After suffering an injury in days leading up to the Tokyo Olympics Games, GB Gymnast Alice Kinsella had a rough qualifications day, counting 2 falls on her stronger events (beam and bars). Looking visibly frustrated and disappointed with herself, Kinsella had one day to recompose herself and prepare for the Olympic Team Final.
Despite being only 20 herself, Kinsella was the most experienced member of the young GB team and had to not only shake off her disappointing qualifications performance from two days previous, but also lead and support her team through their first Olympic Final. Overcoming any feelings of doubt in herself, Kinsella had a stellar Team Final performance, improving all her qualification scores and leading Team GB to a Bronze Medal!
So, how did she do it? How do you overcome failure and replace it with success under such pressure? The key here is resilience.
Gymnastics is known for its graceful, powerful, and spectacular nature with young gymnasts performing impressive skills on a range of apparatus. Historically, the image of very young, slightly built gymnasts performing extraordinarily challenging skills springs to mind; inevitably that means top gymnasts have to be training with considerable intensity from a very young age.
Although gymnastics is slowly moving away from that idea and forming a more holistic approach along with a number of other sports, it is true that some sports do need to have a certain degree of specific training and skill acquisition before undergoing puberty to help them be successful. However, these sports are few and far between and certainly do not encompass as many sports as people believe.
This poses several challenges for coaches and parents; not least how to help them succeed without mental or physical harm.
Due to the nature of gymnastics, young athletes experience challenges they may perceive as stressful or as failure; a sub-optimal competition, suffering a skill block, or even managing injury can have profound psychological effects. As a coach and parent team, part of our job is to teach athletes early on how to bounce back from worrying events, how to cope when things go wrong and how to celebrate smaller positives in sport.
So, what is resilience, and how can we help our young athletes develop it so that they stay mentally healthy in their sport and develop the psychological strength to remain comfortable throughout the inevitable twists and turns of a competitive sporting experience? What develops resilience and how can we, as coaches and parents, support our young athletes in gaining this core life skill alongside their physical training?
Unravelling the Mysteries of Resilience.
Resilience is defined as “the role of mental processes and behaviour in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors.” In simpler terms, this means the personality traits an individual displays that prevents them becoming overwhelmed or discouraged by stressful events, for example a bad training session or the death of a family member.
Resilience falls into 2 broad types – robust and rebound resilience:
- Robust resilience refers to a protective quality that allows an athlete to maintain their performance and mental wellbeing under pressure.
- Rebound resilience refers to an athlete’s ability to bounce back and return to a normal state of cognitive functioning following short-term disruptions to training or mental health.
So, what does a resilient athlete look like?
We now know what resilience is, but what does it look like when in a day-to-day setting. Well, resilient athletes:
- Are better able to challenge negative thoughts and ideas, improving their belief in themselves and their ability.
- Are more likely to be able to focus on tasks without becoming distracted. This is particularly important during competitions!
- Will display characteristics of optimism and competitiveness, meaning when they have pre-competition butterflies, they will view it as a positive experience that will help them perform well.
- Will be proactive and take matters into their own hands. These athletes will be more likely to do extra conditioning or practise in their own time to improve performance.
- Are perfectionists (but not the “I’m not good enough type”)! They will set themselves high standards and expect that they meet these standards, but they won’t beat themselves up if things go slightly pear-shaped.
Resilience is key not only for training and competitions, but also for a young persons mental health. A happy athlete will want to learn, improve themselves and succeed. An unhappy athlete will be afraid to try in case they fail.
This sounds very important, but how can I help as a parent?
Although resilience is a personality trait, it is also process which individuals go through in response to their environment. This means that there are things that parents can do that influence internal processing and external environment to set young athletes up for success.
Influencing the Internal:
Encourage positive behaviour: help your child practice the behaviours above. Encourage them to be proactive and set themselves high standards. Try and set a good example by practicing the behaviours yourself, your children will copy you!
Reassure them when things go wrong: there isn’t a straight line to success, plans change and sometimes things go wrong. Turn the threat into a challenge, for example if they have a knee injury use it as an opportunity to develop their understanding/tactical awareness, rather than seeing it as lost time!
Be supportive: make sure your child feels like they have someone to turn to whenever they need advice or just a pep talk. Figure 1 shows the different types of support athletes of all ages may need throughout their career.
Changing the External.
Below are some things coaches and clubs can do to create a facilitative environment conducive to success:
We’re all in this together attitude: without trying to sound like the cast of high school musical, coaches need to encourage everyone to work together. This means coaches, parents AND athletes all working together to create, work towards and achieve goals.
Safe risk taking: Athletes should be free to take sensible risks in training and push themselves out of their comfort zones. Create a safe and supportive environment they can do this in, don’t get angry or punish them if things go wrong, it’s all part of learning.
Accountability and responsibility: encourage athletes to be responsible for their actions, don’t blame poor results on just luck (if you lose because of luck, then surely winning is luck too?). Help athletes be accountable for their actions in training, that way when they do get the result they want, they will know it was because of their hard work and dedication.
Develop coach-athlete relationships: your athletes are more than just small machines who come to training 3 or 4 times a week. They have hobbies, likes and dislikes so try and take the time to get to know them or ask them about their day. They are more likely to seek feedback and reassurance from you. They want to know you care about them, make sure you show it!
To round it all up.
To sum up, psychological resilience is a mechanism that allows athletes to overcome stressful events and quickly return to normal functioning. Resilience can help us appraise threatening situations and turn them into something challenging yet manageable.
Resilience is important, not just during sport but throughout life. Most people will encounter failure a lot more than success, so we need to give children the tools to manage this without compromising their mental health.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to improve psychological resilience, instead just some ideas to implement in your sport or home setting that will help your athlete work towards their goals and be the best they can be.
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