“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Samuel Beckett (playwright)
When was the last time you were stressed? Now think about the last time were so stressed you couldn’t think about anything else, you couldn’t get anything done almost ending up at breaking point? Was it yesterday, perhaps every day or only once in a blue moon when it feels the whole world is against you? Now, what did you learn from that small, big or common stress? For many of us ‘experience’ is the name many of us give to stressful situations but the question is as Samuel Beckett posed can we fail better and learn from the incident? Research evidence suggests that while we often find ourselves back in the same scenarios we have the capacity to reflect, learn and to be more resilient with the potential not just for coping but for post-traumatic growth.
Resilience has been defined in a variety of ways ranging from a person’s ability to positively adapt stressful situations to the ability to bend without breaking in response to significant adversities. Most of the mainstream scientific literature focuses on psychological recovery from war, poverty and serious life threatening scenarios (e.g. terrorist attacks); which most of us are only unlucky enough to experience once, if ever, in our lifetimes. Once believed to be an innate trait, this view was challenged by Ann Masten (2001) who first suggesting that resilience comprises of ordinary rather than extraordinary. This perspective arose from studies on everyday participants rather than those simply who are operating in extremis. My research path for the past three years has focused on this ordinary magic, where normal individuals manage to rebound and pick themselves up from regular but challenging scenarios. As an international athlete competing and training over the past decade I have come to appreciate the inevitable hardships all athletes or simply any individual is faced with when embarking upon challenging goals; be it entrepreneurship, dual-career status of a student athlete or acculturation challenges when moving abroad. Students, athletes and employees are often forced to work in challenging environments and are vulnerable to mental health issues (MacIntyre et al., 2017).
This is where resilience comes in. Resilience research is central to the field of positive psychology which is predominantly concerned on individuals’ strengths, rather than the medical model in mental health research, largely focused on fixing what is wrong. The contexts of sport and work are arguably as a ‘natural lab’ for everyday resilience. In these achievement contexts individuals can recover, adapt and often thrive in very stressful situations to achieve their goals.
In my first publication entitled “stressing the relevance of resilience” (Bryan et al., 2017) we highlights a number of qualities associated with both building and maintaining resilience through all manner of adverse situations common within both the workplace and a the domain of sport. The strongest emerging themes included:
– Your support structure: ranging from friends, to work mentors and family who time and time again help pick you up, dust you off and keep you always failing forward.
– Ones’ self-belief of their abilities; what virtues do you have that got you to this level in the first place? If you’ve survived losses before why can’t you again, has this setback really made you a worse player or is it just a single lost opportunity?
– An optimistic outlook; maybe things are working out as planned now, but what does the future look like? Can it be better or will it be better? There is opportunity everywhere however only those who see it will find it.
– Coping skill and strategies; what have you learned works for you? Top performers used regular thoughts and techniques that are strategically used to enhance their performance; goal-setting, self-talk, visualisation and routines are all used to consistency achieve positive outcomes.
My next submission for publication is concerned with the “The What, How, Where and When of Resilience…”. Resilience can be seen as a pre-requisite of sustainable success. However, if resilience is a state not a trait it is both learnable and should fluctuate dependent upon our psychological resources. This explains how one may not always be in a position to prepare, cope and respond adaptively day after day. The importance of developing both specific situational responses in preparation for predictable stressors (e.g. exam periods, competitions or end of quarter targets) as well as a need to develop for unforeseen yet inevitable adversities such as a colleague or coaching staff leaving, pre-competition illnesses and exam failure, both require resilience. We characterised resilient adaptation by the speed and thoroughness of stress recovery (rebound), the capacity to sustain purpose (maintain functioning), and the capacity to attain a form of psychological growth that reveals a greater maturity of the mind (growth). Therefore there are three pivotal time points of resilience development which you can focus on developing in order to optimise performance and well-being in times of challenge; resilient preparation (before), resilient awareness (during) and resilient learning (afterwards).
- Preparation: Focus on developing the resilience qualities above. A strong support structure coupled with confidence of past ability, confidence in what the future looks like and an array of tried and tested skills is powerful defence for any challenge
- Awareness: Resilience is not about just about staying positive. The ability to recognise hardships and failure is the first step to recovery. What went wrong? What it out of your control? Is this a regular occurrence and does something need to change. Mentors and friends can play a pivotal role in this often critical reflection.
- Learning: What could you do differently if the situation ever arrives again? What helped you get through this situation or what is I do that perhaps was unproductive? Resilience often optimises how you emerge from setbacks. Your thoughts about how you dealt with adversity begins to define your beliefs. These beliefs then create how you will deal with future actions and setbacks.
The next time your team loses remind yourself why you thought you could beat them in the first place; when your car gets clamped, or you are late for an important meeting and forgot your wallet, remember how you’ve survived these days before, who you turned to for support and how you have the capacity to thrive rather than simply survive from the experience.
Bryan, C., O’Shea, D. & MacIntyre, T. (2017) Stressing the relevance of resilience: a systematic review of resilience across the domains of sport and work. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/1750984X.2017.1381140
MacIntyre, T. E., Jones, M., Brewer, B. W., Van Raalte, J., O’Shea, D. & McCarthy, P. J. (2017). Editorial: Mental Health Challenges in Elite Sport: Balancing Risk with Reward. Front. Psychol. 8:1892. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01892
Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56(3), 227-238. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.227
Christopher Bryan is a Postgraduate Researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. His current research is focused on conceptualising the concept of psychological resilience in achievement contexts; specifically in work and sport domains. You can contact Christopher via email on firstname.lastname@example.org view Christopoher’s profile on Researchgate or follow him on Twitter
Note: This research is supported and funded by The University of Limerick Sports Arena.