Developing Resilience In Elite Athletes: The Role Of The EnvironmentNo Opinions
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?
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?
- Having high expectations of people
- Increasing accountability and responsibility
- Stretching people outside of their comfort zones1
- Enabling people to develop their personal qualities
- Building trust
- 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:
- Unrelenting environments (High challenge-Low support)
- Facilitative environments (High challenge-High support)
- Stagnant environments (Low challenge-Low support)
- 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:
- Increasing the demand of the stressors (type, property or dimension)
- 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:
- 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 9 . 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
1. Fletcher D, Sarkar M. Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action. 2016;7(3):135-157.
2. Sarkar M, Fletcher D. Psychological resilience in sport performers: a review of stressors and protective factors. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2014;:1-16.
3. Grey-Thompson T. [Internet]. Sportresolutions.co.uk. 2018 [cited 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.sportresolutions.co.uk/uploads/related-documents/Duty_of_Care_Review_-_April_2017__2.pdf
4. Fletcher D, Sarkar M. Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory. European Psychologist. 2013;18(1):12-23.
5. Gogarty P, Williamson I. Winning at all costs: Sporting Gods and Their Demons. London: JR; 2009.
6. Cornum R, Matthews M, Seligman M. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: Building resilience in a challenging institutional context. American Psychologist. 2011;66(1):4-9.
7. Hoggard L. How high is your Resilience Quotient? [Internet]. Evening Standard. 2018 [cited 28 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/how-high-is-your-resilience-quotient-6789882.html
8. Mahoney JW, Gucciardi DF, Gordon S, Ntoumanis N. Training a coach to be autonomy-supportive: an avenue for nurturing mental toughness. Sport and Exercise Psychology: Practitioner Case Studies, eds ST Cotterill, N. Weston, and G. Breslin (Chichester: Wiley). 2017:193-213.
9. Wagstaff CR, Sarkar M, Davidson CL, Fletcher D. Resilience in sport: a critical review of psychological processes, sociocultural influences, and organizational dynamics.
10. Ommundsen Y, Roberts GC, Lemyre PN, Miller BW. Parental and coach support or pressure on psychosocial outcomes of pediatric athletes in soccer. Clinical journal of sport medicine. 2006 Nov 1;16(6):522-6.
11. Galli N, Vealey RS. “Bouncing back” from adversity: Athletes’ experiences of resilience. The Sport Psychologist. 2008 Sep;22(3):316-35.
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About Rachel Farmer
I am a Sport and Exercise Masters student at Loughborough university having previously completed a BSc in Sport and exercise science. I am passionate about performance psychology and translating research for coaches and athletes to apply in the sporting domain