“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” – William Arthur Ward.

A challenge mindset has long been associated with improved sports performance. However, it is only recently that research has suggested that developing this mindset is one of the keys to building psychological resilience in an athlete1. Put simply, resilience differentiates the two kinds of people that William A. Ward mentions. As such this psychological resilience has become increasingly recognised as a vital ingredient in the recipe for success, both inside and outside the sporting world. It is easy to think of times resilient athletes have thrived under pressure, think Jonny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal at the 2003 world cup, and equally easy to think of times less resilient athletes have cracked under the pressure, think John Terry’s penalty miss in the 2008 Champions League final. As such, it makes sense that coaches want to make their athletes more resilient. To do so, it seems necessary that coaches should clearly understand the steps they can take to help develop this challenge mindset in athletes and enable them to break records in the face of adversity rather than crumble.

What is a ‘Challenge Mindset’?

A challenge mindset is where an individual reacts positively to the stressors and adversity that they encounter, so does not involve the manipulation of events themselves but rather just the individual’s interpretation of the events1. When individuals encounter a stressful situation, they undergo a primary appraisal whereby they determine how they may be affected and whether they care about the situation. Following this comes the secondary appraisal where the individual appraises whether they believe they have the resources to deal with the situation2. If the individual believes they do not have the resources available to be able to handle the demands of the task then this is a threat appraisal, whereas if they do believe they can meet the demands of the task, this is the desirable challenge appraisal2. On top of this, individuals also evaluate their own thoughts and emotions experienced in a process known as meta-cognition and meta-emotion3,4. By getting individuals to positively evaluate their resources, thoughts and emotions by changing negative appraisals to positive ones we can instil this challenge mindset.

Why do we want a ‘Challenge Mindset’?

Interpreting a situation as a challenge rather than a threat is associated with several psychological benefits, such as more facilitative interpretations of anxiety, as well as improved performance5. Adopting this challenge mindset is also one of the three keys to developing psychological resilience in individuals1. Psychological resilience includes a protective quality that refers to an individual maintaining their performance and wellbeing when placed in a pressurized or stressful situation (robust resilience), or it is the ability of an individual to bounce back to normal functioning after their wellbeing and performance have been temporarily disrupted when under pressure (rebound resilience)1. Athletes are almost guaranteed to experience such set-backs at some point, the question is not whether an athlete will encounter adversity, but instead, how will they respond when adversity occurs?6. As such, it is easy to see why resilience is central to success and developing a challenge mindset is vital to increasing this resilience.

How can we develop a ‘Challenge Mindset’?

A challenge mindset is largely formed through the combination of an individual’s personal qualities and their immersion in a facilitative environment1 with all these factors contributing to resilience levels. As such it is important that to develop a challenge mindset, personal qualities and a facilitative environment must be enhanced, which in turn will produce more resilient individuals. Personal qualities include an individual’s personality and the psychological skills that they have1, and since an individual’s personality is very stable but psychological skills are far more malleable it makes sense to focus on the development of these psychological skills rather than attempting to manipulate personality traits in a resilience training program.

So, what exactly does the environment and psychological skills need to develop in an individual to create a challenge mindset? The key is making the individual believe they have the resources to handle the demands of a situation. To achieve this we must either increase their perceived resources or decrease the perceived demands. Theory suggests that high self-efficacy, high perceived control of the situation and the adoption of approach goals (particularly mastery approach goals) are the most effective ways of manipulating these appraisals and getting an individual to appraise a situation as a challenge not a threat5. As such, it is logical that the psychological skills taught to the athlete and the environment provided encourage the growth of these three factors when aiming to instil a challenge mindset.

Psychological Skills

Whilst there are many psychological skills that are suggested as being worthwhile to teach athletes, there are three central psychological skills that have been the most prominent in the research and are widely used across high-level sports. These three skills are imagery, goal-setting and self-talk. When looking to promote self-efficacy, perceived control and approach goals, as is necessary for a challenge mindset, these three psychological skills are very at effective at doing so7-10. These skills are all well researched and in-depth areas in themselves, so whilst I will provide a brief explanation on the implementation of these techniques, coaches looking to train these skills should familiarise themselves with the detailed methods that have been established or consult a psychologist.

Imagery

The mental simulation or re-creating of an experience in the mind. Imagery should focus on following the PETTLEP guidelines11:

  • Physical – Adopt same position, wearing same clothes with the same equipment as in competition
  • Environment – Be in an environment as similar as possible to the one in which competition takes place e.g. on the same court
  • Task – Image the task identically to the actual performance with both the execution and outcome
  • Timing – Complete the imagery in real time
  • Learning – Image according to skill level, a novice should image more basic things than an expert e.g. in basketball a novice images dribbling while looking at the ball, an expert may image themselves looking elsewhere
  • Emotion – Include the emotions that would be experienced in the situation being imaged e.g. anxiety
  • Perspective – Imagery can be from a first or third person view

Goal-setting

The process of goal setting should follow the SMARTS principles12:

  • Specific – outline precisely what is to be accomplished
  • Measurable – Need to be quantifiable
  • Action Oriented – Indicate the steps required to achieve the goal
  • Realistic – Should be achievable for the individual
  • Timely – Possible to achieve within a reasonable amount of time. Both long- and short-term goals should be set, with long-term goals giving a direction and short-term providing the steps that lead there
  • Self-determined – Athlete makes them by themselves or together with a coach

On top of this coaches should aim to12:

  • Develop goal achievement strategies. This is a plan for how the goal can be achieved and should be specific with definite numbers but a degree of flexibility (e.g. if a goal is to improve strength the strategy could be “I will do a weights session 3 times a week)13
  • Promote goal commitment by encouraging progress and providing consistent feedback.
  • Provide goal support by getting parents and significant others to buy in and help work towards the goals too.

Self-talk

A focus on stopping and replacing negative thoughts is key when creating a challenge mindset1. To regulate thoughts the following steps can be used12,14.

  • Thought Stopping– identify a negative thought and say a cue word such as “stop” to yourself
  • Replace with a positive thought– restructure the statement to be positive e.g. “I don’t play well in the rain” becomes “It’s the same conditions for both us, I just need to focus”. Take a deep breath and repeat the positive statement as you exhale.
  • Keep phrases short and specific
  • Phrases must be said with meaning and attention
  • Combine with self-feedback– adding some technical or tactical instruction to the statement e.g. “Bend your knees more and you’ll get that” helps performance and the learning process

Facilitative Environment

So, what support can we provide to the athlete to create a facilitative environment and contribute to a challenge mindset? The support should be provided as part of pressure inurement training1, which is essentially where the challenge and support given to the athlete are gradually increased to reach an environment with high levels of both. Since the way that challenge is increased is relatively rigid we must focus on the support provided to really influence a challenge mindset. The teaching and training of the psychological skills mentioned previously is included as part of this support but what other steps can we take to support an increase in an individual’s self-efficacy, perceived control and approach goals that were outlined earlier as vital to creating a challenge mindset?

Firstly, coaches can have a huge influence over what goals are adopted by an athlete. As mentioned earlier, mastery approach goals evoke a challenge mindset. Mastery approach goals are essentially an individual striving to improve themselves, and not comparing themselves to others10. For athletes to adopt these goals it is essential that significant others, be that coaches, parents or anyone working with the athlete, model the desirable goals themselves, for instance by asking questions about their performance not about the match outcome and avoid comparing the athlete to others. On top of this it is important to work with the athlete during goal-setting to set these mastery approach goals, so regular sessions regarding goal-setting are important to decide with the athlete how they can improve themselves and then coaches can refer to these goals throughout training, being consistent with reference to self-improvement.

Secondly, coaches should focus on developing the sources of self-efficacy15 in athletes. This can be done when communicating with an athlete as well as encouraging these points to be a focus of self-talk. These sources and what others can do to promote them are as follows:

  • Performance Accomplishments– Reminding athletes of times that they have been successful in the same or a similar task
  • Vicarious Experiences– Athletes view someone similar to themselves perform the same task as them which instils a view of “if they can do it, why can’t I?”
  • Verbal Persuasion– Simply telling the athlete that you believe in them and they are good enough to succeed. Modelling confidence yourself also helps
  • Imaginal States– Getting an athlete to use imagery to view themselves succeeding
  • Physiological and Emotional States– An athlete viewing their arousal as positive, coaches simply describing that the symptoms of arousal (e.g. raised heart rate) are necessary for peak performance has proven somewhat effective16 and arousal management techniques (e.g. relaxation) may help.

Self-efficacy is closely related to perceived control. Whilst self-efficacy is essentially the degree of self-confidence an individual has that they can succeed in a specific situation, perceived control is the belief that they will have the opportunity to display this ability. For example, an individual may have low perceived control over a situation due to weather conditions or because a referee is making poor decisions which is preventing them from achieving their goal no matter how well they perform. Recent research has fortunately provided some ways that appear successful in increasing perceived control9,17:

  • Focus on controllable aspects– Communications with the athlete should be on relevant controllable things. Coaches, or parents, should be focusing on what the athlete can control, for example, their own tactics or technique
  • Attribute success to individual’s effort– Positive changes that occur (i.e. improvements) should be attributed by the coach to the individual’s efforts rather than any external factors such as the coach’s own suggestions making the difference, instilling the idea in the athlete that they can bring about the change required themselves, if they put the required effort in.
  • Generate a variety of solutions– By working with the athlete to come up with a variety of solutions to the same problem this works to increase their perceived control as they realise there are several ways to overcome adversity. This is related to the promotion of something called ‘Langerian Mindfulness’18 which has recently been established to improve perceived control in sporting and educational settings17.

To summarise, these ideas suggested are actions that coaches can take when providing support in training sessions that will help to promote the three contributors to a challenge appraisal5 and as a result contribute to forming a consistent challenge mindset within the individual athlete. This is associated with improved sporting performance and contributing to a more resilient individual, a quality required for peak performance when under pressure or facing adversity.

I’d love to hear any comments, thoughts or questions you have about any of the ideas raised in this blog so please do let me know!

The associated infographic for this blog is pictured below: