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How Can Coaches Develop Resilience in Elite Athletes?

Resilience is defined by the American Psychological Association as the “process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.”  Researchers have also described it as “the role of mental processes and behavior in promoting personal assets and protecting the individual from potential negative effects of stressors.”  Disciplines from executive coaching and the military to sport psychology and young adult development have started to focus on resilience research and strategies.  The goal is simple–how do we help people continue on despite difficulties?

A goal of resilience training is not to avoid challenges.  Instead, the purpose is to minimize the effect and prepare to overcome setbacks.

Research in the latest edition of the journal, Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, outlines ways coaches can develop resilience in elite athletes.  The findings found 3 Proactive Strategies and 3 Reactive strategies.

The first Proactive Strategy, Foster Motivation, suggests coaches should develop athlete motivation.  The best strategy here is to set goals.  Goal setting creates a reason for an athlete to persevere in the face of hurdles.  The second strategy is Mental Preparation.  The development of mental skills can help athletes prepare for potential setbacks.  Rather than an athlete experiencing a challenge and not being adequately prepared, training in the anticipation of setbacks gives confidence and strategies in the eye of adversity.  The final Proactive Strategy is Promoting Life Balance.  The lives of athletes and other high achievers are becoming busier and busier.  This can contribute to injury and burnout.  Practices, training, classes, travel, etc.  The sport culture can encourage “more, more, more.”  “Load management” and the recent retirement of Andrew Luck might suggest some are reaching their personal ceiling.  Having support from others including activities that are non-sport based can actually be quite healthy.

The research also outlined Reactive Strategies, which help cope after a barrier has been experienced.  The first is Evaluating Setbacks.  This includes specific time designated to addressing the barrier.  A debriefing should address why it happened, how it can be prevented, and how to overcome it should it happen again.  Other non-sport activities such as an internship or part-time job could also be fruitful.  The second strategy is developing a positive mindset.  Re-framing negative experiences into posts is an example.  How does a person view an error?  As a negative experience for which a person should be punished and lose confidence, or a learning experience leading to a more equipped competitor?  The final strategy is “lesson-based.”  the reality is with a defeat something did not work correctly.  Asking questions such as “What happened?” and “How do I do better?” can empower an athlete.

What are other strategies?  The first I regularly see in my practice is the inability to move forward.  In addition to working with athletes I regularly see young men who are struggling or failing to “launch.”  These clients are typically in their late high school years into the college years, although sometimes difficulties moving into young adulthood extend into the mid- to late-20s.  Why does this happen?  One thing that happens is that this client group basically stops, and in some cases retreats.  A good example is a young man who is struggling in college.  His academic skills are under-developed and other skills such as time management might be limited.  As a result, these clients skip class, miss handing in assignments, and avoid taking advantage of on-campus services such as tutoring, advising, and counseling services.  I find many of these clients start to get behind and rather than working harder to get on track simply stop working.  Over time the student has academic problems and either drops out or fails out.  This cycles into coming home and basically avoiding life such as seeking a full-time job or career track.  Continuing to move forward despite being behind can help the person to get back on track.

A second strategy developing the right mindset.  When a setback occurs, how is it viewed?  Those with resilience view it simply as that–a setback.  The right mindset includes taking responsibility for one’s actions, identifying changes, and developing the belief that things can change.  This in contrast to the view that a setback is now insurmountable and one should simply stop.

My next strategy is to control what can be controlled.  A conflict with friends or an instructor might have little room for influence.  However, a person can say “I’m going to study tonight from 7-9 in a quiet area in the library; this is a situation where a person has much control.  The next suggestion below outlines factors that can be easily controlled.

My final suggested strategy is to get back to basics.  When trouble arises a person can maintain basics such as exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep.  It’s hard to persevere when one is fatigued and under-nourished.  Focusing on these basics can provide the foundation for a person to work through personal adversity.

Dr. Rick Van Havern

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