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Surviving or Thriving? Developing Psychological Resilience into High Performing Contexts

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In March 2015, Leicester City Football Club were facing relegation from the Premier League and embarked on what commonly became known as ‘The Great Escape’. Fast forward 14 months and Leicester City had overcome 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League in 2015-16. For every football fan, this fairy-tale story made Premier League history, with football pundits and the media alike, describing this as ‘resilience’. More recently however, all eyes are on Leicester once again as a result of the events that occurred on the 27thOctober 2018 and the subsequent death of the Chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Interestingly, Leicester City have a fruitful history of experiencing a variety of bumps and twists in the road which may have well equipped the players and staff to continue despite this tragic accident. Manager Claude Puel, supports this idea by stating: “the players will be better footballers and better men for their experiences since the death of chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha” [1]. As highlighted, the term resilience can encapsulate the everyday mundane stressors, but also the extreme life traumas, with resilience being required in order to respond to these events [2].  In addition to elite level athletes, the term resilience applies to many other high performing contexts, where on a day-to-day basis, individuals are put under an immense amount of pressure.

So why is this important? Firstly, we all experience stressors and adversities in our lives; I’m sure whilst reading this sentence, something crops to mind immediately. Therefore, how well equipped we are to deal with these events is crucial. Secondly, as humans we continually strive for success [3]; the term ‘average’ doesn’t seem to sit too well with many among us, as we all push ourselves to advance what has come before. However, this desire to succeed brings extreme pressure, that often test our capabilities [3]. Merely surviving is not enough to succeed at the highest levels; this concept can be shown by Andy Murray. A moment in history emerged when Murray won Wimbledon in 2013, being the first British man to do so, in 77 years. With already a significant amount of pressure on Murray’s shoulders, Murray subsequently went on to lose 3 match points prior to securing the win. This added pressure could have had a profound effect on his performance, therefore, it is imperative that in order to succeed at the highest levels, we must thrive on pressure.

What is Resilience?

Due to the increasing visibility of the term ‘resilience’ within the media, whilst it is important to specify what exactly resilience is, it is also important also to dispel common assumptions and additionally outline what resilient is not. To clarify, resilience refers to the capacity to withstand – and even thrive on – the pressure and stress experienced [4]. Colloquially, resilience is commonly associated with the phrase ‘bounce back’. Within the literature, this explains the reactive nature to resilience as this is the ability to rebound from minor disruptions [3-4]. However, a common misconception is that resilience is purely reactive. Referring to the previous example of Andy Murray, superficially this may look like reactive resilience. However, delving into the history of Murray, this highlights a long list of setbacks and adversities (e.g. surviving a school massacre at aged 9, losing 4 consecutive grand slam finals), which ultimately prepared Murray to withstand and thrive on pressure. As Murray indicated himself, “failing’s not terrible … learning from my losses is something I’ve done throughout most of my career” [5]. To highlight, resilience is not about responding to a one-time crisis. It’s about having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious [6].

How to develop resilience in high performing contexts?

In order to develop resilience in ourselves and others, we will focus on three key areas – personal qualities, facilitative environment and challenge mindset [3], all with the aim to enhance an individual’s ability to withstand and thrive on pressure.

Personal Qualities:

Numerous positive personality characteristics (e.g. openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, emotionally stability and optimism) are associated with promoting optimal performance [2]. Results indicate that these positive personality characteristics have the potential to protect individuals from the negative effects of stressors. As a result, developing these characteristics are desirable in order to perform at the highest level.

One avenue to explore could be the use of relaxation techniques. Roger Federer is a good example of this, where on the court, Federer is distant and detached, safely tucked away in a zen zone designed to limit the highs and lows to which he is naturally inclined [7]. However, rewind back to Federer’s younger days and you would see a stark contrast between the behaviours you see today. Federer has transformed from a racket smashing and ill-mannered individual to one of the most respected and gracious sportspeople of all time.

Another possible avenue to explore could be the use of positive self-talk. By providing encouragement and support to yourself may lead to increased levels of optimism, as an individual may gain confidence that they have the available resources to overcome a setback. Michael Jordan epitomised the use of positive self-talk; in the 1998 NBA Finals, down by one point, with only 18 seconds left in the game, Jordan made the winning shot. Although an incredibly pressurising situation, Jordan had no qualms and has stated: “when I got that rebound, my thoughts were very positive” [8].

Facilitative Environment:

It is imperative that individuals in a high performing environment are prepared for the arena they are stepping into, this could be creating match-like features within a training session, consisting of a crowd and poor referee decisions. Or alternatively, this could be practising an important pitch in front of an audience responding to any on-the-spot questions. Although, these situations are not pleasant for us and put us under undue pressure, it is crucial that we get this exposure prior to the ‘Olympic Final’ – whatever your Olympic final is. It would be unethical to send a colleague or athlete out into an arena they are simply unprepared for. Therefore, to effectively prepare for this environment, researchers have offered the concepts of ‘challenge’ and ‘support’ enabling individuals (e.g. coaches/managers) to manipulate the environment accordingly [9].

Within this matrix, in order to ensure high performance is sustainable, we should aim to create a highly challenging, yet highly supportive environment. This may deceive you to think creating this environment is a simple task, however this can be incredibly complex, with lines blurring from producing a ‘facilitative’ to an ‘unrelenting’ environment.

To explain, the duty of care scandal in elite sport can showcase the impact of creating an unrelenting environment. Para-swimming was found to have created a ‘climate of fear’, whereby the welfare of athletes was disregarded in pursuit of sporting excellence. It is crucial that the challenge we disseminate is combined with adequate support to individuals; if too much challenge and not enough support is imposed then well-being will be compromised. Conversely, if too much support and not enough challenge is provided then the comfortable environment will not enhance performance [3].

How to create a high challenge environment?

  • Set high expectations
  • Instil accountability and responsibility
  • Developmental feedback – inform individuals how they can improve

How to create a high support environment?

  • Enable people to develop their personal qualities
  • Help promote learning and trust
  • Motivational feedback – encourage and inform individuals of what is effective

Effectively creating a facilitative environment can be showcased perfectly by the All Blacks. Coaches engage in behaviours whereby individuals are encouraged to make decisions, to be accountable for these decisions and to encourage players to take initiative [10]. The All Blacks embarked on a creating a culture of ‘Better People Make Better All Blacks’, with the end result being an incredible win-rate of just over 86%, and a Rugby World Cup. As showcased, by implementing a facilitative environment, this will make subsequent demands more manageable, leading to improvements in performance [11].

Remember – Resilience programs should be specific to individuals and will have to be monitored and adapted regularly. A key take-away message:

“Comfort the troubled and trouble the comforted”

Challenge Mindset:

Arguably, the pivotal point of any psychological resilience training program is for individuals to positively evaluate and interpret the pressure they encounter [2]. The focus here is on how individuals react to stressors and adversity.

How do we create a challenge mindset?

Within any situation, there are two possibilities in which an individual could respond. This being: (a) an individual may react negatively, evaluating an encounter as a threat or conversely, (b) an individual may react positively and evaluate the encounter as a challenge [12-15]. In order to create a challenge mindset, we must help individuals to positively evaluate and interpret the pressure they encounter. Fundamental to this mindset is individuals having an awareness of negative thoughts and understanding that they have a choice in how they react to and think about events.

Two techniques that can be used:

  1. Thought Stopping [16]

  • Stop negative thoughts (e.g. simply thinking “stop”, be assertive and even visualise the red stop sign)
  • Verbalise: Expose negativity by telling someone about your thinking (e.g. ensure this person will help you replace these thoughts with more positive ones)
  • Park negative thoughts (e.g. this can be done by writing or drawing your thoughts)
  • Confront: Challenge any irrationality by asking questions (e.g. “is there another way to think about this?” “Can I take any positives from this situation?” Try to gain perspective; “If I had a month to live, would this still be important?”)
  • Replace with positive thoughts and images (e.g. focus on what you are in control of)
  1. Learning your ABC’s [16]
  • A = Adversity (e.g. I didn’t get selected for the football match on Saturday)
  • B = Beliefs (e.g. I must be terrible at football and I will never improve)
  • C = Consequences (e.g. Giving up football)

The model suggests that by better understanding and strengthening your beliefs, you will improve your consequences, which will thus enable you to better manage adversities.

Implications of Implementing Resilience Programs:

Within this blog, we have highlighted some common misconceptions already about the term resilience. However, confusion exists whereby a lack of resilience is misconstrued as a weakness, this is not the case as both resilience and vulnerability can co-exist and are both needed in order to succeed [3]. Within her Harvard Commencement speech, J.K Rowling stated: “Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way … The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive” [17].  As a result, failure can lead to growth and enhanced resilience in future [18-20].

However, as individuals we can still feel the need to suppress our emotions and continue despite the increasing need to ask for help. To explain, during his sporting career, Michael Phelps was described as a ‘motivational machine’ [21]; although this was, arguably, facilitative whilst in the sporting arena, once retired, Phelps suffered from depression. Within an interview in 2018, Phelps stated: “being an athlete you’re supposed to be this strong person who doesn’t have weaknesses, doesn’t have any problems” [22]. Although this example was specific to sport, I would suggest that these beliefs are not isolated within a sporting context but can be translated into any high-performance domain. As with the above example, the suppression of emotions and over-reliance on outcome goals (e.g. winning) can equate in a lack of concern for your own personal well-being and may have detrimental consequences on your mental health.

Concluding Remarks:

Therefore, key take-away messages from this blog are:

  • Resilience is not a fixed trait. It can be developed.
  • Resilience is not a suppression of emotion. Resilience can be developed through failure.
  • Resilience is not a special quality found in extraordinary people. Everyone can showcase resilience.
  • A lack of resilience is not a weakness.
  • Success should not be achieved at the expense of an individual’s well-being.

The post Surviving or Thriving? Developing Psychological Resilience into High Performing Contexts appeared first on The UK's leading Sports Psychology Website.

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