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are you thriving, or just surviving?Fostering Psychological Resilience in High-Performance:

Elite-level athletes demonstrate resilience, which is a quality that extends beyond the realm of sports. In various high-performance contexts, individuals face tremendous pressure on a daily basis.


Why is resilience important?

Firstly, we all encounter stressors and adversities in our lives, and we can easily recall instances that come to mind. How well equipped we are to handle these events is crucial. Secondly, as humans, we constantly strive for success, always pushing ourselves to surpass previous achievements. However, this pursuit of success brings immense pressure that tests our abilities. Merely surviving is not sufficient for reaching the highest levels of success.


This notion is exemplified by the experience of Andy Murray. When he won Wimbledon in 2013, becoming the first British man to do so in 77 years, Murray faced additional pressure by losing three match points before securing the victory. This added pressure could have significantly affected his performance. However, it is a common misconception to view resilience as solely reactive. The example of Andy Murray may initially appear as reactive resilience on the surface. However, a deeper exploration of Murray's history reveals a series of setbacks and adversities he faced, such as surviving a school massacre at the age of nine and experiencing four consecutive losses in grand slam finals. These challenges ultimately prepared Murray to endure and excel under pressure. Murray himself acknowledged the value of learning from losses, stating, "failing's not terrible...learning from my losses is something I've done throughout most of my career" [5]. It is important to emphasize that resilience is not merely about responding to isolated crises; it involves the capacity to proactively adapt before the need for change becomes glaringly apparent [6].


Therefore, to succeed at the highest levels, thriving under pressure is imperative.


What is resilience?

As the term "resilience" gains visibility in the media, it is important to clarify its meaning and dispel common assumptions. Resilience refers to the capacity to withstand and even thrive on the pressure and stress one experiences. It is often colloquially associated with the phrase "bounce back." However, a common misconception is that resilience is purely reactive. Taking the example of Andy Murray, it may appear as reactive resilience on the surface. Yet, delving into Murray's history reveals a series of setbacks and adversities, such as surviving a school massacre at the age of nine and losing four consecutive grand slam finals. These experiences ultimately prepared Murray to withstand and thrive under pressure. As Murray himself acknowledged, "failing's not terrible...learning from my losses is something I've done throughout most of my career."


Resilience is not merely about responding to a one-time crisis; it involves the capacity to change before the need for change becomes overwhelmingly evident.


How to develop resilience in high-performing contexts?

To foster resilience in ourselves and others, we will focus on three key areas: personal qualities, a facilitative environment, and a challenge mindset. These areas aim to enhance an individual's ability to withstand and thrive under pressure.


Improve Your Personal Qualities: Plain and simple, look to improve yourself as a human being first, athlete second.

You see, numerous positive personality traits, such as openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, emotional stability, and optimism, are associated with promoting optimal performance. Research indicates that these positive traits can protect individuals from the negative effects of stressors. Developing these characteristics is desirable for performing at the highest level.


One avenue to explore is the use of relaxation techniques. Roger Federer serves as a good example. On the court, Federer maintains a calm and detached demeanor, creating a zen-like state that limits extreme emotional highs and lows, to which he is naturally inclined. Contrasting this with Federer's younger days reveals a stark transformation from a racket-smashing and ill-mannered individual to one of the most respected and gracious sportspeople of all time. Federer looked to improve himself personally and then his success followed.


Another potential approach is the use of positive self-talk.


By providing oneself with encouragement and support, individuals can increase their levels of optimism and gain confidence in their ability to overcome setbacks. Michael Jordan epitomized the use of positive self-talk. In the 1998 NBA Finals, with only 18 seconds left in the game and his team down by one point, Jordan made the winning shot. Despite the intense pressure, Jordan displayed unwavering confidence, stating, "When I got that rebound, my thoughts were very positive."


Facilitative Environment:

It is crucial for individuals in high-performance environments to be adequately prepared for the challenges they will face. This preparation can involve creating training sessions that simulate match-like conditions, complete with crowds and decisions made by referees. Alternatively, it can entail practicing important presentations in front of an audience that asks spontaneous questions. While these situations may be unpleasant and induce pressure, it is vital to gain exposure to them before facing the equivalent of an "Olympic Final"—whatever that may be in each individual's context. It would be unethical to send a colleague or athlete into an unprepared environment. Therefore, researchers have proposed the concepts of "challenge" and "support" to manipulate the environment effectively.


To ensure sustainable high performance, a highly challenging yet highly supportive environment should be created. However, achieving this balance can be complex, as the line between a "facilitative" and an "unrelenting" environment can become blurred.

The consequences of an unrelenting environment can be exemplified by the duty of care scandal in elite sport. In para-swimming, a "climate of fear" was established, disregarding the welfare of athletes in pursuit of sporting excellence. It is crucial to combine challenge with adequate support.


Excessive challenge and insufficient support can compromise well-being, while excessive support and insufficient challenge can hinder performance.


Creating a high challenge environment:

  1. Set high standards.

  2. Instill accountability and responsibility.

  3. Provide developmental feedback to help individuals improve.

Creating a high support environment:

  1. Enable individuals to develop their personal qualities.

  2. Foster an environment that promotes learning and trust.

  3. Offer motivational feedback to encourage and inform individuals of what is effective.

The All Blacks provide an excellent example of effectively creating a facilitative environment. Coaches engage in behaviors that encourage players to make decisions, take accountability, and show initiative. Their approach, centered on the principle of "Better People Make Better All Blacks," has resulted in an exceptional win rate of just over 86% and a Rugby World Cup victory. By implementing a facilitative environment, subsequent demands become more manageable, leading to improved performance.


Remember that resilience programs should be tailored to individuals and require regular monitoring and adaptation. The key takeaway message is to "comfort the troubled and trouble the comforted."


Challenge Mindset:

The crux of any psychological resilience training program lies in cultivating a positive evaluation and interpretation of encountered pressure. It revolves around how individuals react to stressors and adversity.


How to create a challenge mindset:

In any given situation, individuals have two possibilities for response: (a) they can react negatively, perceiving an encounter as a threat, or (b) they can react positively, viewing it as a challenge. To foster a challenge mindset, we must help individuals positively evaluate and interpret the pressure they face. Central to this mindset is the awareness of negative thoughts and the understanding that individuals have a choice in how they react to and think about events.


Two techniques that can be employed:

  1. Thought Stopping: Stop negative thoughts by using strategies like mentally saying "stop," being assertive, or visualizing a red stop sign. Verbalize your negativity to someone who can help replace those thoughts with more positive ones. Park negative thoughts by writing or drawing them, and challenge any irrationality by asking questions and gaining perspective. Replace negative thoughts and images with positive ones by focusing on what you can control.

  2. Learning your ABC's: Recognize the Adversity, identify your Beliefs about it, and understand the Consequences. By improving and strengthening your beliefs, you can better manage consequences and effectively handle adversities.

Implications of Implementing Resilience Programs:

In this blog, we have addressed some common misconceptions about resilience. It is essential to understand that a lack of resilience is not a weakness. Resilience and vulnerability can coexist and are both necessary for success. Failure can provide valuable lessons and contribute to personal growth and enhanced resilience in the future.


However, individuals often feel the need to suppress their emotions and continue without seeking help, even when it becomes increasingly necessary. Michael Phelps, during his sporting career, was described as a "motivational machine." However, after retiring, he battled depression. In a 2018 interview, Phelps acknowledged that as an athlete, there is a societal expectation to be a strong person without weaknesses or problems. This belief is not limited to sports but can be observed in any high-performance domain. Suppressing emotions and relying solely on outcome goals, such as winning, can neglect personal well-being and have detrimental consequences for mental health.


In conclusion, the key takeaways from this blog are:

  1. Resilience is not an inherent trait but can be developed.

  2. Resilience is not about suppressing emotions; it can be cultivated through failure.

  3. Resilience is not limited to extraordinary individuals; everyone can exhibit resilience.

  4. A lack of resilience is not a weakness.

  5. Success should not come at the expense of an individual's well-being.


References:

[1] Leicester Mercury. (2018, November 5). Leicester City players matured during title-winning campaign, says ex-striker. Retrieved from https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/leicester-city-players-matured-during-2201420

[2] Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 669–678.

[3] Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2016). Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7, 135-157.

[4] Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts and theory. European Psychologist, 18, 12-23.

[5] The Conversation. (n.d.). Adversity may be the key to Andy Murray's success. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/adversity-may-be-the-key-to-andy-murrays-success-70600

[6] Hamel, G., & Valikangas, L. (2013). The quest for resilience. Harvard Business Review, 52-63.

[7] The New York Times. (n.d.). How Federer beats Nadal: A backhanded gift from a master of the game. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/24/magazine/usopen-federer-nadal-backhand-wonder-year.html

[8] Mumford, G. (2015). The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance. Parallax Press.

[9] Sanford, N. (1967). Where colleges fail: A study of the student as a person. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[10] Galli, N. (2016). Team resilience. In R. J. Schinke, K., R. McGannon., & B. Smith (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of sport psychology (pp. 378-386). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

[11] Seery, M. D., Holman, A. E., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 1025–1041. doi:10.1037/a0021344.

[12] Lazarus, R. S. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[13] Lazarus, R. S. (1981). The stress and coping paradigm. In C. Eisdorfer, D. Cohen, A. Kleinman, & P. Maxim (Eds.), Models for clinical psychopathology (pp. 177–214). New York: Spectrum.

[14] Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal and coping. New York: Springer.

[15] Lazarus, R. S., & Launier, R. (1978). Stress-related transactions between person and environment. In L. A. Pervin., & M. Lewis (Eds.), Perspectives in interactional psychology (pp. 287–327). New York, NY: Plenum.

[16] Reivich, K., & Shatte, A. (2003). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life's hurdles. Harmony Books.

[17] Harvard Gazette. (2008, June 5). Text of J.K. Rowling's speech. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2008/06/text-of-j-k-rowling-speech/

[18] Joseph, S., Murphy, D., & Regel, S. (2012). An affective-cognitive processing model of posttraumatic growth. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 19, 316–324.

[19] Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Positive change following trauma and adversity: A review. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17, 11–21.

[20] Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1–18.

[21] Bowman, B. (2016). The golden rules: 10 steps to world-class excellence in your life and work. London, UK: Piatkus.

[22] Time. (n.d.). Michael Phelps: Saving lives by talking about mental health. Retrieved from http://time.com/5402066/michael-phelps-mental-health-activism/

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