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Posted 11/04/2022 in Category 1

Exploring Resilience In Sport

Exploring Resilience In Sport

Resilience and sport go hand in hand. Whether it sinking a crucial putt, penalty, or free throw through to managing the highs and lows of a long career in elite sport, dealing with not only the competitive demands but those away from the sport itself.  Sport both demands and tests resilience. If we think about the nature of sport we can see the demands are those that are common across many stressful environments. There is uncertainty about the outcome and the environment. We never quite know the circumstances we will face, how our team-mates will perform or how our opponents will perform. Sport is difficult and so we will have to exert a great deal of effort to succeed. We will often be competing against opponents who are doing their best to stop us succeeding. Finally, there is danger. In many sports there is real physical danger and the potential for harm or injury. However, in all sports there is psychological danger, that is evaluation and judgment of performance. And status matters to people so any situation where our abilities – and qualities - are being judged is stressful. It is this combination of effort, uncertainty and danger in sport that demands and tests resilience. 


So what is resilience? We are sure that you will have your own view on what resilience is – and one way to think about resilience is to consider what it looks like. Think of all the people who you consider resilient – how did they behave – what did they do under stress? Psychologists see resilience very much as a dynamic construct, which is context specific and dependent on person-environment interaction. What does this mean? 


Well it is dynamic – this means it can change. It is fashionable to think of ‘resilient people’ and our previous question asked you to do just that. But thinking of resilience as fixed is not helpful. Sure there are people who are resilient in lots of demanding situations – and others who are less so. But resilience does fluctuate. It can change across situations. You can probably think of some situations where you can cope well and others where you are less able. For example a basketball player may be excellent at making a crucial free throw – but conversely be less able to deal with trash talking or physical intimidation from an opponent. from an opponent. Resilience is dynamic in that it can change over time. Perhaps early on in our sporting career we were able to deal with situations that we found harder to deal with as we got older. Sport is littered with people who started promisingly but then faded. And the converse is true. We can learn to deal with demanding and stressful situations and get better at them. 


Resilience is context specific and we have touched on that. Some situations bring out the best in some people – but not all. A soccer player may be able to cope with the demands of physically intimidating opponents but not be able to cope with the demands of playing in an important season defining game. Some players can of course do both, some can do neither, but some can only manage one. 


Underpinning all of these responses is a person-environment interaction. That we recognise that both play a role in resilience. For example, consider a sprinter who normally has a high level of resilience but before a competition has just had an argument with their partner, has not slept very well and turns up to the track to find he has been given an unfavourable lane draw, his opponents taunt him and his favourite running spikes have broken. In an environment like that even a high resilient person – like this sprinter - may struggle to cope with the demands. In contrast a sprinter with low resilience turns up at an important race and has been working very hard on using breath-control strategies to lower stress. Despite struggling at times in the preparation phase the sprinter is able to control stress, and manage the demands to perform creditably. In this situation person skills have been helpful.  


For many interested in sport performance resilience is the maintenance of performance under adversity or stress. In some individuals this could even be classed as a positive adaptation to adversity or stress that enables optimal function but for most people it is about the maintenance of performance under adversity or stress. As a quote often credited to an anonymous Navy Seal – but in reality coming from the Greek lyrical poet, Archilochus - says “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” Resilience is often used to describe how we deal with setbacks and that links to adversity – how do we cope when things don’t go our way. People often talk about bouncing back. But as people we don’t really bounce back in the same way – we are not a rubber ball! Yes we can bounce back – but we will likely bounce back differently – shaped by our experience and perhaps in a performance sense shaped for the better. A little older and a little wiser. As this quote suggests what we can also do is bounce forward – use the experience to learn and become better.


Resilience is also not necessarily an absence of anxiety or negative emotions. For example, most people would consider the great boxer Muhammad Ali once to be a resilient individual and he said, “I always felt pressure before a big fight, because what was happening was real.” So even resilient people can feel anxious. The aim is to be able to cope with the demands and negative emotions in a way that means performance is not affected.


And if you are interested in working with someone to improve your resilience then search our site for expert sport psychology support.  


If you are interested in learning more about resilience then the following references may be of interest:

  • Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory. European Psychologist, 18(1), 12–23. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000124
  • Jones MV, Smith N, Burns D, Braithwaite E, Turner M, McCann A, et al. (2022) A systematic review of resilient performance in defence and security settings. PLoS ONE 17(10): e0273015. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0273015
  • Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (2014). Psychological resilience in sport performers: a review of stressors and protective factors. Journal of sports sciences, 32(15), 1419–1434. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.901551

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