Resilience science emerged in the mid-19th century when practitioners from disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry, and paediatrics, searching for reasons for developmental difficulties experienced by children, observed notable differences in developmental outcomes between children who experienced disadvantage and adversity and those who did not. From the out-set, resilience research pioneers sought to understand why some individuals coped well with adversity, and in some instances benefitted from it, and why some other individuals struggled.

Their research spawned the field of resilience science. Resilience science has shifted the emphasis away from deficit-focused approaches toward models centered on factors that help people deal more effectively with stressful events and that mitigate or eliminate risk. These approaches also recognise that a lot of what promotes resilience originates outside the individual. Whereas early resilience research was limited and somewhat oversimplified, the contemporary approach is more complex and expansive.

Contemporary research has led to three key tenets of resilience theory which are all applicable in sport.

1. Resilience is a developmental process, unfolding over time and circumstances.
2. Resilience involves a complex interaction of multiple mechanisms ranging from the individual level to the communal and structural levels.
3. Resilience captures how people not only survive a variety of challenging circumstances but thrive in the face of such adversity.

Stressors In Sport
The sporting arena represents a “natural laboratory” to study how individuals operate and perform in highly demanding circumstances. Some of the stressors that make high level sport highly demanding include:

  • Competitive stressors – These refer to the demands that are primarily associated with competitive performance. More specifically these include preparation, injuries, pressure, underperforming, expectations (internal and external), opinions of others, self-presentation and rivalry.
  • Organisational stressors – Here we are referring to stressors associated with leadership, club or organisational culture, or any associated problems experienced at the level of the team, club or organisation. In the case of elite athletes additional organisational stressors include travel and accommodation arrangements, income and funding, media attention, and a lack of participation in associated decision-making processes.
  • Personal stressors – These include demands associated primarily with personal “nonsporting” life events. Examples include family issues, accommodation issues, financial issues, work/life balance and balancing sport with educational goals and personal relationships. Death of a significant other has also been identified by athletes as a personal stressor that affects their sport. In some cases it can be the death of a family member, in others it can be the loss of a team mate.

Protective Factors
As we noted above resilience research has shifted from looking at risk factors that could lead to psychosocial problems to identifying strengths that might enable people to overcome stressors and adversity. These are known as protective factors and include the following.

1. Positive Personality – Research on Olympic gold medalists has shown that the main personality traits that have been found to have a desirable impact on athletes’ reactions and responses to stressors are adaptive perfectionism (high standards but reduced concern for mistakes), optimism, competiveness, hope and proactivity.

2. Motivation – the “why” of sport.

3. Confidence – sources include multifaceted preparation, experience, self-awareness, visualisation, coaching and teammates.

4. Focus – specifically the abilities to focus on relevant cues in the environment, to maintain focus, to regain focus when lost and to change focus as required.

5. Perceived Social Support – this refers to an athlete’s potential access to social support from groups such as family, friends, coaches, support staff and teammates, all of which can act as a buffer against stress.

6. Challenge Appraisal – how the athlete views the stressors and their ability to see the bigger picture.
In addition to enhancing the enjoyment of sport understanding and improving the resilience of athletes is crucial to dealing with the stress of competitiveness and to preventing performance decrements.

Cogbeh provides a range of cognitive behavioural services to athletes and the general public in-person and online. Further information is available at

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