“Life’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward” – Rocky Balboa (2006)
Most of us have heard these iconic words at some point, whether they were blasted out of cinema speakers or played through earphones from one of the many motivational montages on the web. Whilst the film these words spawned from is fiction, the concept they refer to is very much fact; after all, these words resonate with thousands for a reason. The basic psychological concept that Stallone’s character touches on here is that of resilience, a trait that some would argue is essential for anyone wanting to perform and excel in their domain; whether that be traditional sports, eSports, or business. This post will finally unravel the complex psychological theory and research behind human resilience in relation to performance, whilst providing you with a guide on how you can best go about bolstering your own.
What is resilience?
Broadly speaking, the concept centres on how you respond when faced with adversity, and can be broken down into two types known as robust and rebound resilience (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016). Robust resilience refers to a person’s ability to withstand pressure and maintain a high level of performance, akin to a soldier keeping a cool head under fire or Johnny Wilkinson making the 2003 winning rugby world cup kick against Australia.
It might help to think of robust resilience more as the protective pads and helmet an American Football player wears; whilst in the pads the player knows he is protected and can throw himself into tackles with little hesitation, but once this protective barrier is taken away the stressors – other padded up American Football players – can overwhelm the athlete. It is this resilience, the ability to keep ploughing forward in the pads whilst players try and take you down from every angle, that is so essential in supporting people to reach peak performance.
The latter type of resilience, known as rebound resilience, is what Rocky captures in the quote above. This type of resilience refers to an individual’s ability to overcome setbacks and come back from failure (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Feldman Barrett, 2004), akin to the recent win of ENCESports at the RS6: Siege ProLeague finals where the team came back from a 4-0 deficit to win 4-5. It may be easier to think of rebound resilience as a muscle, if you put too much pressure on the tissue or strive too far it will tear and be sore, but once it’s recovered it’s bigger, stronger, and able to withstand more, just like the mindset of those that overcome setbacks in pursuit of their goals. It is the combination of these two sub-components of resilience that build a foundation for sustained success, it is this that makes them a hefty ally to have alongside you in your fight for improved performance.
Why then, is it so essential?
It makes sense that the best performers are often resilient individuals who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, since those that perceive setbacks as impenetrable barriers are less likely to succeed than those who see them as obstacles to be overcome (Galli & Gonzales, 2015).
Research into psychological resilience in sport and performance suggests that it is the response to stressors which is key in possessing a resilient mentality (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012). In other words, it is the ability to interpret setbacks in such a way that allows for their use as a springboard towards improving performance that distances elite performers from the general population, and who better to ask about peak performance and setbacks than Olympic champions?
When Olympic champions were assessed on their psychological resilience, several common traits began to emerge, these individuals often possessed strong motivation, focus, and confidence which went some way to influencing how they interpreted setbacks and stressors, seeing them as challenges rather than insurmountable problems; leading to increased engagement with their tasks and taking responsibility for their own performance outcomes (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012). What this means then, is that being resilient under pressure may be enhanced by training focussed on altering how you interpret a setback and changing your mindset. This can have beneficial real-world implications for anyone wanting to improve their performance through a cognitive training programme which gradually reinforces resilience, something we will touch upon later in this article.
Research has also suggested that for optimal performance to develop, the environment surrounding the individual needs to be both challenging and supportive (Sanford, 1967). Meaning that as the pressure is increased, so is the supportive scaffold built around the individual to help deal with the pressure, something any organisation looking for peak performance must acknowledge. If the environment does not provide challenge then the individual is unlikely to progress, whilst an environment that fails to provide support is likely to lead to the athlete reaching breaking point (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016). Alongside this, other research has highlighted the importance of personal qualities which tend not to fluctuate, such as achievement motivation, competitiveness and commitment (Galli & Vealey, 2008).
Off the back of the existing evidence, researchers then went on to develop a training programme targeting psychological resilience for success, known as Mental Fortitude Training (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016). The programme recommends development in three main areas: personal qualities, performance environment, and the challenge mindset; all to facilitate positive performance change.
However, we acknowledge it may not be a realistic option for all readers to alter the performance environment around them, especially within a business or club environment. We also would like to state that personal qualities are generally relatively robust and stable over time (Cobb-Clark & Schurer, 2012), and so it would be difficult to dissect the complex and time intensive personality trait improvement strategies through a single blog post, and as such we are going to focus on an area that with dedication anyone can work towards changing: resilience and the challenge mindset. So how exactly can you begin to develop improved resilience?
Don the gloves
Let’s imagine for a moment then; you’re a boxer in the ring on fight night with your reputation and potential winnings at stake. Hundreds of people surround you beyond the rope, bright flashes pop from cameras and the world is watching. Do you feel the weight of expectation on your shoulders? Do you care that all the bookies have your opponent pegged to win and think you’re just an amateur, do you start to believe them and think you’re not good enough? Or are you champing at the bit to prove them wrong, relishing the opportunity to show the world they shouldn’t underestimate you? This is exactly the scenario faced by the, at the time, little known Cassius Clay (now known as Muhammad Ali) when he fought Sonny Liston in 1964. Ali of course then went on to become arguably the greatest boxer ever to have graced the canvas, an accolade that requires the ability to both deal with pressure and come back from failure time and time again, until you are the best.
Whether it be at work, the gym, the screen or the pitch, resilience can be what separates the good from the great, and so to stay at the cutting edge of performance you must also be at the cutting edge of the research. Let us then once again take Fletcher and Sarkar’s (2016) recent Mental Fortitude programme, and focus in on the Challenge Mindset.
The Challenge Mindset refers to how you interpret pressures and stressors in your life, and can influence both rebound and robust resilience. An individual with the challenge mindset will interpret any setbacks or stressors as a test of their strength, rather than an insurmountable obstacle. Akin to the Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2017), those with this view see failure and setback not as a threat but as a challenge essential for personal and professional growth since improving performance is an iterative process and one that is full of ups and downs.
To begin to develop this mindset then, you must first look to changing your interpretation and reaction to a setback, which can be done through various thought-regulation techniques which research has found to be effective (Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema & Schweizer, 2010, Fletcher and Sarkar, 2016). If negative and detrimental thoughts begin to take hold it is wise to either shut them down before it becomes a problem or suspend them for dealing with later, as constantly ruminating over potential negative outcomes can be detrimental to performance (Hong, 2007). Often, mental imagery can be used to help suspend or stop these thoughts, for example picturing a traffic light or visualising closing a door on the problem.
It may also help to physically deal with these thoughts, via noting down any worries or negative interpretations on paper and then tearing or shredding them when ready. Alongside this, vocalising your worries to someone you trust also helps to rationalise your thoughts and return you to a positive thought process, as they may be able to highlight something you have missed or the qualities you possess to overcome the issue. Over time and with practise you may notice that when issues arise they are no longer immediately perceived as threats, but are suspended, dealt with, and then thought of as challenges which push you to improve.
Failure is success
It may help to remind yourself that the best individuals in your discipline were not born the best and have most probably failed far more than many have even tried. For example, Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, went bankrupt five times before becoming pioneer of the automobile and a world-renowned businessman. It is hard to imagine Ford would have been so successful if, after his first bankruptcy, he had allowed doubt and fear of failure to corrode his resilience. The inventor turned this setback from the negative thought of ‘I have failed, I’m finished’, to ‘I have learned what does not work, I’ve only just begun’. It is this process of turning a negative into a constructive positive and learning from the process that is so essential in developing the challenge mindset.
The US military also recognises the importance of resilience training in their soldiers, investing in performance and sport psychologists to inform operatives on how to improve their mental toughness and resilience in the face of adversity. Whilst many will never be subject to the unique experiences and stressors a soldier can face, the techniques used to improve mental fortitude are transferable to many other performance domains. Techniques such as contingency planning to prepare for all eventualities rather than assuming the worst, raising self-awareness through evaluating your emotional response to certain situations, and identifying your personality strengths for use in overcoming problems can all be essential in reinforcing robust resilience (Reivich, Seligman, & McBride, 2011).
Let us return to our previous example and pretend you’re in the shoes of Ali facing down Liston. Prior to the match you may begin catastrophising: thinking ‘what-ifs’, doubting your personal strengths and allowing a fear of failure to destroy your focus. If this was indeed how Ali’s mind worked, he would be just another number on Liston’s win record. Instead of spiralling into self-doubt and what-ifs however, through using the resilience techniques we have covered you can begin to change your mindset for the better.
Prior to the match, rather than catastrophising and thinking ‘what if he knocks me out in the first round’, you could create a plan to start conservatively and stay on the defensive, and then think of the best-case scenario ‘If I stay defensive he can’t knock me out, then he’ll tire, and I’ll capitalise on that’. By doing this you have not only dealt with catastrophic thinking, but have also constructed a strategy to handle the eventuality. Alongside this, instead of focussing on the negatives of your personality such as nervousness, you remind yourself of how far you’ve come since your first training session and how your unique determination, drive and work ethic got you here. Every time a negative thought enters your mind imagine closing a door and leaving it behind, to come back to after the match, or mention to a close friend your worries and allow them to help rationalise the situation with you and remind you of your strengths.
It is however worth remembering that everyone has a breaking point and to recognise that whether we’re Muhammad Ali, Johnny Wilkinson, or Henry Ford, we are all just human. There may come a time when resilience training, a supportive environment, and having a challenge mindset are still not enough to overcome the adversity you face, and it is important to recognise that this is ok, and it may be best to return another day. Despite this, using the evidence-based techniques mentioned in this article with hard work and dedication you may begin to handle more stress, adversity, and expectation as your mindset changes and you go on to perform better than you ever have before.
Author: Callum Abbott, CPsychol
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