What We Can Learn About Resilience From Elite Athletes

What We Can Learn About Resilience From Elite Athletes

As an assistant professor and accredited sport psychologist, I am often asked what strategies I advise athletes to apply in order to assist them in overcoming setbacks in their careers (i.e., defeat, deselection, injury). I always aim to impart life-benefiting skills to these athletes, skills often referred to as transferrable skills. These skills can then be used to help athletes perform well not only in their sport, but also away from sport too (for example in their academic, business and personal lives).

The term ‘mental toughness’ has been criticised in recent times because it implies that athletes must always be ‘tough’, never showing any vulnerabilities. But athletes are human too, therefore, the term resilience has thankfully begun to replace the term mental toughness. Resilience is commonly regarded as the ability to persevere, to overcome setbacks. In ‘everyday’ language, it is often referred to as ‘bounce-back-ability’. However, resilience means more than just ‘bouncing back’, because if a person attempts to ‘bounce back’ without taking time to recover and rest from each effort, the likelihood of burnout is high. So what should we focus on? Research on Olympic Champions by Fletcher and Sarker (2012), for example, has helped us to identify some characteristics high performing athletes use to achieve their goals. Here are 8 tips for developing resilience just like these athletes, for life as well as for sport.

Tip #1: Have the courage to be imperfect

Too often in life, we aim for ‘perfection’. As sport psychologists we should not recommend athletes use this term. Instead we should work together to help them to produce Personal Bests (BPs), helping them to aim for performance excellence, but not expecting perfection. Such PB targets should not stop anyone from giving one hundred per cent effort to their performances, but by not feeling the need to be perfect, they are more likely to ‘have a go’, which often leads to the most effective performances.

Tip #2: Have a positive outlook

This refers to being open to new experiences, new ways of doing things. Try not to be afraid to try out new activities or new routes to achieve your life goals.

Tip #3: Know what you want to achieve, why and how

It is important to be clear about what you would like to achieve, why you want to achieve it and, something often neglected, how you plan to achieve it. Having a plan — a process — is important. Using the SMART principle may help you with such goal setting

(See: http://www.alustforlife.com/physical-health/sports-psychology/using-good-goal-setting-to-re-awaken-your-lust-for-life for tips).

Tip #4: Seek out social support

Do not be afraid to ask for help. The most successful athletes, teams, business people, indeed performers of any kind, most often have a team of people who help them to reach their targets. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of confidence and strength.

Tip #5: See your decisions as active choices

Too often we use the word ‘sacrifices’ to describe the decisions we make to achieve goals. While the effort required to achieve many goals in life are physically and mentally challenging, they are active choices you make. See them as such, not something you are being forced to do by others.

Tip #6: Take control and take responsibility

Take control of your feelings, thoughts and actions. We often say things like ‘he/she made me feel….’. In reality, we allow the remarks and actions of others to impact on us — Take back that power! Have some helpful ‘self-talk’ phrases ready to say to yourself to remind you that you do not have to let another person make you feel a certain way, especially if they are being unkind or judgemental regarding your life goals.

Tip #7: Focus on your own personal development

We often make too many comparisons between ourselves and others. What someone else has achieved in life may not be right for you. Focus on yourself, on your own performance, as that is all you can really control.

Tip #8: View setbacks as opportunities for growth

Try to focus on Post Traumatic Growth rather than Post Traumatic stress. You can learn valuable lessons from difficult experiences in life. Being able to cope with the physical and mental pain of such situations allows you to gain strength from these experiences. You can take these lessons into other challenging situations you experience, to remind you that you can cope with adversity when required to.

I hope you have found these resilience tips helpful as you face your own challenges in life. If you would like more information on this topic or specific research findings in this area, please feel free to contact me via email: olivia.hurley@iadt.ie or on Twitter @DrOliviaHurley. My very best wishes to you all as you ‘Strive to Thrive’ in your lives.