Sports Science Monthly – June 2020

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In the June edition we take a deep dive into several articles on building mental toughness and resilience in training. Mental toughness is a term that is thrown around a lot, but without many coaches knowing exactly what it is or how to train it. We then look at the importance of individualized recovery, and how coaches commonly monitor athletes.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Mental toughness and resilience in sport

» Quick summary: Mental toughness and resilience are important psychological skills for athletes to develop. In this extended research review, I explore some of the key research papers in this area, which allow us to better define both mental toughness and resilience, and get an idea around how best to develop both in our own practice. Importantly, building these skills in athletes is not merely to purview of the sports psychologist, but something that coaches—who work with athletes on an almost daily basis—can also assist with.

Recently, I’ve been doing a bit of thinking around some key psychological traits and skills elite athletes have, and how we might be able to develop these skills in developing athletes. One such skill is mental toughness, which strikes me as something that many people are believed to possess, but that we find it difficult to define, and, as a result, quantify.

Attributes of mental toughness

This was the problem faced by a group of researchers back in 2002, who asked “What is this thing called mental toughness?” In their study, the authors held interviews with 10 male and female international athletes who had competed in a major sporting event (such as the Olympic Games), with the athletes all coming from a wide range of sports. They were asked questions to explore what they believed mental toughness entailed, and were then asked to rank the various constructs of mental toughness in a hierarchical manner.

From the interviews, the authors were able to develop a definition of mental toughness, which they defined as:

“[Mental toughness is] having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer. Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”

As a result, being mentally tough was seen as allowing the athlete to gain an advantage over their competitors, and typically required the athlete to possess skill—either acquired or innate—around remaining more determined, focused, confident and in control when under pressure.

As a result of the interviews, a list of 12 mental toughness attributes were developed, and then ranked by the athletes in a hierarchical order. These 12 attributes, in order, were:

  1. Having an unshakable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals. Essentially, the athletes felt that, if you wanted to be the best in the world, you had to believe you were capable of that.
  2. Bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed. When the athlete has a set back, they need to be able to recover quickly, refocus and perform.
  3. Having an unshakeable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents. The athlete believes that they are better—either due to practice or innate talent—than their competitors.
  4. Having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed. Ideally, a mentally tough performer has an over-powering desire for success, and is strongly intrinsically motivated.
  5. Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions. The ideal performer is able to remain fully focused on their task at hand, in spite of what is going on around them.
  6. Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events. As an athlete, many things are outside of your control; don’t get unsettled by things that are uncontrollable or unexpected.
  7. Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, whilst still maintaining technique and effort under distress in training and competition. Mentally tough performers are comfortable with being uncomfortable, both physically and mentally.
  8. Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable, and knowing that you have to cope with it. All performers experience anxiety, and this is especially true when the stakes are high. The mentally tough performer can tolerate this, putting it aside in order to perform at their best.
  9. Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances. During competition, you can’t focus on what your competitors are or are not doing.
  10. Thriving on the pressure of competition. Mentally tough performers can rise their game when needed, in order to ensure success.
  11. Remaining fully focused in the face of personal life distractions. Mentally tough performers are able to block out any personal problems they might be having in order to best focus on their competition. They don’t allow personal circumstances, good or bad, distract them from their goals.
  12. Switching a sport focus on or off as required. Top athletes are able control their focus so that they’re not heavily stimulated, or in competition mode, away from the track. This allows them to be able to recover sufficiently, supporting their performance at the next competition.

This paper by Jones and colleagues is clearly hugely important and influential, as it allows us to define what mental toughness is, and then demonstrates some clear underpinning behaviors of mental toughness. By having these clearly articulated traits, we’re able to tell whether the athletes we’re working with are demonstrating them, giving us insight into their true level of mental toughness. If they’re not demonstrating mentally tough behaviors, then the simple definitions of the under-pinning behaviors listed above allow us to provide guidance as to what is required from the to develop into a mentally tough performer. Importantly, mental toughness is not just something the athlete can demonstrate during competition, but also in daily life, allowing them to train at the level required to deliver an elite performance.

Having defined what mental toughness is, as well as some of the behaviors that underpin it, we move onto two review articles, both published in 2014, which provide some additional—and highly practical—insights for us as coaches and support staff. The first, authored by Galli and Gonzalez and published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, explores psychological resilience in sport, with the authors stating, “the question is not if an athlete will encounter adversity in sport, but instead, how will they respond when adversity occurs?” The sources of adversity in sport are wide and varied, including those that happen within individual matches or competitions—such as missing a shot, or losing a race—and those that occur over longer periods, such as injury, non-selection, and financial pressures. Mental toughness and resilience are slightly different, but also highly related; in the context of sport, resilience is broadly defined as a “better-than-expected adjustment to difficult circumstances”. Given that difficult circumstances are very common in high level sport, being able to demonstrate resilience, and its associated behaviours, is clearly of importance.

Stressors experienced by athletes

The second paper from 2014, authored by Sarkar and Fletcher, aimed to review the stressors experienced by athletes, as well as examining a multitude of potential protective factors. In their paper, Sarkar and Fletcher identify key groups of stressors, including:

  • Competitive stressors – “the environmental demands associated primarily and directly with competitive performance”. This group includes training preparation, injuries, pressure, expectations, rivalry, and under-performance.
  • Organizational stressors – “the environmental demands associated primarily and directly with the organization within which an individual is operating”. These can primarily be placed into four key groups;
    • Leadership and personal issues: This includes aspects such as the coach’s behaviors and interactions, along with their personality and attitude. This in turn can affect the expectations placed on the team, which, added to external expectations from the fans, media, and perhaps even team/player/athlete individual history, provides a key stressor. In the case of athletics, governing bodies would also fall into this category, so uncertainty and anxiety around funding decisions can become a key stressor too.
    • Cultural and team issues: Here, the behaviors and actions of teammates/training partners, including how they interact and communicate, has the potential to act as a stressor. The amount of social support each individual team member feels can potentially serve to reduce the perception of stressors. Also included here are individual personalities (which can be complimentary or lead to a clash) and cultural norms.
    • Logistical and environmental issues: This category includes things such as access to training and competition facilities, the weather, travel and accommodation, technology, and the rules and regulations of the sport. For example, in athletics, a long call room time—or at least longer than what the athlete is used to—can potentially be a significant stressor at a major competition.
    • Performance and personal issues: These include aspects such as injuries, career transitions, and financial stressors.
  • Personal stressors – “the environmental demands associated primarily and directly with personal “non-sporting” life events”. This can include things such as family issues, a lack of work-life balance (including school and academic work), and the death or illness of significant others.

Having identified the potential sources of stress within an athlete’s life, the next step is to understand what some of the key protective factors potentially are. Sarkar and Fletcher list these as:

  1. Positive personality: Olympic Gold Medallists appear to possess a variety of positive personality-based characteristics which increase their resilience, including optimism, hope, adaptive perfectionism, and being proactive.
    1. Adaptive perfectionism is a “healthy” perfectionism that is characterized by the athlete holding high personal standards and striving for excellence, whilst at the same time being minimally concerned with mistakes.
    2. Optimism can either be trait-based—in which it is a personality type that typically expects successful outcomes—or utilized as a method of explaining positive and negative events. Optimistic athletes have been shown to demonstrate lower levels of anxiety prior to competition, enhanced emotional adjustment during the competition itself, and being able to better cope once underperformance has occurred.
    3. Individuals that are characterized as being high in hope can often envision alternative routes out of, or strategies to overcome, a problem or obstacle, and are dedicated to pursuing their goals.
    4. Proactivity refers to athletes who are more likely to take actions to influence their environment; they identify opportunities, show initiative, and persevere in their actions to bring about meaningful change.
  2. Motivation: Being optimally motivated has been demonstrated to allow athletes to withstand both stress and pressure in sport; Olympic champions, for example, are highly motivated to “be the best they can be”. These champions valued challenging competition opportunities, and viewed them as crucial in their development towards the top.
  3. Confidence: Defined as “the degree of certainty one possesses about his/her ability to be successful in sport”, confidence is an important part of the resilience-stress-performance relationship. Confidence can come from a variety of areas, including the coach, teammates, previous experiences, visualization, and preparation.
  4. Focus: This refers to an ability to exert deliberate mental effort onto what is important in a given situation. Olympic champions have been shown to be able to better focus on the key cues in their performance environment, and maintain that focus for extended periods of time. However, whilst focused, they’re also able to maintain decent levels of situational awareness—i.e. they don’t just limit their focus to one or two things, but are able to still be aware of the bigger picture.
  5. Perceived social support: Olympic champions have been found to perceive higher levels of quality social support, which serves to protect them from the pressures of elite support. There are many sources of this social support, including family, coach, teammates and support staff. This social support itself has different sub-categories, including comfort and security via emotional support, an increased sense of self-esteem from esteem support, advice and guidance from informational support, and then assistance in the form of tangible support (e.g. money or resources).

Knowing and understanding the key driving constructs of mental toughness and resilience then allows for the development of key interventions to increase these aspects in elite athletes. Returning to the Galli and Gonzalez paper, the authors review some of the early research in this area. One study, for example, developed a resilience training program for developing athletes, which was focused on developing individual optimism skills. This was comprised of giving athletes the skills to evaluate personal assumptions (i.e. what are they thinking in a given situation, such as “I always choke when taking a penalty when the game is tight”), disrupting negative thoughts (i.e. being aware of when their thoughts are becoming negative, and using positive self-talk to overcome it), and decatastrophizing (i.e. trying to find optimism in a setback). This initial study was carried out on 20 athletes, 16 of whom then went on to win a major championship medal for the first time. Other studies have explored resilience and mental toughness development in the military, again with often positive results.

Framework for developing resilience

In 2016, Fletcher and Sarkar, two authors of a paper outlined above, put together a framework for an evidence-based approach to develop psychological resilience in athletes. The framework was based around three main areas; personal qualities, facilitative environment, and challenge mindset, which are detailed below.

The personal qualities aspect comprised the cornerstone of this program, with the targeted personal qualities often echoing what has been written above. These included holding high personal standards (i.e. perfectionism), holding positive expectations for the future (i.e. optimism), creating or controlling a situation (i.e. being proactive), and having a belief in one’s own ability (i.e. being self-confident). The aim, therefore, of this type of training is to optimize an individual’s personal qualities such that they are better able to withstand the variety of stressors they encounter within sport.

Low Support High Support
High Challenge Unrelenting Environment

  • Unhealthy competition
  • Leader ridicules underperformance
  • Blame culture
  • Conflict
  • Feelings of isolation
  •  Increased feelings of stress and isolation
  • Little care for well-being
  • “Sink or swim”
Facilitative Environment

  • Support challenge
  • Individual input into goal setting
  • Individual ownership of performance
  • Seeking of challenges to drive development
  • Desire for feedback
  • Psychological safety
  • Healthy competition
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Celebration of success
  • “We’re in this together”
High Challenge Stagnant Environment

  • Unseen leaders and managers
  • Lack of stimulation
  • Culture of mediocrity
  • Good performance occurs by accident, not by design
  • Individuals are apathetic and unguided.
Comfortable Environment

  • Over-caring “parent like” culture
  • People are “nice”
  • “Comfortable”
  • Bored
  • Avoidance of difficult conversations
  • Lack of personal development
  • No addressing of underperformance
  • “A happy performer will be a great performer”

Figure 1 – A 2 x 2 matrix outlining the different environments that a performer may find themselves in (detailed in the text below).

Facilitative environment refers to a setting or context that supports the athlete in the development of the psychological resilience – specifically, there must be a balance between the appropriate level of challenge, and the support provided to athletes. This echoes the “Rocky Road” theory of talent development (often summarized as “talent needs trauma”), which states that adversity is an important component of athlete growth, provided the athlete holds the required skills, and gets the required support, to move through it. This led the authors to identify four different environments in a 2 x 2 matrix, which formed a high challenge, high support; high challenge, low support; low challenge, low support; and low challenge, high support environment, as detailed above. The balance between challenge and support should occur over a period of time, as opposed to at any single time point—for example, an athlete may be challenged via competition, and then provided support in the days following. This opens the door for training sessions that invoke a stress response, which aim to ensure the athlete can perform under pressure, that is then followed by a period of recovery. Training is this way should allow the athlete to better perform under the pressure of important and stressful competitions. This type of training is referred to by the authors as “Pressure Inurement Training”, whereby the challenge on the individual can be enhanced through increasing the demand of the stressor (e.g. by making them more frequent or more intense), and by increasing the significance of each appraisal (e.g. selection trial, pass/fail, importance through goal setting). As always, this type of training should be designed to best mimic the environment the athlete is required to perform in.

Finally, we come to the challenge mindset – can the athlete positively evaluate and interpret the pressure they are under, filtering through their individual resources and emotions—which are a product of their personal qualities and developmental environment—to perform? This can be developed and supported through the use of thought regulation strategies, in which the athlete uses a key word to evoke a response. For example, the key word “stop” allows the athlete to stop moving down the path of negative thinking. The word “park” suggests the athletes should write down the negative thoughts, to deal with later. “Confront” allows the athlete to challenge their feelings by exploring whether they are rational (something I often used in this scenario was thinking “if person X can do this, why can’t I? For example, prior to my first time in a bobsleigh, I was very nervous, but I just thought about the number of people who did it successfully, and realized I would likely be fine).

The authors then explore the implementation of this framework in practice. In doing so, I think they make a really salient point; the language that people use around pressure, and pressure-related events, can set them up for success or failure. This language is a shared language, whereby the words used by coaches, support staff, national governing bodies, parents, teammates, etc., all influence the individual’s perception and approach to the high pressure situation. As a coach (or parent, or administrator), you have to be aware that the words you use on a regular basis influence you athlete’s perception of the challenge ahead. Referring to a challenge as “impossible”, complaining that an organizing committee have scheduled a competition in a way that “prevents your athlete from having success”—all things coaches have genuinely told me in the last couple of months—is not language that builds athlete resilience and supports success. The words you use matter; choose them wisely. That way, you can develop cultural norms around how athletes within your training group respond to pressure.

In summary of this article, the key is to develop specific performance traits in your athletes by promoting some of the key personal qualities outlined above, and ensuring the environment you choose to develop your athletes in is conducive to that development. In addition, the language you use as a coach, and how you personally respond to challenge and stressful situations, will drive cultural norms within your training group – so make sure they are positive norms! It is very rare that I read paper which I get genuinely excited about, but this paper is honestly one of the best I’ve read. If you can track down the full text (and you can ask the authors here) I’d encourage you to do so.

Practical experiences developing resilient athletes

Not to be outdone by Fletcher and Sarkar, Gonzalez and Galli—again, who met earlier (above)—teamed up with another researcher, Nicole Detling, to reflect on their practical experiences in developing resilience in elite athletes. Gonzalez, Detling and Galli describe their model as:

As a result, in their framework, we need to (1) develop, cultivate, and support key protective factors; (2) build qualities and behaviors that support resilience; (3) be exposed to a stressor; (4) adapt, and be better able to tolerate a stressor the next time around. This is similar in content to the Fletcher and Sarkar paper—and includes many of the components discussed previously—but it serves to reinforce some of the key concepts. The key box, to my mind, is number 3; it’s being away that exposure to adversity or a stressor is an important stimulus for growth, and should not be avoided, but that we should graduate exposure to that stressor for the current resilience level of the athlete.

In summary, then, resilience and mental toughness are two important traits that we need to develop in athletes. High level sport is characterized by disappointment; in a race of 8 people, only one can win, and so large numbers of people are often disappointed with how they perform. Add into this issues such as injury and lack of system support, along with other stressors typically found in life—financial, relationships, or the health of a close family member—and it’s obvious that being able to deal with these issues well is crucial. Importantly, stress, trauma, and disappointment are potent stimulators of athlete growth and development, and so, rather than avoiding these unfavorable situations, we need to develop athletes with the skills to grow from this trauma. There isn’t a simple black box that allows us to do this, but we always have to be cultivating these mental skills in our athletes, through structured development with sports psychologists, the promotion of ideal behaviors and environment, use of language, and the design of realistic, high pressure training scenarios. By utilizing many of the ideas discussed here, we can be more confident of supporting our athletes towards performance success.

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