Psychological resilience for athletes – a demystification…No Opinions
“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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Breslin, G., Shannon, S., Haughey, T., Donnelly, P., & Leavey, G. (2017). A systematic review of interventions to increase awareness of mental health and well-being in athletes, coaches and officials. Systematic reviews, 6(1), 177.
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Fletcher D. & Sarkar M. (2016) Mental fortitude training: An evidence based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success, Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7:3, 135-157, DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2016.1255496
Laborde, S., Dosseville, F., & Allen, M. S. (2016). Emotional intelligence in sport and exercise: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 26, 862–874.
Longstaff, F., & Gervis, M. (2016). The use of counselling principles and skills to develop practitioner-athlete relationships by practitioners who provide sport psychology support. The Sport Psychologist, 30, 276–289.
Sanford, N. (1967). Where colleges fail: A study of the student as a person. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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About Heather Hunter
I am a Masters student at Loughborough University, an aspiring sports psychologist and a huge sports fan, with a particular love of basketball and rugby