What We Can Learn About Resilience From Elite Athletes
By Dr. Olivia A. Hurley
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
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: email@example.com or on Twitter @DrOliviaHurley. My very best wishes to you all as you ‘Strive to Thrive’ in your lives.
More from Dr. Olivia Hurley:
- Impact of Player Injuries on Teams’ Mental States, and Subsequent Performances, at the Rugby World Cup 2015
- Using Good Goal Setting to Re-Awaken Your Lust for Life
- Excellence Does Not Require Perfection
“The response to the mistake is far more interesting than the mistake itself.”
Dr. Olivia Hurley is a Chartered Psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI). She holds a BSc (Hons) in Psychology, an MSc and a PhD in Sport Psychology from University College Dublin (UCD). Olivia works as a Psychology and Sport Psychology Assistant Professor in the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT, Dun Laoghaire), and as a guest assistant professor in UCD. Olivia is a member of Sport Ireland’s panel of Approved Sport Psychology Consultants, and works with top athletes and performers to help them to enhance their performances. Olivia has published a number of academic papers and book chapters. Her new book on Sport Psychology in the Cyber World will be published by Routledge in Spring 2018. Olivia is also a contributor to the ‘A Lust for Life’ initiative founded by Niall Breslin. A former international sprinter and a long-standing juvenile Irish 60m indoor sprint record holder, Olivia is passionate about all things sport and psychology related.