The association between a challenge mindset and enhanced sports performance has long been recognised. However, recent research has emphasized that developing this mindset is one of the crucial factors in cultivating psychological resilience in athletes . In essence, resilience distinguishes the two types of individuals mentioned by William A. Ward when he states
“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” “Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” Consequently, psychological resilience is increasingly acknowledged as a vital component for success, both within and outside the realm of sports. Consequently, coaches strive to foster resilience in their athletes. To achieve this, coaches must gain a clear understanding of the steps required to develop a challenge mindset in athletes, enabling them to overcome adversity and achieve remarkable feats instead of succumbing to pressure.
What is a 'Challenge Mindset'?
A challenge mindset entails an individual responding positively to the stressors and adversities encountered. It involves the interpretation of events rather than the manipulation of the events themselves . When individuals face a stressful situation, they undergo a primary appraisal, assessing how they might be affected and whether the situation matters to them. This is followed by a secondary appraisal, where individuals evaluate whether they possess the resources to deal with the situation . If individuals believe they lack the necessary resources, it results in a threat appraisal. Conversely, if they believe they can meet the demands of the task, it leads to a desirable challenge appraisal . Additionally, individuals evaluate their own thoughts and emotions in a process known as meta-cognition and meta-emotion [3,4]. By guiding individuals to positively evaluate their resources, thoughts, and emotions—transforming negative appraisals into positive ones—we can instill a challenge mindset.
Why should we seek a 'Challenge Mindset'?
Interpreting a situation as a challenge rather than a threat is associated with various psychological benefits, such as more constructive interpretations of anxiety and improved performance . Moreover, adopting a challenge mindset is one of the three key elements in developing psychological resilience . Psychological resilience encompasses the ability to maintain performance and well-being under pressurized or stressful circumstances (robust resilience) or the capacity to rebound and restore normal functioning after a temporary disruption caused by pressure (rebound resilience) . Athletes are almost guaranteed to face setbacks at some point—the question is not whether an athlete will encounter adversity, but rather, how they will respond when faced with adversity . Thus, it is evident why resilience is central to success, and developing a challenge mindset is vital in cultivating this resilience.
How can we develop a 'Challenge Mindset'?
A challenge mindset is predominantly formed through a combination of an individual's personal qualities and their immersion in a facilitative environment , with both factors contributing to resilience levels. Therefore, it is crucial to enhance personal qualities and create a facilitative environment to develop a challenge mindset, thereby fostering more resilient individuals. Personal qualities encompass an individual's personality and psychological skills . Given that personality traits are relatively stable while psychological skills are more malleable, it is logical to focus on developing these skills rather than attempting to manipulate personality traits in resilience training programs.
So, what specific aspects of the environment and psychological skills need to be developed to cultivate a challenge mindset in individuals? The key lies in making individuals believe they have the resources to handle the demands of a situation. This can be achieved by either increasing their perceived resources or decreasing the perceived demands. Theory suggests that high self-efficacy, a high sense of control over the situation, and the adoption of approach goals—particularly mastery approach goals—are the most effective ways to influence these appraisals, leading individuals to perceive a situation as a challenge rather than a threat . Hence, it is crucial for the psychological skills taught to athletes and the environment provided to promote the growth of these three factors when aiming to instill a challenge mindset.
While numerous psychological skills are considered beneficial to teach athletes, three key skills have been extensively researched and widely used in high-level sports: imagery, goal-setting, and self-talk. When it comes to promoting self-efficacy, perceived control, and approach goals—all essential for a challenge mindset—these three psychological skills have proven highly effective [7-10]. Since each skill is an extensive area of study in itself, I will provide a brief explanation of their implementation. However, coaches interested in training these skills should familiarize themselves with established methods or consult a psychologist.
Imagery involves mentally simulating or recreating an experience in the mind. When utilizing imagery, it is essential to follow the PETTLEP guidelines :
Physical: Adopt the same position, wear the same clothes, and use the same equipment as in competition.
Environment: Be in an environment as similar as possible to the actual competition setting.
Task: Imagine the task in detail, including both execution and outcome.
Timing: Perform the imagery in real time.
Learning: Adjust the imagery according to the individual's skill level.
Emotion: Include the emotions experienced in the situation being imagined.
Perspective: Imagery can be from a first or third-person viewpoint.
The process of goal-setting should adhere to the SMARTS principles :
Specific: Clearly outline what needs to be accomplished.
Measurable: Ensure goals are quantifiable.
Action-Oriented: Indicate the steps required to achieve the goals.
Realistic: Set goals that are attainable for the individual.
Timely: Establish goals that can be achieved within a reasonable timeframe. Both long-term and short-term goals should be set, with long-term goals providing direction and short-term goals outlining the steps leading to the desired outcome.
Self-determined: Encourage athletes to set their own goals or involve them in the goal-setting process.
In addition to the SMARTS principles, coaches should aim to :
Develop goal achievement strategies: Create a specific plan outlining how the goals can be achieved, incorporating definite numbers while allowing for a degree of flexibility (e.g., "I will engage in weight training three times a week" for a goal focused on improving strength) .
Promote goal commitment: Encourage progress and provide consistent feedback to enhance athletes' dedication to their goals.
Provide goal support: Encourage parents and significant others to support and work towards the athletes' goals.
Effectively managing self-talk is crucial in stopping and replacing negative thoughts, a key aspect of fostering a challenge mindset . The following steps can be used to regulate thoughts [12,14]:
Thought Stopping: Identify negative thoughts and use a cue word (e.g., "stop") to interrupt them.
Replace with a Positive Thought: Restructure the negative statement into a positive one, taking a deep breath and repeating the positive statement as you exhale.
Keep Phrases Short and Specific.
Say Phrases with Meaning and Attention.
Combine with Self-Feedback: Add technical or tactical instructions to the statement, enhancing performance and the learning process (e.g., "Bend your knees more, and you'll succeed").
How can we support athletes in creating a facilitative environment that contributes to a challenge mindset? The support should be part of pressure inurement training , wherein both challenge and support are gradually increased. Since the increment of challenge is relatively rigid, our focus should be on providing effective support to influence the challenge mindset. The teaching and training of the aforementioned psychological skills are included in this support. However, there are additional steps coaches can take to enhance an individual's self-efficacy, perceived control, and approach goals, which are vital for fostering a challenge mindset.
Firstly, coaches can significantly influence the goals adopted by athletes. As previously mentioned, mastery approach goals evoke a challenge mindset. Mastery approach goals involve individuals striving to improve themselves without comparing themselves to others . To encourage the adoption of these goals, it is essential for coaches, parents, and others working with the athletes to model the desired goals themselves. For example, they can ask questions about the athletes' performance rather than the match outcome and avoid making comparisons. Additionally, working with the athletes during goal-setting sessions is crucial to jointly establish mastery approach goals. Coaches can then consistently refer to these goals throughout training, emphasizing self-improvement.
Secondly, coaches should focus on developing sources of self-efficacy in athletes . This can be achieved through communication and by encouraging athletes to include these sources in their self-talk. The sources and ways to promote them are as follows:
Performance Accomplishments: Remind athletes of past successes in similar tasks.
Vicarious Experiences: Allow athletes to observe someone similar to themselves successfully perform the same task, creating a belief of "if they can do it, why can't I?"
Verbal Persuasion: Express belief in the athletes and reassure them of their abilities. Modeling confidence is also effective.
Imaginal States: Encourage athletes to use imagery to visualize themselves succeeding.
Physiological and Emotional States: Help athletes view their arousal as positive, explaining that symptoms such as an increased heart rate are necessary for peak performance. Arousal management techniques, such as relaxation, may be beneficial.
Self-efficacy is closely related to perceived control. While self-efficacy pertains to an individual's confidence in their ability to succeed, perceived control refers to the belief that they will have the opportunity to showcase this ability. For instance, an individual may have low perceived control due to weather conditions or unfavorable decisions made by a referee, hindering their ability to achieve their goals regardless of their performance. Recent research suggests effective ways to increase perceived control [9,17]:
Focus on Controllable Aspects: Communicate with athletes about relevant controllable factors, such as their own tactics or technique.
Attribute Success to Individual Effort: Attribute positive changes or improvements to the individual's efforts rather than external factors, instilling the idea that they have the power to bring about the desired change if they put in the required effort.
Generate a Variety of Solutions: Work with athletes to develop multiple solutions to the same problem, increasing their perceived control by demonstrating that there are several ways to overcome adversity. This is linked to the promotion of "Langerian Mindfulness" , which has shown positive effects on perceived control in sports and education settings.
In summary, the suggestions provided encompass the support coaches can provide during training sessions to promote the three contributors to a challenge appraisal , thus fostering a consistent challenge mindset in individual athletes. This mindset is associated with improved sporting performance and contributes to the development of resilient individuals—qualities crucial for peak performance under pressure or when facing adversity.