IF I were to ask you what Thema Williams, Petr Cech, Serena Williams, Richie McCaw and Tiger Woods all had in common what would you say? Some might argue the obvious…that they’re exceptional sports personalities. Others might suggest that they share nothing in common at all. The answer I’m seeking is that they have all demonstrated, at one point or another, an immense amount of resilience during their respective sporting careers. From battles with personal and mental struggle, discrimination, and prejudice to life-threatening injury these athletes have overcome some seemingly insurmountable obstacles only to come out even more successful on the other side.
These are, of course, just a handful of the hundreds if not thousands of athletes that tap into the world of resilience daily. Time and again, we as fans, coaches and parents in the world of sport observe and read about the various obstacles and challenges athletes may face from fatigue, poor performances, injuries and being benched to struggles with mental health, addiction, and loss of identity. So, what makes some athletes more resilient than others? Why is it that some athletes aren’t able to make, “the comeback,” while others can?
Resilience, in its simplest form can be defined as adapting well to overcome adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or stress. Indeed, it’s the ability to “bounce back” in the face of difficulty (APA, 2021). We must be mindful, however, that resilience is not some singular trait but indeed made up of multiple traits, habits, and practices. Athletic resilience is also fostered (or hampered) by the coaching environments in which we exist and through the social support or lack thereof that we receive (from parents, family, peers, teammates etc).
If you would, take a moment to think of an athlete you believe is truly resilient or has demonstrated resilience during a memorable competition, season or even their career. What are some of the traits that stand out in that athlete? You might identify things such as determination, motivation, consistency, strong-will or using our colloquialism “bad mind.” You will often hear coaches suggest that athletes need to be more “mentally tough” or “strong in the mind.” What they are really asking for is for the athlete to be more resilient when faced with adversity.
The research conducted around resiliency suggests that there are a few core habits that highly resilient athletes have. Here are four you might want to reflect on…
1) Having clear identity lines – Resilient athletes are able to understand and create that definitive separation between a poor performance/injury/some form of adversity and their identity, who they are at the core is not defined by their temporary struggle. Indeed, the adversity is a part of their story but does not form their permanent identity.
2) They cultivate self-awareness. This comes back to my previous article on emotional intelligence. Self-awareness helps us to recognise and understand our physical and mental needs – knowing what we need, what we don’t need, and when it’s time to reach out for some extra help. The self-aware athlete is good at tuning-in to the subtle cues their body and their mood are sending.
3) They practice acceptance. Oftentimes we associate resiliency with not experiencing pain, vulnerability, or struggle. We can sometimes be fooled into believing that resiliency means that we do not endure strife, or we have some sort of super-human strength (physically or emotionally). Resilient athletes, however, understand that as hard as it is in the moment, it’s better to come to terms with the truth of the pain/struggle than to ignore it, repress it, or deny it. Acceptance is not about giving up and letting the stress take over, it's about leaning in and experiencing the full range of emotions and trusting that we will bounce back.
4) They consider the possibilities. Resilient athletes are those who recognise that situations are painted by the way we interpret them and make a deliberate effort to change that perception to something productive. You know the old saying, “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” …it’s all about perception. We can train ourselves to ask which parts of our current story are permanent, and which can possibly change. Can this situation be looked at in a different way that I haven't been considering?
Feel free to submit any questions you might have about this topic or sport psychology to firstname.lastname@example.org.