Resilience In Sport


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

No Comments

Categories: Sport

Ode To Billy Joe – Some Thoughts

Bobby Gentry spoke very little about her song ‘Ode To Billy Joe’ but one description of note by her was that the song was a study in unconscious cruelty. The term ‘unconscious cruelty’ was also used by 1952 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Albert Schweitzer with reference to the way that humans treat animals but the question here is, what did Bobby Gentry mean by unconscious cruelty in ‘Ode to Billy Joe’?

The first part of the song which sets the tone is iconic. The 3rd of June on a farm in the Mississippi Delta region.  The sultry singer chopping cotton with her brother on hay duty. Decent rural southern folk going about their daily business. All quaint and not too much unconscious cruelty going on here although any of us who have done farm work may disagree. In any event when dinner time arrives they return to their house for some food where their mother greets them with a holler about remembering to wipe their feet. Their mother then tells them about news she received that morning from Choctaw Ridge that local man Billy Joe MacAllister had died by jumping from the Tallahatchie bridge. From here the song transforms into a mental minefield.

As the song develops there is inevitable speculation on the part of the listener as to why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge. There is information about this to be gleaned in the various emphases that Bobby Gentry places on different lyrics. Likewise her demeanour when performing on stage. Her pace and cadence are telling also as are the chord changes and the way that she drags out the last word of many of the lines. But we are still left wondering.

The singer and Billy Joe appeared to have been in a relationship but was this a secret relationship? Could a relationship be kept secret in a small place like that? The indifference towards the singer at the dinner table would suggest that it might have been a secret relationship but Bobby Gentry’s description of the song as ‘unconscious cruelty’ might suggest otherwise.

Perhaps the family were indeed aware but did not approve of the singer being in a relationship with Billy Joe. The father’s complete lack of compassion for Billy Joe and the mother’s mention of the nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropping by that day and coming for dinner on Sunday could be interpreted as a hint to the singer to forget about her erroneous former relationship with Billy Joe and instead concentrate on trying to form a relationship with someone more socially mobile and more acceptable to the family, such as the good Brother Taylor, who at the time would have been a good catch being educated and financially stable in a region that experienced a lot of financial poverty.

So yes, speculation abounds as to what happened on Choctaw Ridge between the singer and Billy Joe and whether it was related to Billy Joe jumping off the bridge and if not, why did Billy Joe do what he did? This speculation, however, is a distraction, as, by the way, is the identity of an item that the singer and Billy Joe were throwing into the water as reported by the Preacher to the singer’s mother.

The real themes of the song, I suggest, are the casual attitude towards suicide that is demonstrated in it and the unsupportive way that the parents ignore or undermine their daughter’s shock and grief. The indifferent manner in which suicide is discussed over dinner is an eye-opener. Particularly the suicide of someone who was well known to the family for so many years and who was a childhood friend of the singer and her brothers as evidenced by the story of the frog that was put down the singer’s back while at the picture show in Carroll County. In this regard the father’s response is particularly striking. “Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense” he announced, followed immediately by something as nonchalant as “pass the biscuits please” and then a work-related comment about ploughing the final five acres of the lower forty.

From a psychological perspective there are several cognitive biases evident in the father’s response.

Firstly, there is what is called a confirmation bias which is the tendency to focus on information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. According to the father “Billy Joe never had a lick of sense” and the act of jumping off the bridge confirmed, to the father, that his long-held opinion was correct. The father’s bias also demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of mental health and the complexity of suicide.

He also demonstrated what is called an empathy gap. This is a tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or others and in this instance, he appeared to completely underestimate the strength of feelings of his children, one of whom appeared to have been in a (possibly forbidden) relationship with Billy Joe. Or maybe he didn’t underestimate the strength of his children’s feelings, particularly his daughter’s, and maybe this is the unconscious cruelty that Bobby Gentry referred to. The mother does not escape this charge either by the way. Her casual and potentially insincere comment about her daughter’s lost appetite doesn’t reflect well in the circumstances.

Hindsight bias was evident in the father’s comment also. Hindsight bias is akin to an ‘I told you so’ attitude. It is the tendency to see events that have happened in the past as being predictable. However, perhaps the two most pernicious cognitive biases on show by the father are what are called the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Puritanical Bias.

Fundamental Attribution Error, also known as Actor Observer Bias, is the tendency for explanations of other individuals’ behaviours to overemphasise the influence of their personality and underemphasise the influence of their situation and general environment. The father did not give any weight to the circumstances that Billy Joe found himself in that contributed to his suicide. Instead, he basically blamed the victim and/or perceived the victim as weak. This is lazy thinking and a huge mistake to make when it comes to representing people who so unfortunately take their lives.

Relatedly, Puritanical Bias refers to the tendency to attribute the cause of an undesirable outcome or wrongdoing by an individual to a moral deficiency or lack of self-control on the part of the person rather than taking into account the impact of broader societal factors. Again, putting the blame entirely on the individual. Again, a gross misunderstanding of the complexity of suicide but one that I suggest regrettably persists in some quarters, even if not articulated.

So yes, I think I can see how unconscious cruelty was at play in this iconic masterpiece and I think I can see what Bobby Gentry might have meant by describing the song as a study in unconscious cruelty but at the same time while humbly acknowledging that my interpretations might be inaccurate, I find myself wondering whether at least some of the cruelty may have been conscious, and deliberate.

Finally, as we are trying to emerge from a global pandemic it is so eerie to hear in the lyrics of a song that is 55 years old that ‘there was a virus going ’round; Papa caught it, and he died last spring.’ May ‘Papa’ rest in peace but RIP also to Billy Joe and to all whose lives have been cut short by suicide.

Cogbeh provides a range of Cognitive Behavioural Services in-person or online.
New Book: The Aware Self: A Compendium Of Conscious Living.

No Comments

Categories: Mental Health

Emotion In Sport: Friend Or Foe?

Sport is an emotional experience. Yes it is a physical activity but it is most definitely an emotional experience. It is an emotional experience for athletes, coaches, managers, family members, supporters and communities and there is widespread acceptance that emotion can affect athletic performance both positively and negatively. Each individual athlete has a unique emotional profile which has developed as a result of their unique biological and environmental conditions and whereas it is the case that each athlete’s emotionality is exclusive to them Woodfin (2014) has listed the following emotional styles of athletes. Do you recognise yourself or others among them?

  1. The Bubbler
    Feels anger and frustration build slowly. The bubbler can appear to have control over their emotions but if something goes wrong, they are prone to boiling over and basically self-destructing. The outcome can be messy.
  2. The Actor Outer
    There is no filter here. The actor outer feels anger and frustration strongly, they express them immediately and openly and after doing so they don’t necessarily let them go. As a result of not letting them go the process repeats itself over and over. Their apologists mistakenly describe these athletes as wearing their heart on their sleeve. The implication for performance is that their emotions become a major hindrance. Strong candidates for red cards. Stay away from on the bus home.
  3. The Mr. or Ms. Negative
    Fine when things are going well but when things take a dip so too do performance and mood. Defeatist attitude and may give up under pressure.
  4. The Manipulator
    Tries through intimidation, confrontation, and gamesmanship to control opponents, officials or spectators so that they do as he or she wants. This might include intimidating opponents, trying to influence officials, or trying to turn spectators for or against them. Manipulators put a lot of effort into affecting other people’s emotions but become ineffective athletically when they ‘run out of road.’
  5. The Positive Thinker
    Positive thinking is very important in sport but athletes in this category of positive thinkers are so positive that they are gullible and irrational. These excessively positive thinkers believe in successful outcomes when there is no factual basis for their belief and when situations are genuinely hopeless. These athletes may have success at lower levels against similarly minded athletes but will come a cropper at higher levels when faced with the reality that excessive and naïve positive thinking will not overcome athletic limitation.
  6. The Superior One
    The vain pontificator. These athletes are fountains of wisdom as far as they are concerned. They spend way too much time correcting others and trying to be continually correct themselves. When things eventually go wrong anger is the dominant emotion and it is typically someone else’s fault. At this point their credibility fades at the same pace as their influence. Another one to avoid on the bus home.
  7. The Grand Master
    Calmness personified and seems to perform in an emotionless state. Unaffected by threats, negative emotions, errors, or poor performances. Can retain composure through high highs or low lows resulting in consistently high performances and an ability to continually learn and redefine. A rare creature but the gold standard according to many.

Although the above is somewhat tongue in cheek, emotional intelligence in sport and emotional regulation is sport are crucial to performance and enjoyment. If you would like to do some structured work on these topics with a view to performance enhancement and enjoyment of your sport, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Cogbeh provides a range of cognitive behavioural services to a broad demographic in-person and online. 

No Comments

Categories: Sport

Pre-Performance Routines In Sport : Science Or Superstition?

Many athletes across many sports have pre-performance routines. Examples include eating the same food before an event, listening to a certain kind of music en route to the venue, sitting in the same spot in a changing room, putting sports gear on in a certain order, warming up in a certain way, visualising in a certain way, using the same positive key words and so on. A slightly different but related behaviour is the pre-shot routine in sports where a free shot is awarded. For example, in the case of field sports athletes who are about to take a free shot or free kick may stand in a certain position before striking the ball, look at the posts a pre-determined number of times, take a specific number of steps on the run up to the ball, approach the ball from a particular angle and so on. In non-field sports such as snooker, for example, the same principle applies with different players having their own routine in preparation for the upcoming shot. A pre-shot routine involves a sequence of task relevant thoughts and behaviours which are engaged in prior to the execution of a particular skill.

The question often asked is, are pre-performance routines or pre-shot routines the same as superstitions?  The answer is no. A pre-performance routine or pre-shot routine refers to a set of task-relevant thoughts and actions an athlete systematically engages in. The routine develops over time, as skill level improves and can be amended over time if required. A superstition, on the other hand, is an athlete’s belief that certain actions will lead to certain outcomes, often with reference to previous success.

Research has shown that performers who use routines in many sports have enhanced performance in comparison to those who don’t. The sports and activities in question include, but are not confined to, free throw shooting in basketball, putting in golf, penalty taking in water polo, goal kicking in rugby and serving in volleyball. In one particular study the research team analysed data from 15 different sports and 800 athletes. The athletes’ performance significantly improved from before learning to after learning and to applying a pre-performance routine. These effects were observed both in laboratory and actual competitions, in situations with and without pressure, and were independent of athletes’ age, gender, and skill level, the type of routine, and the time necessary to learn the routine. In other words, most routines worked for most athletes in most sports regardless of how simple or complex the routine was.

As we have seen the value of a routine in sport should not be overlooked. A sturdy, repeatable routine built around the execution of a skill can clearly improve the odds of successful execution of the skill. The curious thing is that the routine in question that is developed to execute a skill and make a skill repeatable then becomes a skill in itself, and like any skill it can be learned. There are strong cognitive and behavioural components to pre-performance routines and to pre-shot routines so, as such, if you would like to work on your pre-performance routine or pre-shot routine please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Cogbeh provides a range of cognitive behavioural services to a broad demographic in-person and online.

No Comments

Categories: Sport

The Flow State Of Mind In Sport

Flow in sport is a state of mind. It is achieved when athletes feel completely engaged in their performance, when they are fully focused on what they are doing and when this heightened attention is associated with a number of positive factors including improved performance.

When athletes are interviewed about their experiences of the flow state when participating in their individual sports a common theme that emerges is one of absorption. A connection appears to be present between absorption and the degree of challenge experienced with some athletes reporting a stronger sense of flow as the challenge increases because more absorption is needed to meet the challenge.

Although the flow state is attainable in numerous types of activity reports of the flow state in sport are more common than in many of the other domains with athletes who experience the flow state frequently describing experiencing increased confidence through a sense of control and less self-consciousness as a result of their absorption in the activity.

Another theme that is commonly reported by athletes who experience the flow state is a distorted perception of time. In a flow state athletes tend to enjoy the experience and to be so present in the moment that time appears to go by really quickly. Paradoxically the opposite has been known to occur also whereby athletes are so present and comfortable in the moment that time appears to slow down. Interestingly a distorted perception of time occurs both in sports which are time dependant such as GAA, soccer, rugby etc. which are played over a specified time period and also sports that are not time dependant such as tennis, golf, surfing etc. It would appear that the subjective experience of time is contingent upon how well the activity is going, or in other words if the activity is intrinsically rewarding for the athlete.

The good news for any athletes reading this who might be interested in experiencing the flow state in sport, or experiencing it more frequently than they currently do, is that the ability to enter the flow state can be learned. Decades of empirical research into describing, explaining, and predicting flow have yielded results and insights which are transferrable and which, with practice, can be applied in specific domains such as sport. The outcomes can be athletes feeling alert, merging action with awareness, and operating at the peak of their abilities as if decisions are made effortlessly or even unconsciously.

The other good news is that I currently work with athletes on a 1:1 basis in-person or online to help them to develop the flow state in their sport. If you would like to find out more please visit

Cogbeh provides a broad range of cognitive behavioural services to a broad demographic in-person or online.

No Comments

Categories: Sport