“Citius, Altius, Fortius” the Olympic motto suggests that sport is about achievement. However, the Olympic movement is about so much more than developing elite athletes. According to their own literature “the goal is clear: Develop healthy, capable and resilient young athletes, while attaining widespread, inclusive, sustainable and enjoyable participation and success for all levels of individual athletic achievement” (Bergeron et al., 2015, p. 1). The physiological benefits of sport participation are well known but little attention has been devoted to understanding the abundance of psychological benefits. Overlaps from sporting experience may shape the way in which individuals engage in activities such as leadership, teamwork, and competition in other organisational contexts (Day, Gordon, & Fink, 2012). Therefore, our thinking, emotional response and attitudes formed in sport can serve to either develop or disrupt behaviours in other context including the work setting.
Are Sport Participation and Exam Performance related?
There are clear links between state examinations and sport participation with participation falling off towards third year (i.e. Junior Certificate), rising for those who do transition year and falling again during fifth and especially sixth or leaving certificate year (Lunn, Kelly, & Fitzpatrick, 2013). Understandably, as exams approach, students’ face time constraints and priorities may shift. However, the priority should follow the evidence. Research suggests a positive relationship between sport participation and exam performance. We cannot infer a causal link here but the stress reducing and cognitive enhancement effects of sport participation are worth noting. Ultimately, beyond school examinations, sport may offer a distinct yet important developmental pathway to successful adaption into the workplace.
How do we Define Sport?
Defining sport has been the subject of controversy but typically it includes the criteria “physical activity” which may disappoint all Grandmasters among you (Chess was recognised by the IOC as sport in 1999). The word ‘sport’ derived from the now archaic word “disport” which means diversion from serious duties or recreation. This may explain to some degree the decision to reduce sporting activities during times of added pressure and stress. Nevertheless, stress per se is not necessarily bad for our health as we now know, as we can interpret it as a challenge or threat. In fact, high stress coupled with the belief that it is a challenge rather than a threat is linked to lower rates of mortality (Keller et al., 2012). Stress in the workplace is commonplace regardless of our interpretation.
What is Resilience?
Resilience has been shown as an accumulation of factors between an individual and their environment, developed across a lifespan enabling us to handle stress more effectively, recover faster and grow stronger from adverse situations. Resilience sheds light away from the worry that the pressure of both sport and examinations may lead to an unbearable amount of detrimental stress on our developing youth; perhaps it will merely be a challenging time creating real evidence and confidence for them moving forward knowing that they can keep going and even thrive in an unrelenting adult world.
My doctoral research funded by UL Sport, supervised by Dr. Deidre O’Shea and Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre, followed over 100 office workers from eleven Irish companies, in a longitudinal study. We asked them a series of questions about how they felt over the past two weeks in regards to their work efforts, stress and resilience. These individuals were then categorised into three groups based on their individual history of competitive sport. This enabled us to test how sport participation may have had any influence on their resilience capabilities in the workplace. The three predictions that we tested were:
- Would previous high level achievement in sport lead to higher resilience in the workplace?
- Would persistence in sport through state examination lead to higher resilience in the workplace?
- Would any previous participation in sport lead to higher resilience in the workplace?
Results showed some interesting findings. It was only those individuals who persisted in sport throughout their leaving cert examination that showed significant differences in resilience at work. This was evident in the ability of those individuals to get more work done by viewing stress less as a threat and more of a challenge. The development of resilience is an on-going process and competitive youth sport can act as a facilitative environment for cultivating resilience. These sporting challenges are across a manner of both social and performance adversities, where overall success is often the product of repeated attempts to manage one’s self in relation to stress.
How do we promote sport participation through times of stress?
Coaches and parents should place emphasis on their child’s persistence in sport rather than whether or not they are attaining higher levels of success. The goal can be to promote resilience and transferrable skills in the workplace later in life. Increased attention towards sport engagement during both positive and negative experiences may be necessary to allow individuals to persist in sport longer. Promoting the idea of stressors being positive challenges not simply threats will develop resilience. The availability of social support from parents, friends, coaches and teachers is instrumental to resilience. These two factors, challenge states and social support are integral to the contemporary view that resilience is not simply an inherited characteristic but dependent upon our current access to resources (Bryan, O’Shea and MacIntyre, 2017). Parents and educators need to acknowledge the list of appropriate skills and behaviours that can be developed through on-going sports engagement and employers will reap the rewards with workers who can take on challenges. Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton wasn’t wrong when he said: “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”
- Bergeron, M. F., Mountjoy, M., Armstrong, N., Chia, M., Côté, J., Emery, C. A., Engebretsen, L. (2015). International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. British journal of sports medicine, 49(13), 843. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094962
- 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 & Exercise Psychology, doi: 10.1080/1750984X.2017.1381140
- Day, D. V., Gordon, S., & Fink, C. (2012). The Sporting Life: Exploring Organizations through the Lens of Sport. The Academy of Management Annals, 6(1), 397-433. doi:10.1080/19416520.2012.678697
- Lunn, P., Kelly, E., & Fitzpatrick, N. (2013). Keeping them in the game: Taking up and dropping out of sport and exercise in Ireland. Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) Research Series.
- Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677. DOI: 10.1037/a0026743
Christopher Bryan is a Postgraduate Researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick, who has recently passed his PhD Viva. 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 email@example.com view Christopher’s profile on Researchgate or follow him on @ChrisAgSnamh
Bryan, C. (2018). The Path to Developing Ordinary Resilience. PESS Blog.
Bryan, C., O’Shea, D., & MacIntyre, T. E. (2018). The what, how, where and when of resilience as a dynamic, episodic, self-regulating system: A response to Hill et al. (2018). Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 7(4), 355-362. see here