Sports Science Quarterly – Q2 2024

Every quarter we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this edition we look at the latest research on talent development environments, deliberate practice, reducing hamstring injuries, developing hardy coaches, 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 Quarter’s Topics

Developing resilience for the individual, team, and organization

Quick Summary – Resilience is an important component of both performance and wellbeing. Develoing resilience in athletes is, therefore, crucial. In this longer form review, I first look at how resilience can be developed in individual athletes, before exploring how coaches can development resilient teams. Finally, I look at organisational resilience, highlighting the importance of leadership and environment—two aspects that are crucial to sports coaches—in the development of resilience across all levels.

This quarter I’m going to take a different approach with a long form article, which enables us to take a closer look at a concept which is likely known to most coaches and athletes, but quite poorly understood – that of resilience. This is a term which has become part of popular parlance, and I’m sure most of us would have a good idea as to what resilience looks like when we see it. However, we might not know how to develop it, and, in recent years, research has looked at how resilience can form in both teams, and, more broadly, organisations. In this extended section, we’ll take a look at resilience from an individual standpoint, then explore how resilience can support team performance, before taking a closer look at an emerging concept – that of organisation resilience. To do this, we’ll look at one key paper for each topic, and discuss what this means in practice.

Getting Started – Individual Resilience

First up, we’re going to take a look at something that the authors of a landmark paper refer to as mental fortitude, but is often called resilience (or even, in some circumstances, mental toughness – although this latter concept is often challenged from an academic standpoint). Whatever we call this trait, it is useful for athletes to possess it – they have to perform at their best when it matters, typically under pressure and the backdrop of stress, and so being able to withstand this stress and pressure increases the chance of a successful outcome. Athletes are also likely to suffer a variety of setbacks—such as underperformance, defeat, or injury—and being able to absorb, and, hopefully, adapt to these setbacks is an additional crucial skill for athletes.

Whilst we tend to only consider resilience from the perspective of athletes, coaches also need to be resilient. There are a variety of reasons for this; from an organisational perspective, coaches can often be subject to a variety of stressors – will their employment continue? Do they have a good relationship with the Head Coach / Performance Director? Is there a culture of blame? Are decisions made by the “big bosses” sufficiently fast enough to enable effective coaching? Alongside these organisational stressors, coaches are also performers in their own right, and they have to be able to regulate their emotions when coaching at major championships in order to best support their athletes.

Based on the above, when it comes to resilience, coaches need to be aware of a few things. Firstly, a working knowledge of what resilience is enhances their ability to develop it. Secondly, knowing how to develop it in athletes will better support their performance under pressure, and sustain their performance over time. Finally, coaches can then use this knowledge to cultivate their own ability to be resilient and perform with pressure. All three aspects are, therefore, crucial in supporting the performance of individuals over time.

Now, onto the paper, which is Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success, authored by David Fletcher and Mustafa Sarkar, and published back in 2016 in the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action. These two authors are big hitters in the field of sports psychology; Fletcher was Director of Sport Psychology Services for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and Sarkar has consulted as a psychologist for organisations such as Google, the Premier League, and a variety of Olympic Committees.  In their paper, Fletcher and Sarkar:

  • Describe what psychological resilience is;
  • Outline how to develop it;
  • Provide recommendations around key interventions.

Let’s dive in.

Psychological Resilience

Fletcher and Sarkar define psychological resilience as “the ability to use personal qualities to withstand pressure”. Historically, the term resilience was used to refer to a return to baseline following an event; now, it’s used more in terms of resilience being a protective factor, and, in some cases, definitions of resilience also require there to be a growth or adaption aspect—i.e., the athlete is improved as a result of the stressor. As such, we can view resilience as being both protective (which the authors define as robust resilience, where an individual can maintain their performance and wellbeing when under pressure) and reactive (which they define as rebound resilience, where the performer is able to bounce back to their baseline following exposure to a stressor). Resilience, like any psychological characteristic and skill, can change over time, meaning that coaches and performance psychologists are able to develop this quality in athletes.

Developing Mental Fortitude

Within Fletcher and Sarkar’s model of resilience, there are three key pillars; personal qualities, facilitative environment, and challenge mindset. Each of these interact to support an individual’s ability to withstand pressure.

Personal Qualities

These are defined by Fletcher and Sarkar as the “psychological factors that protect an individual from negative consequences”. These personal qualities are essentially comprised of personality factors (“psychological qualities that contribute to an individual’s enduring and distinctive patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving”), which are somewhat stable, and psychological skills (“cognitive-affective techniques and processes that are strategically used by an individual to enhance and optimise his or her functioning”), which are more malleable and trainable. Personality characteristics provide the base of the pyramid, upon which psychological skills are then laid upon, leading to desirable outcomes. At any point in time, stressors and adversity can place a load on these personality characteristics and psychological skills, whilst social and environmental resources can assist the individual in buffering these stressors.

Some examples of the personality characteristics identified by Fletcher and Sarkar as being supportive of resilience include:

  • Extraversion – being outgoing and seeking attention from others;
  • Conscientiousness – concerned about doing things correctly;
  • Perfectionist – high personal standards;
  • Optimistic – positive expectations of the future;
  • Narcissistic – a grandiose view of themselves;
  • Competitive – compares themselves to others;
  • Proactive – actively controls situations;
  • Intrinsically motivated – enjoys undertaking tasks and activities;
  • Ego orientated – wants to demonstrate competence over others;
  • Task orientated – wants to demonstrate competence through improvement;
  • Self-confident – a high level of belief in themselves.

In terms of the key psychological skills that underpin resilience, Fletcher and Sarkar highlight:

  • The ability to plan for both expected and unexpected events (e.g., scenario planning);
  • Effective goal setting;
  • The ability to regulate arousal;
  • The ability to direct their attention appropriately;
  • The ability to direct their thoughts and mental images (e.g., use self talk or mental rehearsals)
  • Having an awareness of themselves, others, and the environment (e.g., self awareness)

As such, the goal of a mental fortitude training program is to optimise an individual’s qualities so that they are able to withstand any stressors they may experience at a given moment. Whilst it isn’t possible to withstand every stressor (every individual has a breaking point), the goal is to move the breaking point along the stressor continuum as much as feasible.

Facilitative Environment

Whilst personal qualities (i.e. personality and skills) play a huge role in an individual’s capacity for resilience, the environment in which they find themselves also plays a crucial role. Fletcher and Sarkar define environments in four different ways, varying in terms of challenge (high and low) and support (high and low):

  • Unrelenting Environment (High Challenge, Low Support) – here, leaders will often create a psychologically unsafe environment by exposing and ridiculing under-performers, cultivating a blame culture when standards are not met. This often leads to both unhealthy competition, along with an avoidance mentality (can’t make mistakes if you don’t do anything). This often leads to there being little care for wellbeing, with team members feeling isolated and with a high risk of conflict. Any performance that does occur in this environment is generally unsustainable, with high levels of stress and burnout likely.
  • Stagnant Environment (Low Challenge, Low Support) – these environments are characterised by aspects such as low levels of stimulation, with individuals just going through the motions, and a culture of mediocrity. Typically, individuals are unsure as to what action to take (or just don’t care), and good performances are generally by accident as opposed to design.
  • Comfortable Environment (Low Challenge, High Support) – a comfortable environment is one characterised by “niceness” – everyone is kind, things feel cosy, and there is an over-caring, parent-like culture. This leads to people working well within their comfort zones, being complacent and bored. Generally, there is a lot of ambiguity around what needs to happen, difficult conversations are avoided, achievement is not celebrated, underperformance is not addressed, and there is no professional development in place. Such environments are stifling for people who want to be stretched.
  • Facilitative Environment (High Challenge, High Support) – this type of environment, which you won’t be surprised to read is the optimal one for performance, is characterised by individuals having input to, and taking ownership of, their individual and team goals. These individuals also seek out challenges to support their development, and desire constructive feedback. The environment is psychologically safe, where sensible risk-taking is encouraged, with individuals encouraged to learn from mistakes and failure. There are good levels of support from all members, and success is recognised and celebrated against the backdrop of healthy levels of competition.

Based on the above, a key role for coaches (and Team Leaders, Performance Directors, etc.) is to create facilitative environments. This can be difficult, as there is the risk of missing the support aspect and becoming unrelenting, or missing the challenge aspect, and becoming comfortable. It’s important to note that challenge and support don’t always need to be perfectly balanced, but can oscillate over time – periods of high challenge/low support can be used to create pressure, with the support than “over” provided afterwards to allow recovery. One way to achieve this is termed pressure inurement training, where the environment is manipulated to temporarily evoke a stress-related response to support the ability of individuals to maintain performance under stress. Pressure inurement training involves gradually increasing the pressure by manipulating the environment by either increasing the demand of the stressors (through aspects such as type and frequency) or the significance of the appraisals. Individuals may react to this increased pressure in one of two ways; they may react with negative outcomes (e.g., a loss of self-confidence), which requires increased motivational feedback and support, or they may react with positive outcomes (e.g., increased self-confidence), in which case they have likely adapted to that level of pressure, and are ready for exposure to further challenge.

Challenge Mindset

The final pillar for Fletcher and Sarkar is that of a challenge mindset, where individuals have the ability to positively evaluate and interpret the pressure they encounter, as well as their ability to cope with this pressure. In essence, this is similar to cognitive reframing; instead of viewing challenge as a negative, it is instead viewed as something positive, an opportunity to deliver. An example from my sporting career is how I learned to deal with performance anxiety; instead of viewing it as a bad thing, my sports psychologist supported me in viewing anxiety as a good thing – it meant that the race was important, I was invested in it, and the physiological response I was experiencing would enable me to perform better. A challenge mindset is also similar to a growth mindset, where a challenge is viewed as an opportunity to grow, as opposed to a threat.

To optimise an individual’s challenge mindset, we need to ensure they have the personal qualities in place, and are placed in a facilitative environment. Each individual also needs to believe they have the resources available to cope with the presented challenge, and be able to interpret their own thoughts and feelings as facilitative towards their desired performance outcome. This means that any mental fortitude training program needs to:

  • Help individuals positively evaluate and interpret the pressure they encounter;
  • Positively evaluate and interpret their own resources, thoughts, and emotions;
  • Change negative appraisals into positive thinking.

This last point is crucial, and is why developing the mental skills, and having the environmental support, to change negative appraisals is an important foundation of mental fortitude training. Individuals need to develop the ability to notice any negative thoughts they are experiencing, and then realise they have the choice about how they react to those events, including their thought processes. This requires overall good self regulation strategies, and, in this particular instance, effective thought regulation strategies.

In this section of the paper, Fletcher and Sarkar highlight some common negative thinking patterns, which they describe as:

  • End of the world – where the individual catastrophises and blows things out of proportion;
  • It’s all the same – where an individual overgeneralises by applying their own thoughts and feelings across all people and situations;
  • Yes, but… – where positive events are twisted into negative ones;
  • Second guessing – where the individual makes assumptions about what others are thinking, with negative repercussions for themselves;
  • It can’t be done – where the individual looks to the future and predicts a negative outcome;
  • Black and white – where the world is viewed as two discrete poles, with no room for grey.
  • Taking things personally – where failures and/or negative feedback is viewed as a reflection of their own shortcomings;
  • It has to be perfect – where any mistake is viewed as a failure;

When an individual is stuck in a negative thought pattern, Fletcher and Sarkar recommend utilising the following thought regulation strategies:

  • Stop – where the individual is assertive in stopping negative thinking, perhaps by utilising self talk such as “stop” or “take control”.
  • Verbalise – where the individual exposes their negativity by telling someone about their thinking; it helps if the person they are speaking to (e.g., the coach) can confront any irrational thoughts and support a challenge mindset.
  • Park – where the individual “parks” their negative thoughts be writing them down, and then throwing them away or coming back to them later.
  • Confront – where the individual challenges their irrational thinking by asking questions (e.g., do I have all the information? What is the worst that could happen?).
  • Replace – when the negative thoughts have been eliminated, minimised, and/or parked, the individual needs to replace them with positive thoughts. These thoughts should focus on what is within their control, should be focused on the present, and should be positive. They can, if the thoughts are especially negative, be distracting, pulling the individual out of the negativity loop.

Pulling it all together

As highlighted above, Fletcher and Sarkar’s model for developing mental fortitude has three key aspects; personal qualities, facilitative environment, and challenge mindset. In their concluding remarks, they caution against developing each of these aspects in isolation. For example, many of the psychological characteristics for developing excellence focus on personal qualities, but will not be maximally effective if changes to the environment and the individual’s mindset are also supported. The authors also highlight the role that language plays in the development of mental fortitude; we need to strive for a challenge culture, where pressure is viewed as an opportunity to perform, as opposed to a threatening culture, where pressure creates a fear of failure. Coaches can utilise stories of other athletes thriving when under pressure, and positively re-enforce examples of resilience when they see it with the athletes they work with.

They also call out what resilience is not. This is important, because resilience is often conflated with “being tough”, which can then lead to unhealthy behaviours. Fletcher and Sarkar highlight that resilience really isn’t about placing someone’s health or wellbeing at risk; for example, playing through pain, being stressed but not talking about it, or continuing when success is futile. Celebrating such dysfunctional behaviours as positive, or ignoring/isolating those with mental health issues, does not develop overall resilience, and certainly isn’t an example of a facilitative environment.

Finally, an aspect of resilience is growth following adversity. This means, by definition, that an individual will have to experience some form of failure (and/or difficultly), and, when they do, they should not be punished as a result. Adversity can be a trigger for individuals to make important changes, and so by providing support when it is most needed, we can develop resilient individuals in the future.

Developing Resilience Within Teams

In a follow up article from 2022, Mustafa Sarkar (along with Abigail Page), one of the authors of the Mental Fortitude Training paper, added some key contexts around individual resilience, and also began to explore team resilience. In this more recent paper, Sarkar and Page highlighted that resilience is not about the absence or suppression of negative emotions, but about being able to manage those emotions, and our response to them. It’s also not about positive thinking, but a way of thinking differently about a specific situation. These clarifications are important, because they enable us to have a common language when discussing resilience—which, given that it has now transcended into buzzword status, is crucial.

Sarkar and Page also draw on work from the US Military to illuminate seven practical skills (discussed in the book The Resilience Factor) that can help develop a challenge mindset:

  • Learning your ABCs – here, athletes learn to recognise an Activating event, their Beliefs about that event, and the emotional and behavioural Consequences of those thoughts. This ensures athletes can begin to understand their emotional (and cognitive) response to events, and start to regulate them.
  • Avoiding thinking traps – these include aspects such as jumping to conclusions, tunnel vision, magnifying some issues and minimising others, personalising (i.e., taking things personally), overgeneralising, and emotional reasoning.
  • Detecting icebergs – icebergs, in this instance, refer to deeply held beliefs. This could include “failure is a sign of weakness”, which will lead to a negative thought spiral and a loss of resilience.
  • Challenging beliefs – challenge why we hold certain beliefs and thought processes, and whether these are both rational and helpful.
  • Putting it in perspective – primarily focused on minimising catastrophic thinking, this calls for highlighting worst and best case scenarios for a given issue, and determining just how likely each are in reality, as well as what we would do should either eventuate.
  • Calming and focusing – through being able to manage your energy utilising techniques such as controlled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and positive imagery.
  • Fight back against counterproductive thoughts in real-time – through utilising skills including distraction techniques and calming/focusing techniques discussed above.

Sarkar and Page also discuss the concept of team resilience, which is defined as a “dynamic psychosocial process which protects a group of individuals from the potential negative effect of the stressors they collectively encounter”. The authors view this as being comprised of five key psychosocial processes:

  • Transformational Leadership – where a given leader, often a coach, uses a variety of inspirational methods to positively influence the motivation, morale, and performance of the team during challenging situations. This can be done through focusing on three key behaviours:
    • Vision – where the leader identifies and articulates an optimistic vision for the future, and express confidence that this vision is attainable.
    • Challenge – where high standards are reinforced and shared, goals are set to stretch team members, and team members are encouraged to self-manage and solve problems
    • Support – where co-operation and teamwork are promoted, individuals are respected as people and not commodities, and encouragement is provided.
  • Shared Leadership – it’s also important that team members can lead each other. This spreads ownership and accountability across the team during periods of stress. One way to do this is to create athlete leadership groups, which typically includes several athletes who lead within their personal strengths to share and spread the leadership workload across the team, both inside and outside of the competition arena.
  • Social Identity – when teams have an effective social identity, they are defined by “we” and “us” as opposed to “I” and “me”. A method to create team resilience via social identity is the 5R approach:
    • Readying – why does “we” matter?
    • Reflecting – we are “we”?
    • Representing – what do we want to be?
    • Realising – How do we become what we want to be?
    • Reporting – are we becoming what we want to be?
  • Team Learning – here, team members collectively acquire and act on new knowledge following setbacks, with team members knowing how their team best works together, and adapting their behaviour appropriately. This leads to the development of shared mental models. Teams with these shared mental models interpret situations in a similar way; this allows them to anticipate and predict the needs of other teammates, as well as make shared decisions, allowing for an overall improvement in performance. Shared mental models can be developed in a number of ways:
    • After Action Reviews – what went well? What didn’t? What surprised us? What would we do differently in future?
    • Team Training – using techniques such as simulations, where the team gets to work through a problem together, assists in the development of shared mental models.
    • Team Planning – allowing the team to have input into their planning creates an awareness within the team of what is required to be successful at the task at hand.
  • Team Enjoyment & Positive Emotions – teams that are enthusiastic, optimistic, satisfied, and relaxed typically have more resilience. As such, creating an environment that allows for these experiences to occur is important. This can be done via social occasions, the use of humour, and the development of pre-competition routines to promote the feeling of “business as usual”.

A final step – organisational resilience

Having looked at individual resilience and team resilience, the next step is to explore organisational resilience. This is something that has been previously explored in other domains, but less so (until recently) in the sporting field. Whilst it’s tempting to think that this isn’t important knowledge for coaches, the more senior coaches become in the field, the more important strategic management aspects, such as organisational resilience, become. Head coaches, for example, are well-placed to have a working knowledge of organisational resilience, as are Performance Directors and other similar roles.

Organisational resilience explores how organisations deal with uncertainty and disruption, and specifically looks at how and why organisations survive, adapt, and thrive in complex and uncertain environments. As athletes and coaches (individuals) and teams form part of wider organisations, a high level of organisational resilience can also support the performance of the individuals and teams that comprise it. As such, it’s an area that should be of interest to elite sport, but, until recently, was underexplored. This changed following the publication of a paper in 2020, in the journal Psychology of sport and Exercise, titled “Defining and characterising organisational resilience in elite sport”. Here, the authors interviewed 82 experts (defined as those with experience working in, or studying, elite sport organisations), with a combined experience of 744 years working with elite sport organisations across 50 different sports, with roles ranging from coaches to support staff and, in some cases, the CEO. The participants were asked to identify the drivers of organisational resilience in elite sport, and then rank them in terms of importance.

Following the interviews, the researchers were able to define organisational resilience as “the dynamic capability of an organisation to successfully deal with significant change. It emerges from multi-level (employee, team, and organisational) interacting characteristics and processes which enable an organisation to prepare for, adapt to, and learn from significant change.” The authors were also able to identify 5 key themes that contribute to organisational resilience, which are:

  • Structural clarity – comprised of effective internal communication channels, role clarity, transparent decision making, effective external communication channels, and a flexible or adaptable structure. Overall, the participants believed that communication was probably the most important part of resilience in elite sport.
  • Flexible improvement – comprised of a desire to learn and improve, openness to ideas, being adaptable and flexible, being innovative and creative, accepting of uncertainty and change, being optimistic, and having a structured training and development program.
  • Shared understanding – comprised of a shared vision and values, collective ability, stable group norms, and shared values.
  • Reciprocal commitment – Here, there are effective two-way relationships between employees and organisation, characterised by employees feeling valued, with high levels of employee loyalty and commitment in return. This also included effective internal partnership, psychological safety, a focus on employee wellbeing, and enthusiasm.
  • Operational awareness – This refers to the capability to identify and assess the range of options available to an organisation, which involves an ability to anticipate problems early, having an awareness of priorities in a crisis, being able to consider alternative options, being able to pause and reflect prior to making decisions, having an awareness of opportunities that are available, and being able to make timely decisions.

This research provides a framework for key decision-makers to begin to develop resilience within their organisations. At present, and as highlighted by the authors, this research tells us what resilient organisations have, as opposed to what they do, which is a crucial next step. Nevertheless, for coaches and practitioners looking to make the next step into leadership, this research is an important first step towards ensuring the resilience, and resilient behaviours, can permeate through the organisation, supporting both team and individual performance.

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