Resiliency in Athletes

By: Dawn Levine, PhD and Heather Duong, PhD

Have you ever experienced an injury that prevented you from training how you want to? Or lost a close race, match, or game? How did you respond? Have you ever noticed that teams that don’t win championships one year come back “hungry” and win it the next year?

Generally, teams and athletes have to overcome past failures or mistakes before going on to greater successes. Overcoming these challenges boosts self-confidence, which leads to greater performance (Bandura, 1997). Challenges can make you stronger but sometimes stress can overwhelm us, and we become depressed or anxious. Thus, building resiliency is not only important for becoming better athletes (whether it is recreational or competitive) but can help in your day-to-day life as well.

What exactly is resiliency? While there are many definitions, resiliency basically refers to the ability to handle adversity, whether physical or emotional (it is often both), by putting strategies in place that make a difference. Resiliency is not a fixed trait that someone has or doesn’t have. However, it does involve accessing and putting strategies into place that can make a positive difference versus plunging into negative, self-defeating thoughts. It does not mean that you won’t experience pain, but it does help as it gives you hope and control. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.

How do you build resiliency? This will look different for each individual but some of the basics involve the following:

Change your narrative. When something happens, instead of thinking “Why me?” the question becomes “Why not me?” Embracing that adversity occurs and is a part of human existence helps you prevent feelings that you are being discriminated against and to access healthier strategies and thoughts. An optimistic outlook can empower you to expect good things will happen to you.

Focus on what you can control. Focus your ability on what you can change versus what you can’t change. People are hard wired to focus on the negative. So, when adversity hits, and we all know it has hit with COVID-19, our stress response escalates and seems to get stuck on high. You might not be able to change a highly stressful event. However, looking at what you can control helps dial it back down and provides a sense of empowerment.

Check in with yourself. Ask yourself “Is this helping or harming me?” If powering through something at the expense of making an injury worse is harming you, do you really want to do that? Taking a moment to ask yourself this question keeps you in the present and helps motivate you to make the better choice.

Practice self-compassion. Fears and adversity can make you feel alone, and you may wonder if you’re the only one feeling this way. Remember and practice self-compassion by recognizing that everyone suffers. This means that when we are stressed, tired, feeling overwhelmed or suffering, we can add an attitude of warmth and kindness, without judgment. Try telling yourself, “May I give myself compassion” or “May I accept myself as I am.”

Focus on learning from your past. Reflecting on previous times of distress, may help you learn to respond effectively to difficult situations now. Remind yourself of where and when you’ve been able to find strength and ask yourself what you learned from these experiences.

Especially now, we are dealing with unprecedented unknowns and trying to adjust to new normals. Who would have thought a year ago that they would be participating in a virtual Kaiser Permanente Women’s Fitness Festival?  But you are, and congratulations for that! This means you are maintaining some self-care, which is also important if you are going to bounce back from these hard times.

In order to have the bandwidth to build resiliency some other important ways to make sure you are taking care of yourself include exercise, keeping a gratitude journal, taking time to meditate, or do breathing exercises, and calming yourself, as well as making sure you have social support in these challenging times.

As UCLA legendary coach John Wooden said, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

References:

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. Freeman.

Newman, K. M. (2016, November 9). Five science-backed strategies to build resilience. Greater Good Magazine https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_science_backed_strategies_to_build_resilience

TED. (2019, September 25). Lucy Home: The three secrets of resilient people [Video]. YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWH8N-BvhAw