Developing Resilience in Athletes


What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and the use of personal qualities to withstand pressure.

It often said ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. But we all react to adversity in different ways. While some seem to be able to push through hardship, for others it can be more of a struggle. In a stressful fast-changing world it can help stave off mental illness while enhancing performance.

So how can athletes and coaches train these skills to withstand the ‘pressure-cooker’ of the athletic environment?

Sport breeds a ‘win at all costs’ attitude. However, what many don’t realise is that winning often has much to do with sacrifice and vulnerability as it does toughness and mental determination. It is a common belief that athletes are simply born with exceptional genetic gifts and super-human qualities, but athletes know better than anyone that winning is all in the mind. Thus, coaches and athletes need to monitor, train and develop an athlete’s psychological skills.

The constant training, performance and selection, brings huge mental resilience challenges for athletes. Recently the importance of duty of care that sport has towards athletes has led to the acknowledgement that mental resilience is not something that athletes and coaches naturally possess and should be developed in the same way physical resilience is built

The environment plays a major role in building resilience, this blog will explore the use of practices that facilitate the development of psychological resilience.

Resilience & the environment

Psychological resilience is a mental and emotional concept displayed in individual’s actions, it can be influenced by a range of environmental factors such as social, cultural or occupational sources.

Resilience should be looked at as a capability that can be developed through person-environment interactions. Athletes do not live or compete within a vacuum; due to this, the environment in which a player grows and develops requires particular attention.

But what do these mean to athletes and coaches?


· Having high expectations of people

· Increasing accountability and responsibility

· Stretching outside of their comfort zones


· Enabling people to develop their personal qualities

· Building trust

· Providing guidance and feedback

The images above show that there are 4 identified environments that can be created by leaders:

1. Unrelenting (High challenge-Low support)

2. Facilitative (High challenge-High support)

3. Stagnant (Low challenge-Low support)

4. Comfortable (Low challenge-High support)

Each environment is characterised by different features, but for the development of resilience, optimal performance and wellbeing, a facilitative environment is key.

What does a facilitative environment look like?

World-class hockey coach Ric Charlesworth perfectly summarised what the ideal coaching environment looks like for optimal performance and welfare for athletes:

“The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled”

Suggesting that in order to facilitate both excellence and welfare in elite sport, the environment must balance both high levels of support and challenge. Therefore, coaches need to have an awareness of their athlete’s as an unrelenting environment can be detrimental to an athlete’s well being.

What does this mean for coaches & athletes?

Adopt a multi-level approach – In order to develop resilience in elite sport, particularly creating and maintaining a facilitating environment, a multi-level approach is essential. One main way to achieve this is through motivational and developmental feedback.

Train under pressure — Becoming well adapted to dealing with highly pressurised situations in training enables athletes to be prepared for anything within a competitive situation.

Lean on each other — Support from teammates, coaches and significant others are invaluable in the highly pressurised sporting environment. Coaches and athletes need to ensure an environment is created in which there is no stigma attached to asking for help.

Challenge yourself & don’t be afraid to fail – Mirroring the physical aspects of sport, athletes need to increase the stress of stimuli in order to adapt and improve. Athletes should learn from failure and how to ‘get back up’ after a failure.

Final thoughts

In ending, it is worth emphasising that developing resilience in sport, particularly creating and maintaining a facilitative environment, requires a multi-level approach. Leadership, management, coaching, support staff and parents all have important roles in creating and role-modelling the desired culture, through appropriate motivational and developmental feedback.

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