall wellness. She has been back to training and working on her mind with additional support for now. Although, one day she may not need that service, she recognizes how it can assist now. She also recognizes how her training and consistent work on her mind-body connection at our facility is a lifestyle that she is unwilling to break from. This lifestyle not only has helped her achieve her athletic goals as a freshman Varsity athlete, but is now allowing her to achieve overall success where no obstacle can stand in her way.


A bit of background on identity… If we start with the wider idea of self-identity, it is a clearly delineated self-definition…comprised of those goals, values and beliefs which the person finds personally expressive and to which he/she is unequivocally committed (Waterman, 1985). Take a moment to think about this idea, what are the goals, values […]

A bit of background on identity…

If we start with the wider idea of self-identity, it is a clearly delineated self-definition…comprised of those goals, values and beliefs which the person finds personally expressive and to which he/she is unequivocally committed (Waterman, 1985). Take a moment to think about this idea, what are the goals, values and beliefs that you are committed too? Are they just in sport or do they link to other areas too?

Most young athletes will find that they have some level of athletic Identity which is the degree to which an athlete identifies with the athlete role (Sinclair and Orlick, 1993).  As we look more closely at identity there is a concept called identity foreclosure, this is the commitment of one’s identity to one area without exploration of alternatives (Murphy, Petitpas and Brewer, 1996). This can mean that some young people have an ‘Exclusive’ athletic identity and derive their self-identity exclusively from the athlete role (Brewer, Van Raalte & Linder, 1993).

Identity and adolescence…

Adolescence is a transitional period between puberty and adulthood which extends mainly over the teen years. It has been Identified as a stage in life during which individuals form a true self-identity (Chickering, 1969; Erikson, 1968).

If we look more specifically at adolescence and identity, for those involved in high level participation in one sport this comes with a lot of sacrifice & dedication. This can lead to two potential challenges for these individuals:

  • prevents them from engaging in exploration of different roles and behaviors
  • Possibly leads to identity foreclosure

Athletic Identity Positives

There have been positives linked to athletes having a high or strong athletic identity:

  • Salient Self-Identity: Having a strong athletic identity often leads to a strong sense of self and sureness of who you are.
  • Self-Confidence: Increased self-confidence, self-discipline, and more positive social interactions have all been observed in those with high athletic identity compared to those with a low athletic identity.
  • Health and Fitness: Individuals who highly value the athletic component of the self are more likely to engage in exercise behaviour than those who place less value on the athletic component of self-identity (Brewer et al., 1993).

Exclusive Athletic Identity potential risks

However, there are some potential risks to be aware of:

  • Emotional Difficulties Dealing with Injury: Injuries are an inevitable part of sport. Athletes with a robust athletic identity often find it difficult to cope with an injury, especially if it results in them being side-lined for a prolonged period of time. They tend to lose confidence and may experience feelings of helplessness.
  • Difficulty Adjusting After End of Athletic Career: Retirement is also something that cannot be escaped by any athlete, and it can be difficult to adjust
  • Alternate Career or Educational Options Not Considered: This can be a problem for young athletes who do not make it to a professional status or for those who experience career-ending injuries.

How can we support young people in their identity development?

  • Encourage young people to consider who they are as a person and as an athlete
  • Helping young people gain a clear understanding of who they are ‘off the pitch’ will enable them to:
    • Widen their sense of self
    • Gain clarity over their other strengths
    • Protect them from longer term psychological difficulties

And for those thinking that this may take their focus away from their sport I would argue it’s quite the opposite.

  • Having a clearer understanding of who they are will allow athletes:
    • to ‘switch on and get in the zone’ at the appropriate times
    • and ‘switch off’ thereafter,
    • this fits with the knowledge that successful athletes need to be in the here and now and have the ability to maintain concentration.

Every 4 years, athletes from across the globe look to make their dreams of becoming an Olympic champion reality. This often rests on one chance to show the world what they have been working on their whole lives. Imagine the pressure of knowing this could define your life’s dedication. For some, this pressure is debilitating, […]

Every 4 years, athletes from across the globe look to make their dreams of becoming an Olympic champion reality. This often rests on one chance to show the world what they have been working on their whole lives. Imagine the pressure of knowing this could define your life’s dedication. For some, this pressure is debilitating, whereas for others it surges them on to achieve greatness.

In the run up to Rio’s 2016 Olympic Games, Team GB put together a group of Performance Psychologists to help their elite athletes and teams deal with this exact pressure [1]. Their mission: design a resilience training program that is backed by scientific evidence to develop their athlete’s and team’s ability to withstand – and even thrive on – pressure. Fast-forward to Day 16 of the Games, and Great Britain has delivered their most successful performance for more than a century, winning a total of 67 Olympic medals [2]. One piece to that success may lie with the evidence-based training program used by the team of psychologists to build resilience [1]. A key part of this includes Pressure Inurement Training that can be used by coaches and leaders looking to improve their own athlete’s and followers performance under pressure.

After reading this blog you should be able to:

  • Understand what resilience is and how coaches can help to create training sessions that build resilience in their athletes
  • Know how Pressure Inurement Training can be used to build resilience via challenge and support

So, what is Pressure Inurement Training?

After learning a skill, the next step is to perform it under pressure to learn how to deal with the stress of competition. Obviously, it is difficult to replicate the exact same pressure of an Olympic final, but training under pressure means athletes can learn how to cope with the feelings of pressure in a non-threatening setting and transfer this to competition. Pressure Inurement Training involves gradually changing the training environment using specific strategies to increase the level of pressure individuals face [1]. Although it is tempting to place your performers under extreme stress and see how they cope with it, this often misrepresents what resilience actually is and how it should be developed.

Put simply, resilience refers to the ability to withstand – or even thrive on – pressure to enhance performance [3]. Resilient qualities seen in elite athlete’s include positivity, determination, competitiveness and commitment, persistence and passion [4]. Pressure Inurement Training includes specific ways to show how coaches can structure their training sessions to get their performers to use these personal qualities and build resilience. Feelings of pressure is achieved through specific ways to increase feelings of challenge, while continually balancing and adjusting levels of support over time.

What does a high challenge and high support environment look like?

A high challenge and high support environment involves having trusting and respectful relationships with your athletes, where athletes are encouraged and expected to be involved in both learning and development. It should be clear that both high challenge and high support helps your performers to learn in an environment that facilitates the personal qualities needed to build resilience. Essentially, this creates a psychologically safe environment that encourages sensible risk taking, where team members will not be scared to make mistakes and success will be recognized and celebrated together [5].

How can I increase challenge?

Pressure Inurement Training involves gradually increasing pressure by putting in place specific changes to the training environment to evoke a stress-response [6]. There are two main ways to evoke a stress-response during training that will help to increase challenge: a) firstly, by increasing the demands of training so that it is similar to competition, and b) knowing that individuals only feel pressure during events that are important, relevant to their goals and involve playing for certain consequences.

Step 1) Increase the demands of training:

  • Introduce different types of demands usually experienced during competition.
  • Make training sessions challenging by increasing the uncertainty of competition demands.
  • Increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of the competition demands in training.

Coaches can introduce some of the types of stressful events their athletes are likely to face during competition, known as competitive stressors, into training sessions to increase challenge [7]. Some examples include manipulating the rules of play or competing against better opponents [8]. It is useful to divide competitive stressors into the four corners of ‘mental’, ‘technical’, ‘tactical’ and ‘physical’ play [9]. For example, coaches or leaders can make a session more technically challenging by focusing on only one aspect of technique for the entire session while playing against a tough opponent.

‘‘Sometimes…you put a right footed player who can’t do anything with his left foot on [the] left side [of the pitch] and force him to use his left foot… so the player can use both feet when he comes into the first team’’– former professional football player, Dennis Bergkamp on using technical challenges in training.

The second way to increase the demands of training is by manipulating the properties of the competitive stressors, including recreating the uncertainty of competition. Athletes often experience the most pressure when they are competing in a different situation, under different rules or new environments because of feelings of uncertainty [10]. Coaches can create novel situations in training to increase the uncertainty of events, which may involve training with a different set of rules, on a different surface or with different equipment. A great example of this is by Coach Bob Bowman, coach to the most successful Olympian in history, Michael Phelps [11]

In a training session, Bowman once purposely stepped on Phelps’ goggles and cracked them without him knowing. Phelps was forced to swim with his googles filling with water. This challenging demand during training paid off, as in the 2008 Olympic final of 200m butterfly, disaster struck and Phelps goggles cracked. Because of Bowman, Phelps knew what to do and he overcame the problem by counting the number of strokes he needed to get to the other end of the pool. Phelps won Gold.

Lastly, to increase challenge coaches can look to increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of competition demands during training [12]. Athletes feel pressure when competitive stressors are physically and mentally more intense, experienced more frequently and for different lengths of time that it usually lasts for. An example of a competitive stressor that lasts for a short length of time may include hearing an unpleasant comment from a spectator during a match. Coaches may increase the frequency of this short-term stressor by simulating negative comments from an audience more often in training.

Step 2) Increase feelings of pressure:

  • Make sure training demands are important and relevant to performers goals
  • Use performance-based consequences that involve forfeits and rewards or using others to increase feelings of judgement

While competitive stressors themselves are bad, they don’t always lead to feelings of pressure. Coaches must understand that pressure is only experienced when athletes judge the competitive stressors as having the potential to threaten their personal goals of high performance [13]. Understanding the goals of your performers will allow coaches to create specific training demands that are relevant to his or her goals. For example, an athlete who wants to perform better in front of crowds would feel more pressure when being watched by a large audience in training. Hopefully it is clear that putting in place any ‘coach-led’ methods to increase pressure may not actually increase feelings of pressure as it may not be relevant to their athletes goals

The final way to influence feelings of pressure includes using consequences in training. This can include rewarding athletes by winning something positive, athletes receiving a forfeit for not meeting the expected standard, or being evaluated by others that judge their performance [8]. For example, circling everyone around two people who are being watched will increase feelings of pressure. It is important athletes do not feel ridiculed or scared to make mistakes, as an unrelenting environment with too much challenge and not enough support will lead to athletes avoiding taking future risks and fear failure [14].Remember, to create a high challenge and high support environment, athletes must trust their coach and believe everyone is valued.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”– Former Olympic hockey player, Wayne Gretzky on taking healthy risks.

Summary of how to increase challenge:

  1. Introduce some of the stressful demands that are normally experienced in competition into training sessions
  2. Increase the uncertainty of training demands to help athletes transfer their skills to new situations
  3. Increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of the training exercises to reflect competitive pressure
  4. Make sure training demands are important and relevant to performers goals
  5. Use consequences that involve forfeits, rewards or being judged by others

How can I increase support?

While coaches must increase challenge using the methods described above, a key part of Pressure Inurement Training involves increasing the support provided to individuals to enhance their personal qualities (i.e. positivity, determination, passion etc.) to build resilience [1].To do this, coaches must increase and adjust levels of support to allow athletes to feel confident dealing with greater challenge. Firstly, athletes should learn how to use psychological skills to cope with pressure, and then be able to practice dealing with challenging events using these skills in a non-threatening environment. Secondly, before coaches begin using Pressure Inurement Training, they must explain the reasons for increasing challenge at the start of each activity and review how their athletes dealt with the challenge at the end.

Step 1) Athletes must learn how to use psychological skills to cope with pressure and practice these skills during training

Athletes need to learn how to use psychological skills to deal with the added pressure, and if used correctly, can improve performance [15]. This can include learning how to stop negative thoughts and promote positive self-talk strategies, or learning how to use mental imagery before a competition more effectively. Learning these psychological skills will help athletes to avoid the negative thoughts of pressure, that could lead to choking, into a more positive experience during competition to enhance performance. These skills can then be used in training sessions where athletes practice these psychological skills to cope with the added challenge. As the Manchester City F.C. manager, Pep Guardiola echoed during behind the scenes footage:

‘‘Pressure is a privilege, it only comes to those who earn it’’Former World No.1 in tennis Billie-Jean King, on thinking positively about pressure.

Step 2) Brief and debrief your athletes at the start and end of each training session

Before coaches begin using Pressure Inurement Training, explaining to athletes at the start of training sessions why it is important they experience more stressful demands in training by helping them to learn how to cope with pressure [16]. Briefing athletes helps to avoid feelings of unrelenting pressure that will compromise their well-being [17]. For example, coaches should stress, ‘the drill is important to helping you make better choices with limited time to think, which helps with how fast you react to your opponent. If you can improve your decision making under a time limit, you’re more likely to perform better under pressure and reach your goal of winning more points’.

Following this, coaches should look to provide a debrief at the end of each Pressure Inurement Training session to review how their performers dealt with the added challenges and how they reacted to it (e.g. ‘How did you cope with the added challenge?’). It’s important to keep the discussion focused on how they dealt with the pressure and how it affected their performance. If athletes were unable to cope with the added pressure and they react with more negative outcomes, then coaches should temporarily decrease the challenge and increase support. On the other hand, if athletes react more positively then coaches should increase challenge further [1].

Summary of how to increase support:

  1. Athletes need to learn how to use psychological skills (e.g. positive self-talk, mental imagery) and practice these skills during training sessions
  2. Brief and debrief your athletes at the start and end of sessions to improve support and consider each person may react differently to pressure
  3. If responses are negative, consider increasing support and temporarily decrease challenge. If positive, consider increasing challenge.

How do I balance challenge and support?: Verbal Feedback

A key part of balancing challenge and support requires the coach to provide the athlete with the correct verbal feedback during Pressure Inurement Training. This is based on how the athlete is responding to the added challenge. Coaches must carefully monitor both the psychological responses and effects on performance to provide the correct forms of feedback.

Scenario 1) Too much challenge and not enough support leads to negative responses and performance and well-being suffers

When individuals are unable to cope with the added challenge, they are likely to react negatively. This may be in terms of actual behaviour (e.g. withdrawn, or aggression) or psychologically (e.g. anxiety, frustrated). In which case, motivational feedback and increased support should be provided. Motivational feedback includes encouragement, positive reinforcement of what they are doing well, and specific information on how to improve to promote learning [17].

Examples of motivational feedback:

  • ‘We’ve worked on this skill today because it is related to your performance goals.’
  • ‘You tried really hard to cope with the added challenge, well done’
  • ‘You dealt with the challenge well by controlling your breathing more’
  • ‘Try doing this next time so you can do Xbetter’

Scenario 2) High challenge and high support leads to positive responses and performance improves

When an individual reacts more positively and shows they have adapted well to the added challenge (e.g. happiness, determination, willing to train harder), then developmental feedback should be provided with increased challenge. Developmental feedback involves informing athletes on how to improve further with the goal of developing his or her ability to cope with greater challenge [18].

Examples of developmental feedback:

  • ‘What have you learnt that you could use in a match?’
  • ‘Great job! What’s one thing that you could have done even better?’
  • ‘You’ve mastered this skill, now let’s make it harder’

Summary of how to use verbal feedback:

  1. Carefully monitor how individuals react to increased challenge (e.g. ask question, notice changes to behaviour and performance) and then provide correct feedback
  2. Motivational feedback used if individual is struggling to adapt, in this situation coaches should increase support and temporarily decrease challenge.
  3. Developmental feedback used if athlete responds positively and has adapted to the increased pressure, in this situation coaches should further increase challenge when appropriate.

Take home messages from this blog:

  • Resilience can be changed over time, so coaches should look to build resilience in their athletes to improve performance under pressure
  • Pressure Inurement Training looks to continually balance and adjust challenge and support over time that will leads to individuals withstanding – and potentially thriving on – pressure.
  • Challenge should be increased gradually and in an appropriate way that considers the age and experience of its athletes to cope with the demands of pressure.
  • Pressure Inurement Training can be used within current training sessions and requires coaches to adapt to the needs of their athletes. Carefully monitoring both the psychological and performance outcomes of athletes will help to avoid chronic stress and burnout.
  • Pressure Inurement Training is one part of a mental fortitude training program that focuses on improving the conditions that athletes train. For resilience to be developed, athletes also need to enhance their personal qualities and create a challenge mindset.
  • To develop well-adjusted people and high-performing athletes, coaches must also consider how athletes can learn to control their own emotions and interpret them more positively (known as emotional intelligence), and focus on other areas such as ethical awareness, counselling and mindfulness.

Last spring, Swim England hosted its annual Sport Science and Medicine conference with the special topic of the female athlete. In hopes of gaining deeper understanding the female athlete, conference presentations paid special attention to the concept of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).  A brief overview of what was presented at the conference is […]

Last spring, Swim England hosted its annual Sport Science and Medicine conference with the special topic of the female athlete. In hopes of gaining deeper understanding the female athlete, conference presentations paid special attention to the concept of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).  A brief overview of what was presented at the conference is highlighted below.

RED-S, as the name suggests, is caused by relative energy deficiency, which is when the caloric intake is too low to match the level of calories needed for swimmers in to reach optimal health and performance. RED-S has broad and far reaching impact on the body and mind with it impacting the cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, the menstrual function, the immune system, the metabolic rate, the growth and development of an athlete, menstrual function, bone health, protein synthesis, as well as psychological functioning.

Consequence of RED-S that coaches and support staff may see in the pool includes (but is not limited to) a variety of physical issues such as decreased muscle strength, decreased endurance, increased risk of injury, and is less responsive to training. There is also an increased risk of depression, impairment of judgement, and increased irritability. From a psychological perspective, it is important to understand a swimmer’s psychology can be a cause of RED-S, but RED-S can also cause a negative impact on a swimmer’s psychology.  RED-S and psychology have a bidirectional relationship. For example, disordered eating or an eating disorder can mean a swimmer has a large calorie deficiency resulting in RED-S. Or a swimmer can experience psychological distress and depression due to RED-S.

When it comes to treatment of RED-S, increasing energy intake and a reduction of exercise should be considered in conjunction. However, if an athlete refuses to follow a treatment plan that involves increased energy intake and a reduction of exercise then it is likely that a psychological factor is present, with that athlete suffering from disordered eating or an eating disorder. It is important for coaches and support staff to not wait to see dramatic weight loss before talking to a swimmer about their concerns and seeking professional help for that athlete.

Early detection of RED-S is crucial to limit its impact on health and performance. Educating coaches and staff on the signs and symptoms and including screening for RED-S in annual health checks is key. Additionally, nutrition conversations should focus on how good nutrition can enhance performance and not weight loss. Comments on body shape should be avoided, and a general understanding that a “normal weight” and even good performance does not always mean a healthy individual.  Creating an open and communicative coach-athlete relationship and team culture can allow for athletes who may be suffering from psychological issues related to RED-S to open up before physical symptoms manifest. Keeping a multidisciplinary team up to date on the RED-S research and collaborating openly with athletes is paramount to minimising the negative impact RED-S will have.

To book your place at this year’s conference held in March in Nottingham you can visit:




Charlotte shares her thoughts on why studying less may improve your grades – and your mental health. Have you ever had that feeling that you have no time to do the things you enjoy because of the looming pressure of studying? Maybe you’d love to watch a movie, hang out with friends, or just lie […]

Charlotte shares her thoughts on why studying less may improve your grades – and your mental health.

Have you ever had that feeling that you have no time to do the things you enjoy because of the looming pressure of studying? Maybe you’d love to watch a movie, hang out with friends, or just lie in a hot bath, but you can’t make space for it in your schedule. When you are struggling with your mental health, this feeling of taking time for yourself can feel even less deserved. For some, makes us feel guilty for doing anything other than university work, and can seriously impact our wellbeing and our productivity.

When I started Brunel University as a fresh-faced 18 year old, I told myself that I didn’t have time for any clubs or societies. I was going to focus on my education and get a kick-ass degree! Things didn’t exactly work out that way; because I had no hobbies, and nothing else to dedicate my time to, I spent way too long studying in the library, or late into the night. One of the biggest regrets of my university experience is that I didn’t take the time to make friends through clubs and societies. I didn’t find that social outlet that I needed to help with the isolation and loneliness that living away from home can bring.

This guilt over ‘me-time’ got worse when I studied for a Master’s degree at Bristol UWE. Being a distance-learning course, I had even more of an opportunity to isolate myself due to the lack of a campus community, and the content of the course being completely online. I started to worry if I began working later than 9am. I wouldn’t give myself a lunch break longer than half an hour, and I completely neglected the need to exercise or just chill out.

Of course, this didn’t make me any better at studying. In fact, I spent most of my time worrying about studying and generally being inefficient, because studying was all I thought about. This resulted in me developing an anxiety disorder and unhealthy work habits that have stayed with me to this day, over a year after finishing my studies. According to the American Psychological Association, ‘excessive or inappropriate guilt’ is a key symptom of clinical depression, so it’s not surprising that a lot of students with mental health issues feel guilty for taking time off from studying.

One of my fellow course mates had a part-time job, a netball coaching job, and various other hobbies and activities that she indulged in, always managing to spend time on her studies as well. That girl eventually really DID get a kick-ass degree!

As counter intuitive as it seems, taking time away from studying and spending a healthy amount of time on self-care is THE BIGGEST tool for success and wellbeing that there is! Everyone needs to recharge their batteries regularly. So, have a think about what you like to do to relax and unwind. Is it reading a book? Going for a run? Something that has really helped me is having a list of things that I know I enjoy readily available to me to look at when I feel I need a break. Another helpful tip is to make yourself clear, realistic, small goals every day. Something like: ‘today I will read 2 journal articles’. And then when you complete those tasks, don’t be tempted to give yourself more. You’ve done what you set out to do!

Too much studying can have a really big impact on our health and wellbeing, and can give us a distorted view of how much our grades mean in the grand scheme of things. Be kind to yourself and prioritise that me-time as much as you need.


Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity? The most obvious is […]

Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity?

The most obvious is the “think positive” approach. Focusing on our positive qualities can breed confidence, and allow us to build on our strengths. Thinking about the “positives” may create optimism. But equally, athletes will want to consider their weaknesses and shortcomings, to see how they can be improved. If an athlete is to evaluate themselves realistically, they cannot purely focus on their strengths and positive qualities.

Handling the side of oneself that falls short of the “ideal” isn’t easy. Weaknesses and obstacles are seen as threats to future success, and sources of frustration. And unfortunately, in the dog-eat-dog environment of competitive sport, the emphasis tends to be on pushing hard and being “tough”. Athletes can easily become excessively critical of their weaknesses or how they handle obstacles. They may see self-criticism as a “must” for motivation and improvement. But are these actually the best approaches to use?

Researchers have actually found self-criticism to be negatively associated with motivation and progress towards goals (Powers et al., 2011). Some athletes even quit sport due to self-criticism (Ferguson et al., 2014). A more constructive way of responding to challenges and weaknesses is by taking a self-compassionate stance.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion refers to the ability to recognise distress in oneself, with the commitment to alleviate it. According to Neff (2003), self-compassion includes three major components:

  • Self-kindness (showing kindness and understand toward oneself when experiencing any sort of distress or failure);
  • Common humanity (seeing one’s experiences as a part of being human, and knowing that others experience the same); and
  • Mindfulness (being able to notice uncomfortable thoughts and feelings with a nonjudgmental awareness, rather than over-identifying with them).

Why self-compassion?

Self-compassion is related to fewer negative thoughts and feelings in response to sporting challenges (Reis et al., 2015). Self-compassion interventions have also succeeded in reducing self-criticism and negative thoughts following  mistakes in athletes (Mosewich et al., 2013).

Ferguson and colleagues (2014) interviewed female athletes about how self-compassion could help in their own sporting lives. They identified various potential targets for self-compassion:

  • Dealing with mistakes or missing goals and expectations
  • Working through injuries and plateaus
  • Stepping back and looking at situations rationally
  • Positive thinking and self-encouragement
  • Persistence and self-belief
  • Balancing weaknesses and strengths
  • Taking responsibility and fixing things
  • Keeping things in perspective

How does it work?

However, athletes are often naturally wary of the idea of self-compassion. Self-criticism is seen as necessary for caring about improving and avoiding complacency (Ferguson et al., 2014). Self-compassion can be seen as self-indulgent or being “too nice”. However, research has found the opposite.

Self-compassion is negatively related to being passive, and positively related to taking responsibility (Ferguson et al., 2014). It means caring about one’s wellbeing and performance, and then encouraging oneself to take action to achieve their goals (Neff, 2003). Self-compassion provides an emotionally safe and non-judgmental context in which to consider one’s weaknesses and how to improve them. This affords more realistic self-evaluation (Breines & Chen, 2012). Without fear of self-condemnation, the athlete is freer to explore their weaknesses and gain greater awareness (Neff, 2003).

Breines and Chen (2012) found that individuals encouraged to be self-compassionate demonstrated better outcomes in various tasks over those encouraged to focus on their own positive qualities:

  1. Stronger “incremental beliefs” about personal weaknesses. This means seeing shortcomings as changeable rather than fixed, which breeds greater motivation and persistence.
  2. Greater motivation to make amends and avoid repeating a moral transgression in the future.
  3. More effort and time spent studying for a second test after failing an initial one.
  4. Greater upward social comparison, which means taking inspiration from people who are more successful in some way.

Self-compassion is neither a show of indulgence nor complacency, but one of courage. It requires an athlete to look at the reality of their situation, and decide how to move themselves forward. The take-home point is that harsh self-criticism is not necessary for improvement. Encouragement and realistic evaluation of one’s strengths and weaknesses is more productive.

How self-compassion works

So what does self-compassion look like in practice? Firstly, it involves noticing and engaging with whatever the difficulty may be; a mistake, setback, or the realisation of a weakness. It means recognising that the experience is tough, and allowing the natural uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that come up without judging them. This enables realistic self-appraisal.

Upon recognising this difficulty, self-compassion involves engaging with oneself in a way that helps, not hinders progress. This means speaking kindly to and encouraging oneself, like one would a friend. Providing this reassurance and honesty reduces the tendency to self-criticise, and offers the security to solve the problem.

Finally, self-compassion requires tapping into one’s motivation and committing to solving the problem. It means asking oneself: “what do I need to do to move closer to where I want to be?” A self-compassionate approach may provide the athlete with the resilience they need to face and overcome adversity.


Working in various youth sport environments and with several young athletes on an individual basis brings about numerous challenges in relation to athlete motivation and the motivational climate that is created by those supporting young athletes. The topics of this article are aimed at helping parents and coaches understand some of the theory and ideas […]

Working in various youth sport environments and with several young athletes on an individual basis brings about numerous challenges in relation to athlete motivation and the motivational climate that is created by those supporting young athletes. The topics of this article are aimed at helping parents and coaches understand some of the theory and ideas behind motivation and motivational climates.

Firstly, Motivational climate is the psychological environment that the coach creates by designing sessions which provide instructions and feedback that will help to motivate the athletes in training / competition (Amnes, 1992). Secondly, motivation impacts on how we think, feel and interact with others. This is an essential prerequisite in sport for getting athletes to enjoy the process of fulfilling their potential.

Win at all costs (Ego) or learning (Mastery) environment?

There are two contrasting climates that have been discussed in previous literature. If a Mastery climate is being developed then the environment revolves around supporting effort, cooperation and emphasis on individual/team development, learning and mastery of the tasks that are being undertaken (Roberts et al, 2007).

An ego climate is one in which the main goal is winning, and success is defined as being better than other players or other athletes. These environments often rely on comparisons between athletes, and coaches punishing mistakes and errors (Roberts et al, 2007).

Understanding an athlete’s motivational orientation:

An individual athlete’s motivation in sport can also be linked to 2 contrasting approaches. An ego-oriented athlete is constantly monitoring their performance related to others and is interested in winning with the smallest of efforts. Such dispositions mean that these athletes are also more prone to withdrawing from challenging situations when their ability seems shortcoming (Nicholls, 1989; Roberts et al., 2007).

A task-oriented individual will be more focused on mastering the task at hand and giving enough effort in to this process. Task-oriented athletes` are more likely to persist in the face of setbacks, put in more effort, select more challenging tasks and stay motivated in the process of development (Roberts et al., 2007).

How do you motivate young athletes?

One of the main discussions I have with young athletes, coaches and parents is the fact that it is unrealistic to shift completely from the motivation to win as that is an inherent part of sport and an important goal. However, it is not the only or most important objective in youth sport.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How much do you reinforce the importance of training and effort?
  • How do you address situations where athletes win but their performance was not as good as it has been previously?
  • How much are the athletes enjoying the experience of being involved in sport even if they are not winning?
  • How often do you make direct comparisons on young athlete’s abilities?
  • How do you talk about referee, umpire or judge decisions?

Going in to detail on all these questions and how you can effectively approach the challenges that come about through each of them far exceeds the scope of this article. However, they do provide some food for thought the next you are supporting your child or the children you coach in a sport environment especially around competitions.

‘Children first, athletes second’

Although throughout this article we have used the term ‘young athletes’ one final point to remember is that they are ‘children first, athletes second’. There are so many great, physical, social and psychological benefits to children being involved in sport. Try not to lose these by focusing too much on winning (which can increase unsportsmanlike behaviours and lower levels of moral reasoning).


“Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.” – Dan Reeves (Former NFL athlete and head coach) Resilience. It has become a buzzword of modern self-help inside and out of the sporting world. It is touted as necessary for success; but has been criticised heavily for the use of ill-defined terminology and unqualified results. The term […]

“Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.” – Dan Reeves (Former NFL athlete and head coach)

Resilience. It has become a buzzword of modern self-help inside and out of the sporting world. It is touted as necessary for success; but has been criticised heavily for the use of ill-defined terminology and unqualified resultsThe term seems to have become disingenuous, with every organisation and leader claiming to be building resilience. The whole murky business needs demystifying. What is resilience? Can it contribute to sustained high performance? Can we develop or teach it, and should we? Recent evidence would suggest that it can, and we should, given the right conditions.

The first thing to tackle then; what is psychological resilience? most simply, it refers to the ability to use personal qualities to withstand pressure (Fletcher and Sarkar, 2016). Otherwise known as mental fortitude, it encompasses the protective ability to maintain our well-being and performance levels under pressure; and the ability to bounce back from small challenges with a swift return to normal functioning.

How does this translate into world of athletic performance? Examples of sporting success through resilience are abundant. Baseball star Babe Ruth said,

“every strike brings [you] closer to the next home run” – Babe Ruth

and arguably the best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan has been the first to hold his hands up to his own mistakes:

“If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” – Michael Jordan

As with many abilities, psychological or otherwise, resilience levels can change over time. At times of vulnerability, people are more likely to succumb to the pressure, and as a result their performance and well-being can suffer. To combat this, the role of psychologists, coaches, and other support staff is to seek to influence, and hopefully improve people’s psychological resilience.

However, before we delve into how to develop mental fortitude in athletes, a few words of caution; psychological resilience training is not the cure-all solution for any athlete performance or mental health problem. Researchers Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) recommend that any training program for psychological resilience should be part of a holistic approach that includes other psychosocial support such as ethical awareness, emotional intelligence and counselling. The aim should be to develop well-adjusted, high performing athletes (for more research on these additional elements see Breslin et al. 2017; Laborde et al., 2016; and Longstaff and Gervis, 2016). There is a risk that comes with not giving enough consideration to these other psychological assets. On its own, psychological resilience can ultimately become a vice that undermines well-being and performance. We refer back to the wise words of coach ‘Irv’ Blitzer in the film ‘Cool Runnings’ (because… when is that not the answer?) who told his athlete:

“Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing; but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it”

Resilience is not about placing your well-being or your values at risk. It is not about being under stress and denying it in order to keep pushing on. It is not about being so single-minded and focused on performing that everything else falls by the wayside e.g. in the case of Derice, when he began to alienate his friends and tried to be something he wasn’t. At a team level, this can occur in the forms of rewarding or celebrating dysfunctional behaviour, such as trying to play through an injury, and mislabelling them as badges of honour ‘for the good of the team’. According to Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) these are considered weaknesses that should not be misconstrued as strength. On the flip side of this however, a lack of resilience should also not be misconstrued as weakness. Everyone can and will, at some point, give in to extreme pressure or hardship. This is not weakness. In fact, for some this adversity is the platform from which they spring forward to withstand and thrive on pressure at the highest levels. For example, Laura Bassett, an England defender who scored an own goal in the 2015 World Cup semi-finals has just joined a new club and continues to represent her country internationally.

How then, do we train to improve resilience in the right way? Last year, researchers Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) developed and published their evidence-based mental fortitude training program, aimed at sustaining success through developing psychological resilience. They created a three-pronged approach to increase mental fortitude for sustained success. We’re going to explain the three main elements, and make suggestions on how coaches, athletes and support staff can go about implementing them. Firstly:

Personal Qualities

Protecting against negative consequences starts, unsurprisingly, with the individual themselves. Personal qualities are psychological factors that are a combination of personality and skills, and we need to start with a quick run down of the difference. Personality is about people’s more stable characteristics that build the patterns in the way they feel, think, and behave. Practitioners should look to identify these traits to get a better idea of the athlete’s starting point. Examples of some personality characteristics to look for include extraversion, conscientiousness, optimism, perfectionism, and self-confidence. Also, being intrinsically motivated, which means enjoying doing activities and tasks; or task-orientated which relates to wanting to demonstrate competence through personal improvement.

We need to think about what Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) refer to as a person’s ‘resilience bandwidth’. Each individual athlete has their own potential of psychological resilience. Some start high in resilience, while others start low and each may respond differently to resilience training. This is crucial to consider before starting any intervention; remember we want to get each individual to his or her personal highest point of resilience potential, so we teach them skills.

Psychological skills are the mental and emotional processes people use to improve their functioning. These are much more malleable than the personality characteristics. For example, we can develop self/social awareness. This means having an awareness of oneself, others and the environment, and practitioners can recommend exercises such as daily self-reflection to work on it. Athletes (and anyone) can set some time aside each day to honestly look at yourself as a person and an athlete. This process can be aided by using a journal. Looking at yourself objectively can help you get a better idea of who you are and what you want. Directing thoughts, mental images, and attention are also important skills to master for resilience e.g. self-talk, imagery, mental rehearsal etc. We will give a few suggestions on ways to practice these a little later.

If we consider personality as the foundation, and psychological skills as the bricks we build with, the desirable outcomes are the overall structure we’re aiming to build. While developing psychological skills may be beneficial, it is important not to do so for practice’s sake. The desirable outcomes should be specific and measurable. We would like to develop individuals who are able to maintain concentration when it matters, who are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions, who are able to handle pressure and deal with distress, and who are able to recognise the support they have. For a full list of these qualities, see Fletcher and Sarkar (2016, p.139).

We know, of course, that aiming to develop personal qualities to help athletes resist any stressor at any given moment is rather aspirational. No matter what their personal qualities, in the end this alone is not enough, and anyone can reach their ‘breaking point’ under enough adversity. So, we need to look outside of the individual to their surrounding environment.

Facilitative environment

Our knowledge in this area originated in the field of education. In 1967, Sanford argued that for students to improve their academic performance, the environment must balance the challenge and support presented to them. Challenge refers to having high expectations of the athletes, and involves instilling accountability and responsibility for each individual role. For example, the goalie in football or the point guard in basketball are both very specific, well-defined and high-pressure roles. The challenge for these is clear and can be quite easily set out. Attention should be paid to others in the team to ensure their roles are clear, expectations are high, and accountability is upheld. This is achieved through developmental feedback, which informs athletes on how to improve and develops resilience.

This, however, must be balanced with support. Support refers to enabling athletes to develop their personal qualities (discussed above), and helps to promote learning and build trust. In this case, motivational feedback is most appropriate to encourage and inform athletes about what has been effective in the past and what is now working to develop their resilience.

Too high or too low in either, or both, of these elements and you can end up with environments that are highly ineffective for developing resilience. A facilitative environment consists of people thriving in a challenging but supportive environment. There are good relationships between athletes and coaches and people crave constructive feedback. There is healthy competition, and sensible risk taking is encouraged. People are supported to learn from mistakes and failure, and success is celebrated. To build resilience to help with sustained high performance, a facilitative environment must be created and maintained. Essentially, “comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We understand though, that no single individual can create or control a whole environment. Any practitioners who want to implement this training program should try to identify the main decision-makers and influential opinions in your organisation. These are key people to get on board, and to educate. Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) noted that the effectiveness of this program can depend on the amount of commitment from all personnel in a team. You should encourage open discussion and positive change.

Challenge mindset

The final ingredient of Fletcher and Sarkar’s (2016) psychological resilience training program is known as the challenge mindset. This is where we focus on how people react in different ways to adversity as a whole, rather than to the specific events themselves.

Wayne Dyer said, “change the way you look at things and the things you look at change”. This is the essence of the challenge mindset, and is crucial for developing resilience. The first concept to tease out here is known as appraisal. This is an ongoing psychological process where, in any situation, people assess the external pressures by asking themselves questions such as ‘how might this affect me, and do I care?’. This is known as primary appraisal. People then assess their own ability to cope with those pressures e.g. ‘what can I do about this and will it be enough?’. This is known as secondary appraisal. On top of this, people assess their own thoughts and emotions in any given situation, and this is known as meta-cognition and meta-emotion, respectively.

Keeping all this in mind, as practitioners we need to work on helping athletes to positively ‘appraise’ and interpret the pressures they experience, in relation to their own resources (secondary appraisal), thoughts and emotions (meta-cognition/emotion). For example, some individuals find it easy to evaluate experiences as a challenge, however for others achieving this challenge mindset is more difficult and the are more likely to evaluate events as threatening or harmful. This is where the psychological skills and facilitative environment discussed previously become particularly important. Psychological skills need to be practiced regularly. Athletes should have an awareness of any negative thoughts that make them more vulnerable, and they should be mindful that they have a choice in how they react to things that happen. Here are some of the top thought regulation strategies Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) outline to deal with negative thinking and improve the challenge mindset:

  • Stop – come up with a phrase to stop negative thoughts. Be assertive. Use imagery to reinforce the statement, like visualising a bright red “stop” sign. Other examples include “hold it”, “take control”, or “don’t go there”.
  • Verbalise – Negativity can be aired out by explaining it to someone. This person should be trusted to help confront and replace irrationalities with more constructive thoughts.
  • Park –negative thoughts can be ‘parked’ by writing them down and putting them aside to be confronted at a more appropriate time. They should later be replaced with more positive thoughts and images.

As with developing personal qualities, it is important to realise that everyone will, at times, engage in negative thinking. This is ok, and people should try to be accepting and non-judgemental of any negative thoughts they are experiencing, so they can begin to work on how to deal with such thoughts and beliefs.

In conclusion

A proper understanding of what resilience is (and is not), is crucial to create a productive training program. Coaches and practitioners can develop psychological resilience through a three-pronged program. This includes spotting and developing personal qualities in the athletes, creating a facilitative environment, and teaching techniques to encourage the challenge mindset. Get as many of your team on board as possible, and make sure any work you do is part of an ethical and holistic approach.


Resilience is a hot topic in today’s world. From sport psychology to military psychology, it seems that everyone has their own interpretation of resilience, and how resilience training should be administered. Going back to my previous article titled “Empirical vs. Non-empirical Resilience Strategies – Outcomes and Consequences,” resilience will be defined as: …one’s ability to […]

Resilience is a hot topic in today’s world. From sport psychology to military psychology, it seems that everyone has their own interpretation of resilience, and how resilience training should be administered. Going back to my previous article titled “Empirical vs. Non-empirical Resilience Strategies – Outcomes and Consequences,” resilience will be defined as:

…one’s ability to overcome cognitive obstacles (e.g., stress, negative self-talk) and maintain composure during high stress activities. Multiple factors have been identified and linked to outcome performance related to resilience. These include, but are not limited to: determination, confidence, spirituality, and one’s ability to adapt (Gonzalez, Moore, Newton, & Galli, 2016).

In order to address whether or not resilience can be coached, we need to take a step back and look at the fundamental principles of resilience: 1) the definition of resilience (see above), 2) resilience as it stands in objective literature, and 3) resilience as it subjective observation.

The definition of ‘resilience’ – What does it mean?

When looking at the definition of resilience referenced by Gonzalez et al. (2016), several key words can be extracted for further interpretation. The first is the word cognitive and how it relates to obstacles. The word cognitive emphasizes the mental approach to an, potentially multi-faceted, obstacle. In other words, a cognitive obstacle is not something that is readily foreseen, nor is it something that can be moved by physical force. A cognitive obstacle is one that must be experienced and subsequently adapted to through means of different mental strategies and/or psychological skills [e.g., visualization, deep breathing, goal setting] (Fitzwater, Arthur, & Hardy, 2017). This is not to say you cannot plan for cognitive obstacles drawing from past experiences, but it is to say that not all cognitive obstacles can be predicted.

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

This quote is applicable to cognitive obstacle idea, and sets us up for the next key word connected to resilience: outcome(s).

It is not uncommon for athletes to spend hours at the gym counting reps and forgetting the two most basic principles of training: purpose and outcome(s). Purpose and outcomes are fundamental concepts of sport performance. Without purpose, why participate? Without an outcome, what are you striving for? Granted, outcomes are not always black and white, but a purpose should be fairly clear and concise on either a personal and/or team level.

With the fundamental principles of purpose and outcome(s) in mind, it is just as important for athletes to plan for failure as it is for them to plan for success. Some common approaches seen throughout the literature are the concepts of goal setting, deep breathing, and visualization (Adler et al., 2015). These are all equally important, but most are approached in a positive light (success) and not a negative light (failure). Coaches may want to embrace these mental training approaches from both perspectives in order to prepare their athletes for what may be an unexpected outcome.

The third, and final, key word in the definition of resilience is composure. Composure, while listed in the second position in the definition of resilience, is a key component for any athlete and/or coach. One’s ability to maintain composure in the face of uncertainty may make the difference between success and failure; life or death. As there is not a readily available and common definition of composure from a research perspective, we will think of composure as one’s ability to maintain a level head in the face of uncertain or trying circumstances.

In my experience as a researcher, composure is, more often than not, a subjective measure based on observation. However, it is not something that cannot be quantifiable. Self Determination Theory (SDT) is a great starting point for coaches that wish to seek out the impact of components related to composure. Empirically supported, SDT emphasizes three major sticking points: relatedness to the task, comprehension of the subject matter, and the autonomous means of approaching a task. One’s ability to maintain a level head in the face of adversity may rely on these factors. While not directly correlated with composure, SDT does show promise on the overall impact of performance (Mellinger, Cheek, Sibley, & Bergman, 2014) and should be considered moving forward with a basic mental performance plan.

Resilience in Objective Literature

Resilience is a high interest topic in the field of sport psychology, no doubt. But, the delivery of which resilience training programs are ‘best’ remains quite elusive, if not controversial. The US Army has the Comprehensive Solider Fitness (CSF) program; the US Navy SEALS has psychological skills training (PST); and professional athletes, more often than not, use life or skill coaches (Fitzwater et al., 2017). So which on is best? Based on the literature, the answer varies.

In order to determine which delivery method and/or program is the most effective, researchers need to be able to measure the outcomes related to resilience. In the case of Fitzwater et al. (2017), researchers sought to quantify the effects of mental skills (e.g., visualization, goal setting) as they related to overall performance. In more simplistic terms, they wanted data to support the notion that mental skills training could make an impact on military performance. Taking soldier’s from the British army’s para recruit program (n = 173), researchers revealed that mental skills did have general support for enhanced resilience and military performance.

So what? These results are important because they are what researchers call objective. In other words, they are results that are independent and apart from any personal bias. Proven test measures with high rates of validity and reliability were utilized to collect information to support or nullify a hypothesis. This is important because now one who may seek mental skills training has something to base a curriculum. This is contrary to the CSF program which is subjective. In other words, a subjective result is something that is based on observation, and personal experience which data may or may not support. This becomes an issue when personal biases may have a negative impact on the message one may be trying to deliver.

Studies such as the one described above are not without limitations. However, they do help take a proactive, data driven, approach to resiliency training.

Resilience Practices through Subjective Observation

With the previous section describing objective vs. subjective approaches to resilience training, it is important to note that many great programs may result from subjective experiences. However, before developing a complete mental skills regiment for the purpose of facilitation, an extensive search of the literature should be considered.

Having been exposed to both the CSF program and private based mental skills programs, I have learned that mental skills are highly independent and may be more effective through an individualized delivery method, rather than a generalized group setting. In other words, a strategy that works for a solider, may not work for an Olympian. The same goes for position specific sports. For example, a sprinter may need a different mental coaching strategy than a distance runner. The same applies for physical training: a sprinter wouldn’t want to run a 5k to train for a 100m dash, right? With that said, this may be extremely time consuming, thus simply exposing athletes to the potential benefit of cognitive performance may be a good preliminary delivery method for mental skills training.


Mental skills are important for enhancing performance, this is clear. What is not clear is what the best delivery method is. Both objective studies and subjective programs have their strengths and weaknesses, but the objective methods provide valid and reliable results from which one can be more comfortable in developing a comprehensive mental skills training program. As coaches, we need to be active in keeping up to date with the research. As athletes, we need to be open to new and innovative ways of gaining another competitive edge over an opponent. In the end, the advancement of our understanding surrounding mental skills and performance is only limited by our fear and/or unwillingness to try new things.


Mindfulness is thought to be a tendency to be present in the moment and to mindfully accept naturally occurring events, emotions and thoughts. As a trait-like variable, some people are able to achieve this state more regularly than others. When considering a mindful, let it be, present moment approach it could appear to be counterintuitive […]

Mindfulness is thought to be a tendency to be present in the moment and to mindfully accept naturally occurring events, emotions and thoughts. As a trait-like variable, some people are able to achieve this state more regularly than others. When considering a mindful, let it be, present moment approach it could appear to be counterintuitive to achieving success that requires persistence, grit, resilience against stress and pushing one’s limits/boundaries. However, to be ‘mindful’ is not a passive state but rather a deeply engaged state but one that accepts each and every moment exactly as it is. Understanding the motives, drives and goals of individuals’ is a complex and multi-layered process. In order to better understand the various layers of complication, an athlete can employ mindfulness techniques to be present with, reflect upon and change emotional responses and behaviour.

The use of mindfulness techniques originated in Eastern philosophy and culture and have more recently been incorporated into Western practices. Particularly in sport, mindfulness has grown in popularity as athletes strive to achieve a performance advantage. Perhaps an innovative approach to sport psychology consultancy should include the simplistic models of traditional psychological skills training, mainstream psychological practices such as rational emotive behaviour therapy and also incorporate mindfulness based acceptance practices. In doing so the athlete starts to develop a deeper understanding of their motives, drives, responses to competition (success, failure, set-backs, key transitions), has a clear observable focus and goals and engages with these processes mindfully in order to deepen and enhance learning and growth. It’s important that practitioners look beyond the use of psychological skills training and begin to integrate theoretical approaches and techniques from different philosophical domains and contexts.


I previously wrote an article on here titled, ‘why am I doing this at my age? Physical activity or competitive sport? Which looked at the contrast between why individuals over the age of 35 participate in one or the other. This article will focus more specifically on masters sport and the negotiation of the ageing […]

I previously wrote an article on here titled, ‘why am I doing this at my age? Physical activity or competitive sport? Which looked at the contrast between why individuals over the age of 35 participate in one or the other. This article will focus more specifically on masters sport and the negotiation of the ageing process. The masters athlete population has become one of the fastest growing sport participation cohorts in Westernised countries (Bennett, Seguin, Parent and Young, 2014). You only need to look at the news sections on Sport NGB websites to realise that providing opportunities for these age groups has become more of a priority with events taking place at club, National and International level. For example:

  • The British Open Masters Squash Championships 2018 was held in Surrey, from the 5th-10th June.
  • The Hockey Masters World Cup is taking place in Terrassa from 27th July – 5th August
    • Slogan – ‘It’s never too late’
  • The next World Masters Games will be held in Kansai, Japan in 2021 and is the 10th games of its kind.
    • Slogan – ‘The blooming of sport for life’

In terms of a specific definition, Young (2011) defined masters athletes as individuals who participate in competitive sport, with organised events typically beginning at age 35 and extending into the 90s. Masters Athletes are characterised by formal registration to an organisation (e.g. club) or event (e.g. 10km road race), and a sufficiently regular pattern of involvement in preparation for an event (Young 2011).

Many older individuals still participate in mixed age group sport environments. However, participation in masters sport provides an indicator of what a person is capable of through competition against peers. The performance feedback received during competition is relative to the highest functioning members of the cohort and has been found to influence motivation for continued participation, or optimism for the ageing process (Horton, 2010).

There are key themes that are relevant to the continued participation of this age group and how they negotiate the ageing process (Dionigi, Horton and Baker, 2013):

  • Resisting and avoiding ageing – This is where individuals talk about continuing sports participation to a point where they are no longer physically capable. It also identifies adults who are fighting the ageing process through continually moving the mind and body in the context of sport and everyday life.
  • Redefining ageing and acceptance of the ageing process – This theme presents stories of older age as an opportunity for mental, physical and social stimulation, enjoyment and engagement.

Dionigi’s (2010) findings simultaneously presented stories of personal victories and private desperation, highlighting the perceived benefits and potential consequences for engaging and maintaining an ‘athlete identity’. The masters athletes who challenge the standard definition of ageing by competing in sport at elite levels beyond middle adulthood and into the later decades of life are resisting the ageing process by maintaining physical activity levels and gaining additional social and psychological benefits (Young, Weir, Starkes and Medic, 2008).

Masters sport is a beneficial environment for athletes to maintain an involvement in competitive sport after the age of 35, and experience opportunities to compete with and against their peers. However, this continued participation can link to contrasting approaches to negotiating the ageing process and how this links to the individual’s athletic identity that has developed through years of participation.

  • Are you a masters athlete? Have you ever thought about why you have maintained your involvement in sport and how you are negotiating the ageing process?
    • I believe there is no such thing as old
    • I need to Keep moving
    • I am involved for fun, fitness, friendship…(and) competing
    • I want to make the most of my life…with the capabilities I still have

Imagine a time of which you had to overcome a significant challenge in your life. It could be a career change, personal loss, or even something small like choosing which route to take to work. With every challenge comes a consequence; and with every consequence comes an opportunity to learn, whether it is from a […]

Imagine a time of which you had to overcome a significant challenge in your life. It could be a career change, personal loss, or even something small like choosing which route to take to work. With every challenge comes a consequence; and with every consequence comes an opportunity to learn, whether it is from a negative or positive outcome.

One of the most gratifying experiences about my job is hearing about the challenges faced by veterans recovering from injury. The most common type of injuries are cognitive based (e.g., brain trauma), but other injuries include personal loss or bodily injury. Regardless of the type of injury, each poses their own unique set of challenges.  With this in mind, I have come to learn that the preparatory and application approach applied to a challenge ultimately that may make the difference between overcoming a challenge or falling short of expectations. Furthermore, the preparatory and application approach may assist in defining our character, assist or inhibit personal recovery, and/or set the foundation for how one allows or does not allow the challenge to govern our decision making. After spending time with veterans from the United States’ two longest conflicts in US military history, I have gained a unique perspective about how to embraces challenges as an opportunity rather than an intimidating obstacle.

Through observation and application, those approaching a challenge in a manner consistent with the betterment of one’s personal health will ultimately yield the most significant and beneficial results. In other words, taking ownership of the situation will enable oneself to approach a situation in a manner that is both achievable and, more importantly, approachable. One of the most impactful instances of this is when I witnessed veterans learning to walk again. The road to recovery for these veteran’s is both long and intimidating, but the one’s that chose to accept the situation, empathize with others, and lead their own recovery, ultimately had the most success.

Below are several common elements that I have gathered based on the testimony of others in similar situations:

  1. Approach a challenge as an opportunity to try new things. The approach to a challenge is not a ‘one size fits all approach’. Each challenge poses what are called sub-challenges and are based on the situation as much as the individual. For example, positive thinking is a common element that is preached to athletes. However, some individuals may be hindered by this, and may need to think more critically in order to be successful. Until you try something that differs from the masses, you may never know what make you successful in your own unique way.
  2. Just because it works for one challenge, may not mean it works for another challenge. As in the previous example, just because you found success in one strategy, may not mean it works for every challenge you face. Take a challenge as an opportunity to try new things (as above).
  3. Do not be afraid to fail. Failure is inevitable. One of the most impactful phrases I have heard on the job is that “those who (never) failed at some point in their life never took the risk to reach their fullest potential.” Be a leader and embrace failure as an opportunity to adapt your strategy for future challenges.
  4. Just because I overcame a challenge doesn’t mean it won’t come back. Mistakes are bound to happen at some point in life. In order to eliminate the potential of making multiple and/or repetitive mistakes, visualize a problem you my face before it occurs. Prepare for the unexpected and welcome mistakes during these hypothetical situations as an opportunity to strengthen your adaptability and problem solving skills.
  5. Just because it isn’t realistic, doesn’t mean it is impossible. Contrary to many life coaches of whom I have collaborated with, goals and expectations do not have to be realistic in order to become possible (granted, it helps). With enough drive and determination, accompanied by guidance and motivation, anyone can achieve anything. This is not to say that these goals will come easy, but it is to say that one can take small stumbles, learn from them, and achieve something great.

In the end, these elements are strictly observational in nature. They do not possess some of the hard ‘empirical’ support of elements of which is normally sought after. However, for someone looking to begin goal setting, these are a good place to start. Approach a challenge as an opportunity, embrace mistakes as a learning experience, learn to adapt through hardship, and never be afraid to come up short.


ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a mental disorder starting in early years which can go on to have significant negative effects on lives if not spotted and addressed (1). Often coaches and parents are unaware of hallmark features and can be reluctant to raise the issue as a problem due to embarrassment or ignorance. […]

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a mental disorder starting in early years which can go on to have significant negative effects on lives if not spotted and addressed (1). Often coaches and parents are unaware of hallmark features and can be reluctant to raise the issue as a problem due to embarrassment or ignorance. Combined with this is the question about where to go for help, is there any treatment and also is it not good for hyperactive kids to ‘let off some steam?’ Given the above, here is some practical tips for noticing it and what help looks like.

Diagnosis of ADHD can be challenging, sometimes requiring more than one mental health professional and a variety of skills and expertise. The diagnosis takes time and shouldn’t be rushed into. GPs are equipped to asked screening questions and identify possible suffers, referring onto secondary care. There have been concerns expressed in some countries with regards over diagnosis and a knock on effect of overprescribing of stimulant medication (2). UK based doctors are therefore hesitant to jump into diagnosis or medication and therefore want to ensure they’ve got things right for the patient. Validated scoring systems (3) and multidisciplinary approach are at the core of assessment and treatment.

The classic triad for diagnosis is hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity. There are identifiable subtypes if one of these is predominantly seen. One can imagine how these are overlooked in a team sporting environment or passed off as being ‘normal.’ These signs and others should be evident in other settings, for example school, home and social events as well as in sport and have a significant effect on functioning. Around some team sports, hyperactivity especially at a younger age can be seen as a positive trait. A football coach’s dream is to have ‘an engine in midfield’ covering the work of 2 players, box to box until the fulltime whistle or indeed the openside flanker who makes twice as many tackles as anyone else. However when game plans and sticking to some instruction for betterment of team strategy comes into play, ADHD sufferers can struggle and in some instances fall away. Inattention and distractibility are often most apparent were requirement to engage in effortful tasks can be a major hurdle to overcome for the athlete. Coaches need to be mindful of this and some have reported benefit of giving ‘to the point’ messages and quick feedback to these players.

There is no singular cause seen for ADHD. Although there is a genetic component, this has only be partially located with the genome and any brain changes which may be seen require detailed imaging which doesn’t necessarily change long-term outcomes. Dopamine and in particular the D4 Receptor are thought to play a crucial role. Environment undoubtedly plays a role also and should be addressed if possible.

Features a coach might see in a child on a sports field would be difficulty staying on task, marked inattention on events, getting bored easily, reckless and prone to injury, cognitive delay when compared with peers and struggling with prolonged instruction.

As with any disease in medicine – non pharmacological methods of management should be trialled and considered first. This involves working to form positive relationships with the athlete, parents, extended family, carer and teachers. Sport specific management is an important aspect and coaches must contribute. It is easy for these players to become isolated in team sports, performance levels drop and interest wane. A coach should avoid any unexpected change, give basic feedback and instruction, encouragement 1 to 1 when possible and single messages at a time. Being able to be child specific with interaction style and responding to events in insightful ways can help too.

In summary, it is possible to spot ADHD with even some of the clues given above. Coaches often might see things that parents don’t and know that GPs and sports psychiatrists will consider all possibilities in good depth. There is no quick fixes for ADHD however their brains crave structure and sport participation has an important part to play not only in the physical benefits for these kids but social learning also.

Dr Thomas McCabe is a psychiatrist based in Glasgow with a specialist interest in sports psychiatry. He works with a variety of teams and organisations on the wider topic of mental health and is a key member of the Sports Psychiatry Royal College of Psychiatry Specialist Interest Group (#SEPSIG). He has carried out research into effectiveness of medication in ADHD.


Our drinking club has a rugby problem? There is a long standing yet peculiar relationship between alcohol and rugby. Some of amateur rugby clubs throughout the UK and Ireland survive due to takings behind the bar on a Saturday night. At least part of these profits fund everything from away buses, management fees, equipment and […]

Our drinking club has a rugby problem?

There is a long standing yet peculiar relationship between alcohol and rugby. Some of amateur rugby clubs throughout the UK and Ireland survive due to takings behind the bar on a Saturday night. At least part of these profits fund everything from away buses, management fees, equipment and pitch upgrades. Added to this alcohol plays a central role in most team bonding sessions and camaraderie around rugby teams. At an elite level, the alcohol industry sponsors the most prestigious European club competition and the national leagues in Scotland (1). Given alcohol is known as a depressant with little benefit on ‘on field’ performance or athletic prowess yet is still so popular, why is this so and do we need to be worried?

It is difficult to exactly pinpoint the reasons when or why alcohol and sport, specifically rugby, became so closely linked. In the short term alcoholic beverage produces feelings of pleasure, increased socialisation and escapism thought to be at least partly due to effect of alcohol on the dopaminergic regions of the brain. Following an often physical battle for 80 minutes, it is a vital part of downtime following tough games where emotions can be at their greatest and allows teams time to come together – spending time discussing what has went on before. In amateur rugby  for  some less focussed teams, winning a post-match ‘boat race’ can even negate and lessen the feelings of disappointment following a loss on the pitch! The drinking of large amounts has been linked to perceived masculine superiority within some teams when studied by psychologists in a UK cohort (2). Players and coaches can also use alcohol as a reward for training and working hard throughout the week. Rugby union is traditionally played on a Saturday afternoon, hours before what would already be a time when there would be increased alcohol intake (with or without rugby) particularly within the 18-30 age population and demographic. Although not exhaustive, these are some of the main points to consider when assessing why alcohol is part of the rugby culture.

There is a variety of classifications used to describe alcohol use and how to view it from a clinician’s point of view. As in other areas of medicine, I find the concept of viewing things from a spectral perspective to be most useful. At one end is the tea totaller and occasional drinker, through to binge drinking or hazardous use somewhere in the middle to alcohol dependence syndrome, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome at the other end. The order of these at the ‘heavier use’ side is still up for debate. From a sports medic, psychiatrists or psychologist’s perspective, it is vital to not only be aware of patterns of use, amount of units, on/off season, symptoms and signs of withdrawal and dependence but also take an holistic psychological evaluation of life events surrounding any athlete. It is not uncommon for alcohol to be used as a crutch for perceived relief from an underlying mental health disorder or indeed be brought on by the depressive effects of the drug. A well recognised vicious circle can result.

Recognising there may be an issue is not only the role of the sports medic, physiotherapist, sports psychiatrist and psychologist but also team mates and administrators. Indications that a player might be in need of help comes in many forms. Mid week drinking, regular ‘Sunday sessions,’ being the ‘last guy at the bar’ when team mates have left, gambling issues,  following an alcohol related event (drink driving, fighting, regretful sexual encounter) might give some clues about hazardous use or early addiction. Concurrent cocaine or other drugs of recreation are prevalent in this population and should be considered likely if an alcohol related illness is identified. Administrators and coaching staff need to be sympathetic towards any issues, have honest conversations with players and be aware of the subject matter and understand clear pathways of referral.

The traditional forms of screening come by way of CAGE and Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) (3) which are usually carried out by GPs. Although these do not necessarily have validity in a purely sporting sense, do give a good starting place to proceed or otherwise with evaluation and assessment. Given less pressures on time, sporting insight, likely comorbidity and need for advanced risk assessment – sports psychiatrists are well placed to deal with this initial assessment and evaluation.

There may be no treatment necessary for some. However one of mainstays of treatment is motivational interviewing and should be at least broached with most. This involves a direct, patient centred approach usually attacking the barriers to or fear of change. I believe clinicians need to be focused and relevant when working with this age demographic. The player needs to be able to trust with whom they are working with and more than ever, a positive therapeutic relationship is necessary for positive outcomes. There may be no obvious underlying reason found, however the athlete should be given every opportunity and be assisted in exploring possible causes.

Sports psychiatrists are well equipped to assess for underlying mental disorder which commonly coexist. Medication specifically for players with alcohol addiction would be used sparingly however could come in the form of disulfiram (4) and acamprosate (5). It is important that any medication is used in combination with psychological and close supervision. After a period of being in favour with some, nalmefene (6) seems to have safety issues surrounding it but theory behind it is exciting looking into the future. Antidepressants may also be appropriate along with ‘simple things’ such as life structure or alternative activities. As with everything in sport, a wider MDT approach is best and should be expected from an athletes perspective.

Alcohol is used widely within many rugby circles. Despite the obvious dangers, many have enjoyed and benefitted from its use within this environment – it is difficult to see this changing in the short term although perhaps some reduction of use has occurred since the advent of professionalism within the game. Clear pathways of referral need to be established by management teams who suspect addictions issues emerging.  Players need to be making educated choices with how they integrate into this culture.


Elite athletes are known for their exceptional physiology. Arguably, their superior strength, power, endurance and biomechanics all play a key role in enabling their success. However, these physiological factors tend to be relatively similar across elite performers, meaning that physiology is not the only piece of the puzzle of creating champions. Translating such physical determinants […]

Elite athletes are known for their exceptional physiology. Arguably, their superior strength, power, endurance and biomechanics all play a key role in enabling their success. However, these physiological factors tend to be relatively similar across elite performers, meaning that physiology is not the only piece of the puzzle of creating champions.

Translating such physical determinants into optimal performance outcomes requires something arguably more subjective. Indeed, when understanding the making of champions, we also may consider psychological determinants of performance. Specifically, personality traits have received a lot of attention in sport as they are known for their ability to predict behavioural outcomes, and thus can inform how individuals act, and perform within a sporting context.

One personality trait or disposition which remains controversial regarding the impact of its role in elite sport is that of perfectionism. Perfectionism is commonly identified in elite athletes, defined by Stoeber & Otto (2009) as a

“striving for flawlessness and setting of excessively high standards for performance alongside over-critical evaluation of behaviour”.

So, does perfectionism help, or hinder performance?

Its role is contentious due to its multidimensional nature. This means it is conceptualized as having some components which are adaptive, and beneficial to sporting performance and others which are maladaptive and detrimental to sporting performance.

These two different components have been named by researchers as perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns. Perfectionist strivings involve individuals setting high standards for themselves and ‘striving’ to attain these standards, accompanied by high self-esteem and life satisfaction. Arguably, these are necessary to perform at high levels.

A study of Olympic athletes found that perfectionist strivings were present to a much greater extent than perfectionist concerns. Alternatively, perfectionist concerns relate to a tendency to behave in ways to avoid making mistakes, and are characterized by doubting one’s actions and being excessively critical of personal mistakes, with failures presenting a threat to individuals self-worth. For example, in distance runners, perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns may affect how they appraise an upcoming competition:

Athlete A demonstrates perfectionist strivings by suggesting “I have set a standard for myself in running under 20 minutes for a 5k, and I will do everything I can to achieve it”.

Athlete B, demonstrates perfectionist concerns by saying “If I don’t achieve a time of below 20 minutes in the 5km I will have failed and everyone will judge me”.

The relative presence of components of perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns have been used to classify individuals as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ perfectionists. Healthy perfectionists are suggested to typically demonstrate characteristics of perfectionist strivings and unhealthy perfectionists demonstrate characteristics of perfectionist concerns. Healthy perfectionism is associated with high confidence, positive mood, and superior performance. Alternatively, unhealthy perfectionism has been associated with consequences deleterious to performance, namely; burnout, increased anxiety and poorer mental health.

But, it is not as simple as it seems…

The paradox of perfectionism…

Recent research suggests that we cannot assign athletes into single categories as either a healthy, or unhealthy perfectionist. The presence of perfectionist strivings typically correlates with perfectionist concerns and components of perfectionist strivings have been shown to interact with perfectionist concerns, making concerns more maladaptive in the presence of perfectionist strivings. So, Athlete A, will commonly demonstrate elements of Athlete B’s dispositions.

Perfectionist strivings may be misconstrued as inherently adaptive because the majority of research has omitted the effect of perfectionist concerns when reporting outcomes in individuals. This means that the beneficial effect of perfectionist strivings seems to be inflated. In summary, the conceptual meaning of perfectionist strivings appears to change depending on how it is measured. Indeed, it has been suggested that the combination of perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns…

“energise a pattern of overstriving which has pervasive and debilitating effects” (Hill, 2014)

 This results in what is known as the ‘paradox of perfectionism’. If perfectionist strivings improve performance, surely, they should be distinct from factors which do the opposite? It appears that we cannot purely be a healthy perfectionist without the maladaptive components of perfectionism coming into play. As an athlete who wants to perform at the highest level, or for coaches supporting these athletes we need to develop strategies to promote facets of perfectionist strivings, and identify, and minimize the maladaptive outcomes to performance and mental health of perfectionist concerns.

The following section will identify evidence-based practices to minimize the negative implications of unhealthy perfectionism that may arise in athletes attempting to achieve high levels of performance.

Reducing Burnout

A negative outcome of perfectionist concerns is burnout in athletes. Burnout consists of a triad of factors conceptualized by Appleton & Hill (2014) as:

1) Reduced physical or emotional capacity for sport

2) lower accomplishment

3) reduced value of participation in sport.

The incidence of burnout in perfectionists has been found to be mediated by the type of motivation athletes have. ‘Healthy’ perfectionists were found to have more intrinsic motivation. This means they partook in their sport for the pure enjoyment or love of it. Those who were unhealthy perfectionists were motivated in their sport to avoid negative outcomes, or for external rewards such as praise from others.

This suggests that promoting intrinsic motivation may be a means to reduce burnout in perfectionist athletes. According to self-determination theory, a ‘needs supportive’ environment can facilitate intrinsic motivation. This can be done through the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Indeed, athlete’s perception of the satisfaction of these basic needs within sporting environments has been associated with a reduced risk of athlete burnout.

Satisfaction of these needs in athlete’s environments can be done as follows:

  • Autonomy – give athletes choice in the selection of their training and competition.
  • Competence – give athletes task focused feedback, in a non-controlling manner
  • Relatedness – emphasize social support between teammates as an important factor in a training environment

Increasing Self-Esteem

Mental wellness is an antecedent to success in athletes. Therefore, it is imperative to identify strategies to promote this in athletes. Research has suggested that self-esteem plays a mediatory role in the relationship between perfectionism and mental health – with lower levels of self-esteem predicting poor mental health in perfectionists.

Researchers have done some digging into the components of self-esteem which predict negative outcomes in perfectionists. Baseline self-esteem is a component of self-esteem, relating to an individual’s perception of self-worth and is relatively static. A study of Swedish Olympic athletes found that those with higher baseline self-esteem typically showed attributes of perfectionist strivings, namely high personal standards. This was accompanied by low perfectionist concerns. Those with low baseline self-esteem scored highly on perfectionist striving, but also high on perfectionist concerns. This undermines performance as it increases competition related anxiety, resulting in excessive worry and fear of failure.

So – should we just focus our efforts on increasing baseline self-esteem? This may be challenging because research has suggested that it is something relatively static, informed by genetics, upbringing, and prior experiences.

However, using the critical confidence equation, we may be able to identify ways to overcome the negative implications of low baseline self-esteem. This equation suggests:

Self Confidence = Baseline Self-Esteem x Evidence

The self-confidence someone has for their performance is a function of their baseline self-esteem multiplied by evidence they have accumulated from performance and training.  Those with low baseline self-esteem, typically have to ‘earn’ self-confidence for performance and based on this equation, we can do this by increasing the amount of evidence they have for their ability.

This evidence can be accumulated through creating what is known as a ‘preparation environment’. This involves the athlete deciding on their attitudes, standards and values which they will endeavour to uphold in training which will be conducive to the highest quality of training. In line with this, coaches should insist that the standards set should be upheld and not compromised. Within this environment, athletes should be encouraged to learn from own actions, continually set themselves shifting targets and kept accountable for upholding the self-selected standards. Creating such an environment may account for the negative outcomes of low baseline self-esteem in perfectionists through increasing self-confidence via accumulating evidence of ability.

Goal Setting

 Perfectionists typically set high standards for themselves. But, how perfectionists think about their goals can result in differing effects on performance outcomes. Perfectionist strivings have been associated with mastery goals. Individuals with mastery goals view competition or training as an opportunity to improve ability and skills, and failure to meet these goals as learning opportunities. Performance approach goals have also been associated with perfectionist strivings. These are goals orientated around proving one’s ability, and attempting to demonstrate that it is superior to others. Perfectionist concerns have been associated with performance approach goals, as well as performance avoidance goals. Here, individuals view training or competitions in terms of avoidance, they fear performing below their ability, or worse relative to others. Both types of performance orientated goals typically result in lower levels of performance because instead of “improving their ability, the focus is very much on proving ones ability” (Stoeber et al., 2008).

We know that we may not be able to classify individuals into healthy and unhealthy perfectionists so the focus of perfectionist’s goals may differ depending on the situation. Therefore, it is important to encourage techniques within high performing athletes to promote mastery-approach goals. Epstein’s TARGET framework is an acronym for a series of techniques which have been create a mastery-orientated environment in sporting settings:

Task – encouraging athletes to focus their practices on personal tasks, achieved through setting individualized goals with reduced opportunity for peer comparison.

Authority: allowing athletes to elicit authority in training and evaluative measures of their performance.

Reward success based on individual effort and not performance relative to others.

Grouping, involving collaborating with team mates and peers in a non-comparative manner which benefits all athletes.

Evaluation based on improvements on a personal level. This should focus, on the quality of mastery of a particular task as opposed to performance relative to others.

Timing of feedback and evaluation should be implemented in adequate time, flexibility is encouraged by the athlete and the coach.

It has been shown that adopting each of these principles can form a mastery-orientated environment, which is conducive to creating mastery-approach goals. Research has shown elite athletes have described as it being a predictor of their enjoyment of sport, and also improved performance. Additionally, it can reduce the likelihood of some of the consequences of maladaptive perfectionism; specifically, burnout.

Coping Responses to Failure

Facets of perfectionism affect how individuals react to failure. A research study of young elite athletes found that high levels of perfectionist concerns predicted negative psychological outcomes in response to failure, mediated by fear of shame and embarrassment. Additionally, perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns predict life satisfaction, indicative that those with high levels of perfectionist concerns struggle to cope with

The risk of negative outcomes of perfectionism is enhanced in those who experience failure. This may be unavoidable in elite sport where high standards are constantly set, and the margins for error are small.

However, “proactive” coping strategies can act as a protective mechanism, buffering to the negative outcomes of failure in perfectionists. One of these is called “positive reframing”. A study measured level of satisfaction following stressful events in athletes demonstrating high perfectionist concerns. The use of positive reframing was particularly effective for those high in perfectionist concerns, and increased their life satisfaction to a similar level to those low in perfectionist concerns.

So, how can athletes implement positive reframing into their sport? This can be done through writing down the negative thoughts and failures as a means to initiate conscious reframing of them. From this, we can try to draw positive aspects from these outcomes, and focus rather on what has been achieved, as opposed to what hasn’t.

For example:

Failure: I didn’t win a race I was expected to.

Positive reframing: I didn’t win the race, but I executed my race plan as I hoped to and I put my best effort into the performance.

Broadly, this technique essentially encourages the athlete to accept imperfection. Striving for perfection is not maladaptive, but insisting that one has to be perfect is, especially when self-worth is contingent on attaining exceptionally high standards. It is challenging to learn to accept imperfection in performance settings which are inherently evaluative, but this technique can help address that.

To summarize…

Some components of perfectionism are desirable and necessary in performing at the highest level in elite sport, but due to their high correlation with the maladaptive components of perfectionism, it is important to identify specific strategies to foster resilience to these negative outcomes. Conscious awareness of these, alongside implementing strategies based on research evidence to reduce these can act as a buffer to their impact and facilitate striving for success with a healthy and positive mind-set. In summary, these strategies involve:

  • Reducing the risk of athlete burnout through fostering a needs-supportive environment conducive to high levels of intrinsic motivation.
  • Addressing low baseline self-esteem using the critical confidence equation by generating tactics that individuals can use to ‘earn’ self-esteem
  • Creating an environment conducive to mastery approach goals through the TARGET framework
  • Generating effective coping strategies in response to failure to promote resilience and satisfaction

It often said ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. But we all react to adversity in different ways. While some seem to be able to push through hardship, for others it can be more of a struggle. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and the use of personal qualities to withstand […]

It often said ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. But we all react to adversity in different ways. While some seem to be able to push through hardship, for others it can be more of a struggle. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and the use of personal qualities to withstand pressure 1. In a stressful fast-changing world it can help inoculate against mental illness while boosting performance 7. So how can athletes and coaches train these skills to withstand the ‘pressure-cooker‘ of the athletic environment?

Athletic resilience

The athletic domain breeds a ‘win at all costs’ attitude. However, what many don’t realise is that winning often has much to do with sacrifice and vulnerability as it does toughness and mental resolve. Individuals sceptical of psychology may think athletes are simply endowed with exceptional genetic gifts and super-human qualities, but athletes know better than anyone that winning is all in the mind 5. Thus like the physical components of sport, coaches and athletes need to monitor, train and develop athlete’s psychology skills.

In sport, adversity is usually associated with competitive performance, sports organisation within which the athletes operate and personal ‘Non-sporting’ life events 2. The continuous training, performance and selection, brings significant mental resilience challenges for both athletes and coaches as well as the burden of stressors common in everyday life 3. However, recent issues surrounding the duty of care that sport has towards athletes has led to the acknowledgement that mental resilience is not something that athletes and coaches innately possess and should be developed with the same consideration that physical resilience is built 3.

In light of the importance of the environment in building resilience, this blog intends to encourage the use of practices that facilitate the development of psychological resilience to produce desirable outcomes such as:

  • Optimal motivation
  • Regulation of thoughts, mental images and emotions
  • Maintenance of attention on key stimuli
  • Attain, maintain and regain confidence in oneself and others
  • Handle pressure and cope with distress 2

Resilience & the environment

Although psychological resilience is, by definition, a mental and emotional construct displayed in individuals actions, it is profoundly influenced by an extensive range of environmental factors such as social, cultural or occupational sources 4. Thus, rather than being viewed as a fixed trait, resilience should be looked at as a capability that can be developed through person-environment interactions. Athletes do not live or compete within a vacuum; due to this, the environment in which a player grows and develops requires particular attention. As demonstrated by the below quote:

When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower” – Alexander den Heijer

If we use this analogy of comparing an athlete to a flower, it is easier to understand why certain athletes do not achieve full potential.  If a flower was placed in an environment with no light, sun or water, it would not grow. In the same way, if an athlete has no support, challenge or guidance they will not develop.  Thus, although resilience is a well known ‘Hot-topic’ within psychology it is only recently that the environment in which this is developed has received specific attention. For example, in a BASES expert statement, Dr Sarkar recently discussed the role of the environment in developing resilience (See link).   Henceforth, the aim of this blog is to extend upon this information and translate resilience research into a practical tool for athletes and coaches to apply.

Challenge & Support: 

Drawing upon the work of Dr Fletcher and Dr Sarkar in their study of mental fortitude training, of fundamental importance to developing high levels of resilience and subsequently performance, are the notions of challenge and support1. But what do these mean to athletes and coaches?  


  1. Having high expectations of people
  2. Increasing accountability and responsibility
  3. Stretching people outside of their comfort zones1


  1. Enabling people to develop their personal qualities
  2. Building trust
  3. Providing guidance and feedback1

Figure 1: A challenge and support matrix for developing resilience1

As shown in figure 1, there are 4 identified environments that can be created by leaders:

  1. Unrelenting environments (High challenge-Low support)
  2. Facilitative environments (High challenge-High support)
  3. Stagnant environments (Low challenge-Low support)
  4. Comfortable environments (Low challenge-High support)

Each environment is characterised by different features, but for a development of resilience, optimal performance and wellbeing, a facilitative environment is pivotal.

What does a facilitative environment look like?

World-class hockey coach Ric Charlesworth perfectly summarised what the ideal coaching environment looks like for optimal performance and welfare for athletes, stating:

“The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled”  

The aforementioned statement perfectly aligns with the ideal characteristics of a facilitative environment.  Suggesting that in order to facilitate both excellence and welfare in elite sport, the environment must balance both high levels of support and challenge. Therefore, coaches need to have an exceptional awareness of their athlete’s as an unrelenting environment can be detrimental to an athlete’s well being.  However, for many coaches there is still a question of whether welfare should come before winning?  Due to this, academics at Loughborough University have identified the following characteristics of a facilitative environment 1:

  • Supportive challenge towards a goal
  • Individuals have input into and task ownership of goals
  • Healthy competition
  • A psychologically safe environment which encourages risk-taking
  • Learn from mistakes and failure
  • Good relationships between performers, leaders or coaches

How do you deal with the pressures of the environment?

Pressure is an inevitable part of sport. Let’s use the Olympics for example; you have 4 years of preparation for, in some cases, a 9-second performance in order to get a gold medal. However, it is how these athletes cope with this pressure and overcome adversities along the way that separates those who medal and those who do not. In an interview with BBC Radio 5 live Andrew Strauss, a top English Cricketer talked about learning from other players in order to deal with pressure:

“The first guy was Justin Langer from Australia because the way he was able to deal with pressure was by leaving nothing to chance in his preparations, so he prepared so thoroughly that anything that he encountered on the cricket pitch he was ready for” 

This type of preparation to deal with pressure and adversity alludes to the techniques suggested by Dr Fletcher and Colleagues 1 surrounding pressure inurement training.  Through the manipulation of the environment in training to increase stress and pressure athletes develop the skills to maintain functioning and performance under pressure. A coach who stands by this technique is Dennis Bergkamp stating in an interview with the Guardian:

You put a right-footed player who can’t do anything with his left side and force him to use his left foot. Of course in that game, you will probably lose because you don’t use your strongest position, but in the end, you have a player who used his left foot when he was 12 and 13 and 14, and he can use both feet when he comes into the first team

In line with Bergkamp’s coaching strategy pressure inurement training involves a gradual increase in pressure on an individual via challenge and the manipulation of the environment. This takes place in two main ways:

  1. Increasing the demand of the stressors (type, property or dimension)
  2. Increasing the significance of the appraisals (relevance, importance, consequences)

These adaptations should create an environment that drives peak performance. Simultaneously the environment should be adapted and manipulated to increase the support provided. When the pressure surpasses available resources, the chances an individual reacts with a negative outcome are increased. Hence, motivational feedback and support should be provided 8.

Nevertheless, sport is not the only domain advocating this ‘courage to try, resilience to fail’ mind-set.  Businesses such as Fail Forward help organisations learn to deal with pressure and failure in order to build resilience.  Similarly, the U.S Army has developed the comprehensive soldier fitness (CFS) programme, in order to develop resilience in the soldiers, family members and Army civilians 6. Therefore, developing the psychology skill of resilience can buffer against the adversities experienced in all aspects of life.

Implications for athletes & coaches:

  1. Adopt a multi-level approach– In order to develop resilience in elite sport, particularly creating and maintaining a facilitating environment, a multi-level approach is essential . It is not only the job of the coach, but the support staff, parents, leaders, managers and teammates to create the desired culture. One main way to achieve this is through motivational and developmental feedback
  2. Train under pressure – Becoming well adapted to dealing with highly pressurised situations in training enables athletes to be prepared for anything within a competitive situation.  Through manipulating the environment within training an athlete can become well equipped with stressful stimuli and appraise these positively 1.
  3. Lean on each other – Support from teammates, coaches and significant others are invaluable in the highly pressurised sporting environment. Being able to ask for support and providing it to others is a highly useful tool in the development of resilience.  Coaches and athletes need to ensure an environment is created in which there is no stigma attached to asking for help 10.
  4. Challenge yourself  & don’t be afraid to fail– Mirroring the physical aspects of sport, athletes need to increase the stress of stimuli in order to adapt and improve. A training atmosphere should be created in which individuals are not afraid to fail. Athletes should learn from failure and how to ‘get back up’ after a failure

University and being a student-athlete is a great experience that many people reflect on with fond memories. Use this article and other resources or support available to you to help you start your journey on the front foot and take control of your experience as a student-athlete. Student-athletes can be subjected to a substantial amount […]

University and being a student-athlete is a great experience that many people reflect on with fond memories. Use this article and other resources or support available to you to help you start your journey on the front foot and take control of your experience as a student-athlete.

Student-athletes can be subjected to a substantial amount of pressure to successfully balance their academic studies with their sporting commitments. This greater level of stress may in part be due to the decreased amount of time that they are warranted to complete their responsibilities. Although our discussions are predominantly aimed at those individuals who are at University and studying full time or part time depending on their level of sport competition, many of the challenges and benefits outlined may also be relevant to secondary school and college level athletes.

‘A time of transition’

Transitions such as the move to University can have an impact on a person’s self-perceptions, motivation and moral development. They have been defined as “events or non-events which result in a change in assumptions about oneself and the world and require a corresponding change in one’s behaviour and relationships” (Schlossberg, 1981, p.5). The Athletic Career Transition Model (Stambulova, 2003) reveals that the transitional challenge starts for athletes with the demands posed to them to progress in their development. This stimulates them to mobilise resources and find ways to cope. The effective use of resources to overcome demands will determine the extent to which athletes are able to cope with the challenges they face.

Demands faced by student-athletes

Scheduling / time management

University is a time of significant change in the athlete’s life and with the increased demand of balancing academic deadlines with regular training and competition; student-athletes are subjected to a large amount of stress. It is a full-time job (and more) if you truly want to get the best out of yourself in both your sport and your academic studies. With this comes a huge level of organisation, scheduling, communication and time management.

  • Missing lectures – it is inevitable that there will be clashes between your training / competitions and lectures which will mean you playing ‘catch up’ in your own time.
  • Extending deadlines – You may find that deadlines come around at the same time as key dates in the sporting calendar. This may mean extending the deadline, or if you can, trying to get everything done early so you can submit on time.
  • Food – Planning in time to shop and plan your meals is a huge undertaking especially if budgets are tight. But, if you can get this right it will have a positive impact on everything else you do.
  • Sleep – While there may not feel like enough hours in the day it is important that you ensure you are getting the sleep required to be effective in your waking hours.

Sport stressors

The same as with any sport participation there are the usual sport stressors and demands on you:

  • Injury – However disappointing and challenging it can be, injury is an inevitable part of sport and may become more of an issue if you don’t know the support that is available to you.
  • Deselection – Transitions can come with the challenge of trying to firstly get selected, and then keep your spot on a team. Many student athletes face deselection setbacks through their time at University and may end up competing at lower levels than they anticipated.
  • Conflict with team members or coaches – This can come from trying to get your priorities and time management right for you, and to satisfy the needs of everyone you are close to. Alternatively, as part of the transition to university you are likely to be working with a new coach and new team members which may come with its own possibilities of conflict.
  • Burnout – For many student-athletes the transition to University means an increase in training commitments, if not managed appropriately (and coupled with your academic commitments), you may find yourself experiencing burnout.

Social / athletic identity

Identity development will be something that many student-athletes don’t think about but your time at University will play a part in shaping yours.

  • Social life – Athletes with a strong athletic identity might tend to neglect other aspects of life to fulfil their athlete role, which can increase the potential risk of social problems. Depending on your level / sport you may find that all your social activities are with team mates.
  • Career plans – You may find that you go in to University with vague or non-existent career objectives and invest heavily in your athletic role. You will be juggling dual-role identities, full-time athlete and full-time student, and may find that you only choose to invest in the non-sport identity and explore non-sport career options once your sport commitments are over.

Resources available to student-athletes


An ideal balance of sport and education commitments will take time to develop:

  • Don’t over plan your day / schedule so that your expectations are unrealistic, and you get demotivated by constantly falling short.
  • Identify key times in your academic / sporting calendar and what you can do to get ahead, only extend deadlines if you know this will help (rather than an excuse to put things off).
  • Take control – control will be key to keeping your stress levels as low as possible (this also include using the support available to you, not just feeling like you must do it all alone).


Understand the support available to you as soon as possible

  • Sport and Academic staff – Being proactive and organised will inevitably mean that you will feel like you have more support around you. But, communication will be a key part of the process. Be one step ahead to get required information to coaches and staff members to identify challenging times in the year.
  • Parents – You may be living away from home for the first time but that doesn’t mean that your parents are no longer there to support you. Make sure you keep in touch.
  • Peers – If you can, prioritise some time to socialise with people away from your sport environment. Building a strong athletic identity can really help with your development in sport. But, appreciating the role that a wider support network can play for you is key.
  • Fellow athletes will be a big part of your journey as you are all ‘in the same boat’ so you understand each other’s experiences.

Student-Athlete Benefits

As well as the demands and challenges outlined above there are clearly many benefits to being a student-athlete. Student-athletes often have positive self-esteem and body image; may have a built-in support network through teammates, coaches/athletic department staff and may feel very connected to the campus community.

Here are just a few more benefits to being a student athlete:

  • improving physical health
  • obeying the competition or societal rules
  • promoting societal values, integrity and building character;
  • enhancing confidence, motivation, sense of empowerment, and self-esteem;
  • providing social interaction, fun and enjoyment;
  • offering opportunities for education and career in sports;
  • expanding life experience and making more friends;
  • knowing how to deal with failure and difficult situations,
  • developing life-skills

Champion or defeated? Sports constantly presents challenges and adversity, exposing athletes with enough grit and gratitude to overcome adversity and those who will crumble under the pressure. But what distinguishes the champions from the defeated? What can we do to cultivate grit and resilience to optimize performance in sports and all other areas of life? […]

Champion or defeated?

Sports constantly presents challenges and adversity, exposing athletes with enough grit and gratitude to overcome adversity and those who will crumble under the pressure.

But what distinguishes the champions from the defeated? What can we do to cultivate grit and resilience to optimize performance in sports and all other areas of life?

The science

Positive Psychology often references the Broaden and Build Theory, which suggests that a positivity can actually increase brain functioning.  It suggests that a positive attitude broadens ideas and actions and builds resources by developing new skills and relationships.

One way to increase positive emotion, and therefore broaden our abilities, is through gratitude. This involves realizing the value of a person or situation, whether positive or negative.

Generally, inherent gratitude is related to higher optimism, life satisfaction, well-being, prosocial behavior, and social support. It is also related to lower negative feelings, (Gabana, Steinfeldt, Wong, Chung, Svetina, 2018).

But, specifically in the world of sports and performance, this prosocial behavior that dispositional gratefulness fosters is related to improved team cohesion and life satisfaction in elite athletes, (Chen, Kee, & Chen, 2015). Appreciation can even reduce athletes’ tendency to want to avoid uncomfortable situations during high levels of competition. These uncomfortable situations could include negative thoughts like, “I’m not good enough”. Athletes might also want to avoid unwanted emotions like failure, or negative physical feelings like injury.

This experiential avoidance often gets in the way of athletes reaching their goals and full potential. But, athletes high in gratitude avoid uncomfortable situations less if they also feel they have more support from their coaches. In other words, gratitude combined with coaching support can help athletes see adverse experiences in a positive way, and face challenges head on rather than avoid them, (Chen & Wu, 2016).

Can gratitude be learned?

But, if we don’t already have dispositional gratitude, can we develop and practice it to improve well being and performance?

A study recently published in the Journal for Applied Sports Psychology explored this idea. Researchers used a Positive Psychology Intervention (PPI) that included a 90 minute Gratitude Workshop to college athletes. The researchers measured gratitude, life and sport satisfaction, perceived social support, psychological distress, and athlete burnout before, immediately after, and four weeks after the PPI. They found that gratitude was related to increases in well-being measures like state gratitude, sport satisfaction, and social support.  It was also related to decreases in ill-being like psychological distress, athlete burnout after the intervention (Gabana et al., 2018).

So, if athletes and coaches can find more ways to incorporate appreciation and social support, or help develop gratitude beginning in youth sports, athletes may be able to overcome injury, defeat, burnout, and other challenges that come with elite performance. The more we are able to find the positive in difficult situations, the more we will be able to rise above adversity.


What is it? There are many reasons people give to being stressed. Trying to balance work and a social life, meeting deadlines, preparing for a big event. These are examples of chronic or long-term stress, the kind you feel for an extended period of time. But what about those sudden, unexpected moments that cause stress? […]

What is it?

There are many reasons people give to being stressed. Trying to balance work and a social life, meeting deadlines, preparing for a big event. These are examples of chronic or long-term stress, the kind you feel for an extended period of time. But what about those sudden, unexpected moments that cause stress? The ones that take you by surprise. Before you were feeling calm, confident and collected, now you’re engulfed by a sudden sense of dread. This is known as short-term stress or acute stress. Acute stress induces physical and emotional responses that help to ready the body and the mind to deal with a threat (Cole, 2007). We experience acute stress when we feel threatened or someone we care about is under threat. Think of the last time you watched a scary film, you knew something scary would happen you but didn’t know when. Your heart was pumping, your muscles were tensed and your body was ready to run or ready for combat. You were ready to fight or to flight. However, once the film was over there was no more threat and so the stress reactions went away (Cole, 2007). This is what makes acute stress different from chronic, once the threat is no longer there the stress responses fades.

When does it occur?

Every athlete from the elite to the casual, from international competition to the 5 aside friendlies will know the feeling of pressure to perform and the stress that can accompany it. No one who has ever played sport can say they haven’t faced stress and very few can say they’ve never fallen to it. When we’re performing it can feel like we’re the only one who suffers from stress but when researchers have looked into the area they’ve found similar causes of stress appearing that can be generalized to a whole range of sports. Researchers Nicholls and Polman (2007), asked players from the England Under-18s Rugby Union team what stressors they faced. The most commonly report sources of stress were 1) physical error 2) criticism from coach or parent 3) mental error 4) sustaining an injury and 5) observing an opponent perform well. Not one of the top 5 causes of stress was related directly to rugby. These could all be applied to other sports and have just as much relevance. In any sport one can feel stressed when they’ve been criticised by the coach or the dread of making a mistake and feeling it’s impacted the whole game. Even Ander Herrera, in an interview with FourFourTwo, commented how the pressure was stepped up when he moved to Man United “You have more pressure on you. I told you before everyone is going to talk about you. Everyone is going to watch your games.”

Why do we succumb to stress?

Why is it that only some situations cause stress? Or the same situation can be stressful for one person but not another? Imagine this: You have gone out for a walk in the park. The weather is warm and you’re enjoying the fresh air. Suddenly a woman comes towards you with her dog. You love dogs and instantly feel happy and relaxed. You even go over to say hello.

Now rewind the situation: You have gone out for a walk in the park.  The weather is warm and you’re enjoying the fresh air. Suddenly a woman comes towards you with her dog. You are terrified of dogs. You begin to panic. Your heart is beating faster and your muscles have become tense ready to sprint in case the dog decides to run at you.

The difference between the two situations was that in the second your fear made you view the situation as dangerous. While stressors themselves are bad they aren’t damaging until we judge them as having the potential to be damaging to us. When a person is met with a specific event they decide if this event is threatening to them or if it is relevant to their well-being (Folkman, Lazarus, Dunekl-Shetter, DeLongis & Gruen, 1986). This is cognitive appraisal. If we don’t view the situation as threatening we don’t become stressed. Looking back at the cause of stressors discussed above (Nicholls & Polman, 2007) one can see how an opponent playing well could threaten how we view ourselves as the better player, or on a more practical level a good opponent can mean we risk losing. Once we’ve viewed a situation as threatening, unless we know how to handle that stress, the outcome can be detrimental to our performance.

Failing to cope

Failure to cope effectively with stress in a sporting environment can cause people to engage in behaviours that negatively affect performance such as poor decision making, misguided attentional focus and self-defeating thoughts and emotions (Anshel, 1990). Misguided attentional focus can lead to self-focus which occurs when a player pays too much attention to the explicit parts of a skill to make sure it’s done correctly (Hill & Hemmings, 2015). Have you ever paid too much attention to how you walk and suddenly walking became difficult? Overthinking the things we can do automatically, along with self-defeating thoughts and poor decision making can lead to a sudden decline in our performance, also known as choking.

“Choking in ‘sport is an acute and considerable decline in skill execution and performance, when self-expected standards are normally achievable, and which is the result of increased anxiety under perceived pressure” (Mesagno & Hill, 2013). In the 2011 Masters Rory McIlroy experienced the full effects of stress on performance. After a week of playing well and gaining a comfortable lead, his performance on the final day spiralled and he finished with a score card of 80 tied for 15th place. Rory McIlroy’s drop in performance exemplifies how stress doesn’t have to be a constant factor and doesn’t have to build over time. It can come on us suddenly and while we may have been playing well before, once stress hits it needs to be managed before it can take control.

Dealing with stress

While the common suggestions for handling stress may be to take long bath or relax with a film these won’t do when you’re mid match. Instead people use a coping strategy, a technique that will allow them to quickly deal with and relieve the stress so they can perform at their best. Researchers have looked into the area of coping and found two coping styles, avoidance coping and approach coping (Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001; Anshel & Anderson, 2002; Wang, Marchant & Morris, 2004; Nicholls & Polman, 2007; Anshel & Si, 2008; Hill & Hemmings 2015). When using approach coping you pay attention to whatever it is that is causing you stress and you actively take steps to deal with the issue to decrease the intensity of the stressor (Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001). In sport approach coping can be used to address problems like executing a specific skill. Imagine you’re a rugby player. You’re having a great game except you are having trouble catching the ball properly. You’re quickly becoming stressed as you know this is a skill they can do well in training. You could ignore the problem but instead you wait until half time and go speak to your coach. They remind you to keep your hands up ready to catch. Armed with this knowledge you catch the ball without issue and the stress melts away. Other forms of approach coping techniques noted in the research are questioning, arguing, imagining the stressful event or reflecting on a previous error to come up with a solution to decrease the possibility of it happening again (Anshel & Anderson, 2002).

Avoidance coping is as it sounds. Avoid the stressor to stop it impacting your game. Avoidance is when a person tries to ignore the stressor or psychologically distance themselves by seeking out other people to act as distractions or moving on to the next task at hand (Anshel et al., 2001). Imagine your team is playing well in your football match and you’re one ahead of the opposition when the ref decides to give them a penalty. You disagree with the call and know it may mean the score is tied if they make the shot. However there is nothing you can do about the call or the outcome of the penalty so instead you focus on your next job in the game. Other methods of avoidance coping strategies include ignoring the stressor, discounting it as unimportant or engaging in another, unrelated task (Krohne, 1996).

How to cope when it counts

Both coping styles can have advantages and disadvantages. Knowing when to use approach or avoidance coping is rarely black or white, more often it depends on the stressor itself and the situation one is coping with. A general finding across research is approach coping is more effective in times when we have high controllability over the situation and there is a source of information we can draw from to fix the problem (Anshel, 1996). Thinking back to the example above when you were having problems catching the ball. Fixing the skill was in your control. By going to the coach at half time there is time and a good source of knowledge you could use to improve. Where approach coping wouldn’t work is in instances of high pressure with little controllability. If someone were to choose to focus on specific elements of a skill, like catching a ball, at a time of high pressure, in the middle of a ruck, this distracts them from more relevant elements of the game (Beilock & Gray, 2007) like where the ball is going next.

In these times of high stress, avoidance coping can be more appropriate. Avoidance coping is far more advantageous in situations where we have low control over the cause of the stress (Anshel et al., 2001). Looking back to the previous example when the ref made a call you disagreed with although the call caused stress you had no control over the situation. Therefore ignoring that stressor and moving on to your next job in the match is a more appropriate way to cope.

Knowing which method of coping to use and when may sound clear cut and obvious, but that isn’t the case. Often, athletes will report using a combination of both to deal with stress. For instance, Hill and Hemmings (2015) interviewed golfers to see what forms of coping they had employed in situations when they choked and when they played well. In terms of choking the most common coping strategies were avoidance coping, hoping, venting and self-focus which is a form of approach coping. In terms of playing well, the coping strategies most commonly mentioned by players were approach coping strategies of a pre- and post-shot routine, cognitive restructuring, and simulated practice as well as using the avoidance strategies of acceptance and withdrawal, walking away from uncontrollable stressors, to help their performance. Good performance wasn’t dictated by one form of coping, it took elements of both, just as choking was the result of using inappropriate avoidance and approach strategies. Mesagno and Marchant (2013) reported netball players who were more susceptible to choking in high pressure situations used approach coping, whereas players who were more resistant to choking used avoidance coping to handle the stress. However when they interviewed the netball players they described using elements of both coping styles, similar to the golfers.

The key is to know what coping strategies to use and when. Golf is a slow and technical game, by trying to avoid the stressor by mentally distancing themselves the player rushed the shot. It was the wrong avoidance strategy to use. As we saw a more appropriate response to stress would be to use a pre-shot routine to keep them calm and focused. An appropriate avoidance mechanism was withdrawl as it allowed them to walk away from sources of stress like a verbally abusive opponent. Netball is a faster game than golf and there is less time to use techniques like routines or look for information to fix a problem. Therefore using avoidance strategies to prevent over thinking on uncontrollable stressors aided performance. Nevertheless players did also report successfully using some approach coping techniques like cognitive restructuring, which is replacing negative thoughts and statements with positive ones (Silva, 1982). Neither the golf nor the netball players used all one and none of the other method to cope. In times of good performance appropriate elements of both styles of coping were used.

In conclusion

Stress doesn’t have to be long-term and building to cause problems in our performance. Often it can be that sudden feeling of threat that can impact how well we play. Once we feel threatened if we fail to cope or don’t cope well there is the risk we choke. Approach and avoidance are two methods of coping often employed in the world of sport. Approach coping helps us to tackle stressors by giving them attention and dealing with them head on. These are most applicable when sources of stress are controllable and we have time to fix them. Otherwise avoidance coping can suit us best. When we have little control over the cause of the stress it can make more sense to walk away or ignore it. Usually to perform at our best we employ strategies from both types of coping. This requires a balance of using the right strategy at the right time, like using a pre-game routine to focus our thoughts and withdrawal to ignore a stressor that is outside our control.