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What Has the 2020 Olympics Taught Us About Resilience?

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Resilience is ‘the role of mental processes and behaviour in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors.’

There are two ways to look at resilience. First is ‘robust resilience‘, a type of resilience that is demonstrated when an athlete is confronted with a difficult situation in which their performance may decline, yet they retain their composure and their performance remains unchanged. 

An example of this is 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby who swam in the mixed 4x100m medley relay for the US. After diving in the water her goggles slipped down her nose and into her mouth. Despite the fact that for many, this would have hampered their performance, Lydia still achieved an impressive time that was only 0.14 seconds slower than her gold medal winning time in the 100m breaststroke.

The second way is ‘rebound resilience’, a type of resilience that is shown when performance has decreased, but the athlete is able to quickly return to their usual level of performance. 

An example of this is Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan. She got to the final lap of her 1,500-metre heat when the runner in front fell and caused Sifan to fall. Sifan was now in last place with less than a lap to go. She jumped back up and managed to pass the other 11 runners to finish in first place.

Overall, resilience is the ability to withstand or in some cases thrive from stress and pressure. It is inevitable that everyone, whether they play sport to the Olympic standard or have never played sport, will experience stressors in their lives. Resilience is not just about having the capacity to deal with a situation once you’re in the middle of it but to also change before performance and well-being are disrupted.  

How can we cultivate resilience

Research has shown that there are three areas that can be targeted to improve resilience

Personal qualities

These personality qualities include personality characteristics as well as someone’s psychological skills. These qualities can protect individuals from the detrimental effects of stressors. As these qualities differ from person to person these characteristics can explain why some athletes succumb to pressure while others thrive.

Personality characteristics such as optimism are more stable, whereas psychological skills can be practised and strengthened. A personality characteristic is perfectionism, those who are perfectionists may struggle to regain their form during a bad performance and wellbeing may suffer compared to someone who is high in optimism. Whereas a psychological skill can be someone’s application of mental rehearsal and visualisation allowing for quick regain of composure.

A challenge mindset is created by developing an athletes belief that they can deal with challenging situations. By the athlete gaining a positive interpretation of their ability to deal with high-pressure situations they will view certain situations as a challenge instead of a threat. A challenge appraisal is influenced by an athletes primary appraisal (they evaluate what the situation requires and if the resources to deal with it) and secondary appraisal (can they cope in this situation).

Going back to Lydia Jacoby, after her swim she said: ‘It’s out of my control at that point once I was in the water, so I just swam as best I could with what was happening at the moment.’ This is an example of a challenge mindset, after weighing her resources to situation she decided she had the ability to continue swimming despite the less-than-ideal situation

Facilitative environment

A facilitative environment is optimal for allowing teams and individuals to develop resilience.  

A coach can manipulate the environment based on its levels of challenge and support. To better prepare athletes it may be necessary to create challenging situations they may face, allowing them to draw on their past experience and resulting in them being more resilient when problems arise.   

  • Facilitative environment(high challenge and high support). In this environment players are put in difficult situations but are supported throughout resulting in a safe environment and constructive feedback being taken on board.
  • Unrelenting environment(high challenge and low support). Here players are given high pressure situations with little care for well-being. This approach is associated with burnout and stress.
  • Stagnant environment(low challenge and low support). Players are not given enough stimulating opportunities to develop, leaving a lack of opportunity to develop their resilience.
  • Comfortable environment (low challenge and high support). This environment is characterised by a lack of development, in sport difficult conversations are needed for players to learn and progress, here these conversations are avoided leading to the athlete performing within their comfort zone.  

What are some evidence-based strategies that can be implemented to build resilience? 

Utilise pressure inurement training

Pressure inurement training requires transforming the training environment to increase the level of pressure on athletes. Pressure inurement training involves increasing the level of challenge that athletes experience while providing an optimal level of support. This enables players to develop their personal qualities in a training setting that better replicates the conditions they are likely to face in competition. Pressure inurement training can be implemented in two ways:   

Change the stressors athletes deal with: increase the type of stressors; introduce novel stressors; and frequency of stressors. Change athletes appraisals can include: change athletes beliefs; change athletes goals; change the punishments.

The Canadian rowing squad, for example, was exposed to new stressors in the run-up to the Olympics. The rowing team rehearsed in warm temperatures to assist the athletes adjustment to the weather in Japan. This video shows that both the stressor (the introduction of warm weather training) and the athletes’ appraisals were altered (the goal is not to perform personal bests in training but to adapt to performing in high temperatures). 

Foster a challenge mindset  

As mentioned previously personal qualities are made up of an individuals personalities and psychological skills. Personality is difficult to change whereas psychological skills can be improved through frequent practise. One technique that can be used to help develop a challenge mindset is to regulate thoughts.

Here is an evidenced-based five-step process to help regulate negative thoughts:

  • Stop. Pair assertive thinking with visualisation to attempt to stop negative thoughts when they arise.
  • Verbalise. By letting someone you trust know your negative thoughts they can help support you. 
  • Park. Write the negative thought down and dispose or to confront at a later date.
  • Confront. Take ownership of your negative thoughts, ask questions about them to gain a deeper understanding which can help challenge them.
  • Replace. Aim to minimise negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

Final thoughts

Overall, these practical recommendations are here to give you guidance on how you can develop and facilitate a challenge mindset, personal qualities and facilitative environment to enhance your development of resilience. 

Brandon Wright is doing a master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology at Loughborough University.

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