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Resilience

Written by Dr. Martin Turner

Resilience

As Imran Khan stated, “Cricket is a pressure game”. Indeed, for athletes performing at an elite level, success can bring fame, and failure can bring shame, with millions of spectators fixing their gaze on their every move. The expectation of others is a powerful source of performance stress for elite athletes, and is in addition to the self-perpetuated stress athletes place upon themselves leading up to important competitions. Therefore, developing resilience to pressure is paramount for athletes if they are to succeed. Resilience refers to the idea that athletes who have experienced some tough situations can better adapt to future pressure, compared to athletes who have experienced few tough situations, or situations that were too traumatic, and this has been shown in the research of Mark Seery from The University of California.

Crucially, Marc Jones and colleagues from Staffordshire University propose that highly resilient athletes respond to pressure in a positive psychological and physiological manner. Resilient athletes view their personal resources as sufficient to meet the demands of the pressure situation. Psychologically, resilient athletes have high self-confidence ("I have the skills I need to succeed"), high perceived control ("my performance is up to me"), and a focus on success ("perform to the best of my ability"). Athletes who are not so resilient have low self-confidence ("I'm not sure I have the skills I need to succeed"), low perceived control ("my performance is down to how my opponent performs") and a focus on avoiding failure ("try not to perform poorly"). Physiologically, resilient athletes respond in what is known as a challenge state, which promotes efficient energy use through increased blood flow to the brain and muscles, higher blood glucose levels (fuel for the nervous system) and an increase in free fatty acids that can be used by muscles as fuel. Athletes who are not resilient respond in what is known as a threat state, which is less efficient for energy delivery and use than in a challenge state as blood flow (and therefore glucose) to the brain and muscles is restricted. These physiological responses were put forth by Jim Blascovich and colleagues at The University of California.

Because resilient athletes show a positive psychological and physiological responses to pressure, they are more likely to be able to execute intended skills and perform well, thus enhancing their chances for success; research in sport supports this proposal. In our research, elite cricketers completed a pressured batting test (score 36 runs from 30 balls in highly evaluative circumstances), before which we collected physiological data. We found that the greater challenge state the cricketers showed, the better they performed. Therefore, there is high value in helping crickets to develop resilience under pressure. This finding has also been found in other sports such as netball, baseball, and golf. There are a number of ways to help athletes to develop resilience, but here I will talk about one method we have used which is based on the notion of desensitisation. Research suggests that repeated exposure to pressure could help athletes to adapt to future pressure. To explain, as the athlete is subjected to pressure regularly and systematically, they acclimatise to the experience of stress and develop or learn personal and often implicit resources for performing under pressured conditions. Remember, athletes who have experienced some tough situations are more resilient than those who have experienced no pressure or too much. Therefore, sport psychology practitioners and coaches can systematically create pressure situations and adversity in training contexts. We have adopted the use of regular pressure testing with clients and clubs, providing an opportunity for athletes to deal with the pressure of evaluation and judgment in a controlled and easily measured fashion. For example, in cricket we the athlete perform batting, bowling, or fielding tests in front of coaches. We also tell the athletes that their scores on the tests will be put on a league table and compared to all other athletes. We also video record the athletes so we can look at their technique and execution. Finally, athletes are informed that how they perform in the tests will be considered when selection decisions are being made. The idea is to produce a pressured situation that is realistic, but meaningful to the athletes. Before the cricketers perform the pressure test we ask them about their thoughts and feelings about the test, and also collect physiological data to see whether they respond in a challenge (positive) or threat (negative) state. Therefore, we expose the cricketers to pressure and use the information we collect to help them understand how their brain and body reacts to the situation. Based on this information we can then work with the athlete to help enhance their psychological approach and psychological responses to pressure.

Importantly, the responsibility for helping athletes to become resilient to pressure rests not only with the athletes themselves, but those around him or her who can influence the environment in which the athlete trains and performs. Regularly exposing athletes to pressure may be useful for sport psychology practitioners and coaches who wish to help their athletes develop resilience under pressure. More strategies about how to develop reslience in athletes and other professionals will appear in a new book by Dr. Martin Turner and Dr. Jamie Barker (http://www.bennionkearny.com/What-Sport-Psychology-Can-Teach-Business-Book-eBook.htm)    

      

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Qualifications

  • PhD in Sport Psychology: The performance consequences, and manipulation, of challenge and threat states (with BPS PhD Thesis Award).
  • Distinction MSc degree in Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology (with thesis and academic profile awards).
  • 1st class hons degree in Sport Studies.

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