There’s a toughness required in sport, but not the sort you’re thinking of. Physicality’s aside, there’s a mental resilience that is required, for both athlete and sports coach in order to withstand the many pressures involved in the industry.
We all know that resilience is a valuable trait. It allows us to bounce back from failure, stronger and more focused than before. In an environment where there are winners and losers, a positive and strong mind set will equip competitors with a healthy advantage.
Indeed, this has been the subject of much analysis over the years, lending itself to many sports psychology research and studies. In this feature, we delve a little deeper into it.
Resilience is an interesting term, defined in the dictionary as: “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”
It’s clear that in a profession that demands top performance, with competitions at every juncture, that psychological resilience is developed. This has been described by experts (Luthar, Cicchetti and Becker, 2000) as a “dynamic process encompassing positive adaption within the context of significant adversity.”
While some people are born with resilience, many others learn to develop it. In developing resilience there are many benefits that can aid in professional (or amateur) sport, such as:
- Better equipped – resilience helps you to cope with stress and anxiety in a more positive way. As such, it may even help protect against some mental health issues. Some say that it helps create a sense of control too.
- Better at coping – it’s believed that those with high resilience cope better in difficult and challenging situations than those who do not. Studies have shown that those who are resilient tend to also be more emotionally stable.
- Optimism – those with strong resilience look at every setback as an opportunity to learn and improve. Turning negativity into positivity is a benefit that will help grow optimism and a positive mind set.
- Improves health – less stress in our lives is only a good thing, therefore being resilient means that you are better equipped to deal with challenges, which in turn has a positive impact on health.
More than just the psychological side of the game however, there is a growing amount of research to support the view that developing resilience is key to achieving high performance in sport.
In a study by Holt and Dunn (2004), they found that resilience is one of the four key pillars central to success in youth soccer teams. They also observed that sport needed to further examine resilience and its effects.
Another field study, this time by Martin-Krumm et all (2003) set out to examine the relationship between explanatory style and resilience in a team of basketballer players. They found that optimistic participants in the study were far more likely to perform better and be less anxious, than those who approached it pessimistically. This also rings true with similar research of its kind, which has found that in general, resilient athletes tend to have higher self-perceptions and physical endurance than those who don’t.
The sports coach
It is known that the role of a sports coach has helped elite athletes achieve great success. One way in doing this, is by helping athletes manage psychological matters and build up their self-image. This helps them to deal better with negative thoughts.
Looking into this in greater depth, professionals Galli and Vealey (2008) reviewed qualitative designs to better understand resilience, unburdened by previous studies. As part of the process, they set out to interview a dozen Olympic medallists that had achieved a gold medal. Their strategy was to review the relationship between those who had peaked in their sport and associated psychological resilience.
In the process, they found that there’s a number of psychological factors that help protect the best athletes from the effects of potential negativity. These include; motivation, confidence, focus and perceived support.
One of the more recent studies in 2015 by White and Bennie uncovered similar findings. They looked at 22 female gymnasts and seven gymnast’s sports coaches. They found that the gym sport environment created pressure which created challenges for the athletes whilst in competitions. These, however were overcome or improved by positive sports coach behaviours to help overcome failure. The findings, go back to previous studies that too suggest that building resilience in youth teams may have long-term benefits and implications in the future of sports coaching.
Resilience in sport
Thus far we have looked at the personal and very individual benefits of developing resilience in athletes. However, it should also be looked at holistically in terms of team sports too.
Morgan et al (2013) were one of the first experts in the field to look into this area. Using focus groups, they helped build team resilience using characteristics of elite sports teams to study. The results found that there are four main characteristics of resilience in teams, they are:
- Group structure – such as conventions and norms that shape the group
- Mastery approaches – these can be viewed as shared behaviours and thoughts with a focus on bettering the greater team
- Social capital – the value of interactions and support within the team
- Collective efficacy – a shared belief by the team in its overall ability and skill
These elements provide a useful understanding of what is required in order for a resilient team to function. However, it fails in explaining how this is achieved. They did at least acknowledge that future studies should aim to identify the overall process that underpins these characteristics, since there is an obvious gap in knowledge to be explored.
In a later study, Morgan et al (2015) reviewed eight autobiographies of athletes in the winning team of the 2003 England rugby union World Cup. They were interested to discover that there were five main psychosocial processes that each had adopted. These characteristics helped the team utilities their cognitive, affective and relational skills within team dynamics, and identified these as:
- Transformational leadership
- Shared team leadership
- Team learning
- Social identity
- Positive emotions
It’s also important not to forget the social side involves too, building a sense of camaraderie can help reinforce team identity.
Another important outcome of the findings is the positive mind set held. In that despite setbacks and challenges, each of these individuals had dealt with stressors in a positive way in order to move forward as a team. This inner strength in no small part, had played a role in their success.
Of course, building resilience isn’t reserved for elite athletes only. It’s a tool that can be used in a myriad of functions. Even in executive coaching.
Research has shown that even as little as four sessions with a sports coach can improve a positive mind set, although as many as eight to ten can provide the greatest benefit.
Findings by Burke and Linley (2007) showed that in one coaching sessions goal self-concordance and commitment was improved. This can be especially useful for organisations going through a period of change, offering those involved the right skills in order to best deal with the challenges.
Looking at the future of sports coaching and the implications from this applied practice we should consider a few things.
Firstly, coaches in elite sport can identify and monitor the factors involved in sports psychology, such as; positive outlook, confidence, focus, motivation and perceived social support, that is required to develop resilience.
Additionally, it’s also important that athlete’s environment is considered to ensure it is receptive and productive to these characteristics. Sports coaches should work in partnership with them to build their psychosocial training and development and enhance their training.
A positive training environment has been found to underpin all these factors. For instance, fostering a culture of trust and respect that is open to communication and feedback and emotional support on both sides.
And in the same way that autonomy is a motivational factor in sports coaches, so too is giving athletes the freedom they need to grow and develop. Therefore, coaches that encourage athletes to problem solve or those that empower them to make some decisions independently, can aid their overall feelings of self-value. By the same token, coaches can help by challenging athletes to set realistic goals. This can be quite a motivating tool, especially having something positive to work towards that has a good chance of being achieved.
There can be no doubt that developing resilience is a useful asset in competitive environments. As such, sports coaching can be a valuable tool in executive coaching and sports coaching alike. Indeed, resilience is viewed by many as a prerequisite for success.
The studies have also shown that youth teams can greatly benefit from building resilience at a young age, and is something that the industry must take on board.
By providing the necessary sport-specific framework required, coaches are able to understand the different components of resilience and how it develops as well as the function it serves.
And yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. As much of the research has pointed to, there is much more to discover and uncover in resilience. Until then, we know that it gives us the strength to manage the tough times, and come out the other side stronger and for that alone, it’s an invaluable tool.