Sports Science Quarterly – Q2 2023

Every quarter we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this edition we look at the latest research on resilience, pressure training, multidisciplinary teams, injury prevention, and much more.

As always, the full Sports Science Quarterly 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 Quarterly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Resilience in elite sport

Quick Summary – Resilience is an important, but often poorly understood, aspect of elite performance. This paper highlights some of the key aspects of resilience in a sporting setting, as well as furthering our understanding around what supports the development of resilience in sporting performers. 

Resilience is one of those terms that everyone uses, but perhaps doesn’t quite fully understand. Oftentimes, coaches will program “hard” training sessions—sometimes in the style of Special Forces selection tasks—in a misguided attempt to develop resilience in their athletes. Fortunately for us, researchers are becoming increasingly interested in exploring resilience, and its development, in elite sport settings. That’s where our first paper takes us this quarter, taking a look at the existing research (92 studies), before developing an evidence-based, sport-specific definition and model of what the researchers call sporting resilience. Let’s take a closer look. 

Firstly, the researchers define the general term of resilience as “the ability to withstand—and/or adapt—after an adversity”. The term adversity here can be challenging and quite broad; in non-sporting contexts, it could relate to aspects such as sexual abuse, violence, or death of a loved one. Anyone who competes on a regular basis in sport will experience some form of adversity. This could be a poor result, non-selection, or an injury, amongst many other things. Indeed, previous researchers have highlighted that it’s not a question of if an athlete will experience some form of adversity—including non-sports related—but when. As a result, it’s important to consider how athletes respond when this adversity occurs, with previous research demonstrating that many elite athletes frame their prior negative experiences as a key developmental driver. There are also some ambiguities regarding the research of resilience in sport; for example, is it merely a return to baseline following adversity, or is it a positive adaptation (i.e., does it add value)? Is there a link between mental toughness (“the unshakeable perseverance and conviction towards some goal despite pressure or adversity”) and resilience? Finally, in research, is it actually resilience itself that is measured, or some other outcome of antecedent?

That’s where this study comes in. The goals of the authors were to 1) summarize the current evidence base of resilience research in sport; 2) develop an effective definition of resilience in sport; 3) understand which aspects of resilience theory are underpinned by experimental findings; and 4) develop a model of resilience in sport. To do this, the authors first conducted a systematic review using key words, identifying 92 studies that met their inclusion criteria. Of these 92 studies, 71 were empirical studies, 12 were theoretical, and 7 were review studies. 

A major finding was that there are multiple different definitions of resilience used in research within sport; in fact, there were 25 different working definitions. Many of these definitions were taken from fields other than sports psychology, potentially limiting their validity to sport itself. The most common sporting definition, from a 2012 study, came from research conducted in Olympic Champions; as most people aren’t Olympic Champions, this definition may have limited validity when applied to the vast majority of other athletes. Most definitions were centered around three core concepts – adversity, positive adaptation, and bouncing back. Some of the other key components from the research were that sporting resilience was:

  • Dynamic – it changes through interactions between risk factors and protective factors; 
  • Environmentally adaptable – it is shaped by environmental conditions; “if circumstances change, resilience alters”; 
  • Interaction dominant – interactions with other people, other environments, and other circumstances can influence sporting resilience, as can changes within a given individual across time; 
  • Process trajectory – resilience changes over time based on the individual’s experiences and psychological resources; 
  • Metacognitive Capacity – sporting resilience can be modified by an individual’s ability to control their own mental processes, including perceived competence, insight, and beliefs, all of which combine to allow an individual to mobilise resources for resilience to develop; 
  • Emotional Capacity – whereby the athlete is aware of their emotional responses, and, to some extent, can intelligently and appropriately control those emotions during adversity; 
  • Behavioral capacity – whereby an athlete has the knowledge and skills to perform the behaviors that develop and demonstrate resilience; 
  • Equilibrium and positive adaptation – a state of balance due to the opposite forces of adversity (negative) and protective resources (positive) that allow both a return to pre-adversity levels of functioning, and, ideally, some form of positive adaptation. 

Alongside this, the researchers also developed a list of some factors that were deemed protective in resilience, allowing the athlete to adequately buffer adverse experiences, and, ideally, positively adapt:

  • Social Support (both perceived and real) – where the athlete has (the real or perceived) assistance from others, in the form of emotional and psychological support. 
  • Motivation and motivational climate – the environment developed by the coach and/or sporting organization that supports motivation in training and competition.
  • Meta-cognitive challenge appraisal – the individual’s psychological processes around planning, monitoring, and assessing their experience of adversity, and having the required psychological resources to grow from such adversity. 
  • A sense of meaning and/or belonging – whether the individual has a sense of meaning and/or belonging around their sense of self and their participation in sport. 
  • Self-regulation ability – the ability of an individual to understand, manage, and control their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, especially those disruptive towards the pursuit of their goals. 
  • Sense of control and/or mastery – a feeling of control (and, in some cases, mastery) over their life circumstances, both within and outside of sport. 
  • Optimism – an athlete having a sense of hope and belief that future outcomes will be favorable, desirable, and positive. 
  • Facilitative Environment – the physical and psychological environment of the athlete, where challenge and support are adequately balanced to optimize performance and the development of resilience. 
  • Passion – having a strong inclination (“love”) towards sport, whereby sport is important to the individual and where they will invest time and energy on a regular basis. 
  • Identity/self-insight – The mental model of the athlete’s self, that is developed through introspection and understanding of their qualities, beliefs, expressions, and standards. 

However, there is clearly a need to create a sport-specific definition of resilience, which was the next stage of this study. In doing this, the authors suggested that “sporting resilience is a person’s ability to evaluate what they think, feel, and do when faced with an adversity which allows them to operate at their previous level, and successfully adapt to persist”. They view sporting resilience as a process that is learned through interactions with the athlete’s environment, as highlighted above. Sporting resilience was also viewed as:

  • Dynamic – it is ever changing, and is influenced by factors such as previous experience and life stress. 
  • Interaction dominant – It is affected by the interaction between the individual and their environment, which can include other people (e.g., coach, training partners, performance psychologist). 
  • An iterative learning process – resilience is something that athletes develop in response to experiences, and can transfer from sport to general life (and vice versa). 
  • Having a “dynamic process trajectory” – meaning that it is subject to constraints determined by the individual’s protective factors (detailed above), which the performer utilizes to ensure that performance can be maximized. 

The authors bring all this together into a model of sporting resilience, which you can view here. In essence, when a performer experiences sporting adversity, this adversity is filtered through a variety of biopsychosocial protective factors, resulting in a resilience response. This response comes in four stages; a disruption of equilibrium (i.e., “things aren’t normal”), some form of depletion (e.g., “I’m emotionally drained by this”), the use of protective resources and/or metacognitive learning (e.g., “I’ve been here before, here’s how I can respond”), and, finally, a rebound with learning for future adversity. If the depletion is too great, and the individual has insufficient skills to buffer the adversity, there can be a “critical adaptation failure”, whereby the athlete cannot positively respond to the experience. Crucially, sporting resilience is an oscillatory process, moving up and down is response to each individual stressor or incident of adversity the athlete experiences—which can be multiple each day. The athlete’s response to these stressors develops over time, such that sporting resilience isn’t a linear process with a specific start and end point. 

Taking this all into a summary, it’s clear that interest in resilience within sport is high, and there has been a lot of research in this area over the last decade or so. We’re now at a point where we understand the key protective factors to enable athletes to positively respond to adversity, which, given the ups and downs of sport at all levels, is crucial in sporting their performance and overall wellbeing. 

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