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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Cognitive Dissonance In Sport – How Internal Disharmony Can Affect Sport Performance

Cognitive Dissonance in Sport
We are referring here to something that is negative about an athlete’s positive sporting experience. A simplistic example could be of a successful athlete who is thoroughly enjoying their sport but who has an ethical objection to having to a team sponsor who has been shown to have dubious ethical standards. The outcome can be disharmony, unease and a general sense that ‘this doesn’t feel right.’ On one hand there is the enjoyment of peak performance and the associated success whereas on the other hand the ethics of the situation create psychological disharmony. A further example could be the athlete who is fully committed to their sport but who dislikes the uncouth, authoritarian style of their manager and who encounters their manager’s manner as an obstacle to performance and enjoyment.

In his book ‘A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance’ (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency to function well in everyday life. Cognitive dissonance theory is a psychological theory that proposes that when cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions) or behaviours are inconsistent with one another, a negative psychological state of ‘dissonance’ occurs and that the resultant tension motivates the individual to make an attitudinal change to produce consistency between thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions and behaviour.

This internal psychological disharmony on the part of the athlete can result in compartmentalisation of the negative aspect of the positive experience that causes the dissonance. In some instances it may even lead to shut down. The athlete strongly believers that for optimal performance to occur that encouragement and support are required from the manager and that the intimidatory, fear-based approach used by the manager is a major irritant at best and a major barrier to success and enjoyment at worst. Either way performance is highly likely to suffer via dips in motivation, commitment and effort because if we seek internal harmony between cognitions and behaviours and are exposed to circumstances that are incongruent with what we seek the negatively arousing cognitive conflict (dissonance) that results becomes an unwelcome distraction, a drain on our concentration and commitment levels and ultimately a threat to enjoyment and performance.

So. . . What To Do?
Importantly Festinger proposed that “dissonance, that is, the existence of nonfitting relations among cognitions, is a motivating factor in its own right.” In this case a motivation to reduce the dissonance, but how can this be achieved? The following are four possibilities.

  1. Change one or more cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions) by acquiring new information that devalues or outweighs the dissonant cognitions thereby reducing their importance.
  2. Discard one or more cognitions.
  3. Emotional Regulation. This refers to managing the emotional correlates of the state of dissonance.
  4. Change the behaviour that is causing the dissonance. For both examples above the athlete could simply highlight their concerns with a view to affecting change instead of blindly complying. The nuclear option would be to remove themselves from the situations that are responsible for the dissonance and to go elsewhere.

The Benefits of Eliminating Cognitive Dissonance In Sport?
Harmony across cognition and behaviours resulting in a greater likelihood of enjoyment and of optimal performance.

Finally . . .
Eliminating cognitive dissonance may not be as easy as this article suggests. The first step is, of course, to identify it, a task that can be both daunting and difficult because cognitions can be deeply held, because emotional responses can be conditioned and complex, and because sports behaviours can serve a variety of purposes in addition to performance.

If you feel that you may benefit from some assistance in identifying and eliminating cognitive dissonance in sport with a view to performance enhancement and increased enjoyment of your sport, I would be delighted to hear from you.

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