Have you ever wondered why some athletes or teams excel under pressure whilst others underperform or fail to meet the demands of the game? How do athletes recreate a winning atmosphere, or overcome adversity through injury or defeat? Psychological resilience may be the key to answering such questions.
Resilience is a word which has gained popularity in recent times and has been spoken of in schools, business meetings, mental health services and in elite sport. The word resilience appears to encompass a wide range of skills and competencies which appear to be of benefit to individuals who increase this particular trait. However, underneath the buzzword, we must ask – what do we really know about resilience and can it be of benefit in sports?
Resilience has been defined as “the role of mental processes and behaviour, in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors”, put simply, it is our ability to use our own personal qualities to withstand pressure.
Exploring these definitions further, it really states that resilience is a person’s ability to maintain their levels of well-being and performance under pressure, as well as being able to overcome any challenges that are encountered. When thinking about sport, resilience is a necessity. Whether you are an individual athlete or part of a team, you may have experience of underperformance, injury, mental block or anxiety from the pressure of performance. What is important to note is that resilience levels can fluctuate over time due to outside factors such as life events, additional stresses or general times where we are more vulnerable.
Prominent researchers in the area, Fletcher and Sarkar, have developed a three pronged approach to developing or fostering resilience.
EXPLORING PERSONAL QUALITIES
Perhaps you are a coach, an athlete or you’re interested in the application of resilience in your everyday life. It may be helpful to think about your starting point in terms of your own personality style. Sometimes, it can be easier to think about words which individuals may use to describe you. Are you generally optimistic, extroverted, hopeful, open-minded? Do you feel self-aware? Where would you place your self-esteem out of 100? Do you confront challenges or wait for them to pass over without intervening? Are you a perfectionist?
Answering these questions can help us become aware as to where our starting point is. Perhaps you are generally a highly resilient person, or maybe your ability to be resilient is currently low. Acknowledging our starting point can be helpful in order to ascertain if our resilience is increasing or not. It may be helpful to log thoughts that stood out during a training session, thoughts before a game or after. These thought logs can help us see how we are feeling in general, or when the pressure is on. Self-talk, mental images and focusing our concentration are skills which can help develop resilience – these deserve their own time and attention and will be written about in a future post. Banishing stressors, obstacles or barriers from our everyday lives is unrealistic, however, becoming aware of our reactions to them can help us foster greater resilience.
THE ENVIRONMENT – “COMFORT THE TROUBLED AND TROUBLE THE COMFORTABLE”
In 1967, Sanford explored the field of education. He remarked that students’ academic performance could be impacted by their environment and whether or not there was a balance of challenge and support presented to them.
In sport, challenges may be thought of as having high expectations of team members as well as instilling responsibility and specificity for their individual role. Individuals may have specific tasks on a team, but it is important that these roles are clear and specified.
Developmental feedback is important here. Developmental feedback should be specific, factual, positive and negative, takes behavioural patterns into account and delivered according to priority.
What is developmental feedback? It goes beyond telling individuals that they did good or bad. It delves further into shared goals, individual goals and individual performance. It should be balanced with positives and negatives and crucially, focusing on how an individual can improve their skills rather than simply evaluating their performance.
Athletes should be supported in their environments also. Developmental feedback can be complimented by motivational feedback, whereby coaches reflect to athletes what has worked for them in the past, reminds them of their accomplishments and feeds back observations in relation to their specific performance. It is essential that a competitive environment maintains balance in the level of challenge and level of support. Athletes will not thrive if an environment is too demanding without adequate support and subsequently will not thrive in a complacent environment where accountability is minimal. A constructive environment for resilience building should include constructive feedback as well as open lines of communication between staff and athletes.
DEVELOPING A CHALLENGE MINDSET
An athlete’s interpretation of an event or process as either being a threat or a challenge is crucial. The difference between both words evokes different emotions and different reactions. This distinction has been studied in depth in sports psychology and supported by research. Not only is an athlete/coaches appraisal of pressure or adversity important in resilience training, but so too is their appraisal of their own coping resources. In other words, knowing that there is a bear standing in front of you and whether that is categorised as a threat or a challenge is the first step, but then knowing what skills you have or tools you have to hand will also be crucial in your encounter. How will you deal with the threat/challenge in sport, what tools do you have to hand to help you cope through adversity, to dig deep when needed. Sometimes, our own thought processes can give us clues as to how we have categorise a situation. Focusing on challenging negative thoughts about performances/encounters/abilities and reframing them into positive or constructive thoughts can be influential on performance. For some, their personality traits might make this exercise more difficult. That is why it is important to practice and rehearse psychological skills regularly so that when they are really needed they can be brought to mind seamlessly. This takes practice, effort and open discussion. If athletes/coaches are not bought into developing these skills and are doing so out of tokenism, then this might need to be discussed and worked through.
We are all human, and at different times may be more likely to focus on the negatives of our performance, team structure, relationships.
Think of the physical preparation that goes into an athletes performance; nutrition, sleep, strength training, recovery, rehabilitation are just a few. Ask, is mental performance receiving the adequate amount of time and dedication that it should be in comparison to the physical preparation, and if not, why?
DR. LYNDA NAUGHTON
Lynda is a clinical psychologist who has worked in numerous healthcare settings, working with individuals and groups. Lynda has worked with athletes from a variety of backgrounds and has a keen interest in mental health and it’s application to sport.