4 Ways To Build Resilience In Athletes

As a coach of young athletes, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to build resilience.

When I first started coaching, I was surprised by how quickly some of my students gave up. 

Some attempted new skills only half-heartedly, before announcing “I can’t” with such earnestness that I knew they believed it. Every time we’d have a mini test in class, one girl in particular would always say “I will surely be the worst” before it even started. Another girl spent more time listing reasons she couldn’t do a skill than actually working on it. 

Then there were the students who loved challenges, whose eyes lit with determination, who always wanted to try new skills. They genuinely believed that they could excel, and were unfazed by others who were better than them.

As you can guess, the latter group of students improved more quickly than the former, who viewed the progress of the others as confirmation that they indeed “couldn’t”. 

What makes some athletes more resilient than others? Can we help those who are not naturally resilient become resilient?

Studies have shown that resilience can be taught. Resilience is a set of skills which, if made habitual (and this is key), will help young athletes excel in sports and other endeavors later in life.

Here are 4 ways to build resilience in  athletes: 

1. Push Their Limits Incrementally

All coaches should push their athletes’ physical and mental limits. But how the athletes are pushed will determine whether they grow resilient or give up.

Handstands
Pushing handstand limits

Good coaches build resilience by pushing each athlete just a little past their own limit each practice.

Why just a little? Shouldn’t coaches shoot for the moon? Not really. Coaches who set unrealistic, lofty goals for their athletes will develop demotivated athletes. Their athletes will constantly feel inadequate because they’re not at the level they’re ‘supposed’ to be. (Even if they’ve in fact progressed!)

As coaches, it is our job to have long-term goals for our athletes, but not to burden our athletes with them. Coaches should break long-term goals down into smaller steps, so that athletes can focus on conquering each small step. The success of conquering each step will motivate athletes to work on the next.

Breaking goals into smaller steps does not mean going easier on athletes. Each step must be slightly beyond the athlete’s current ability so that it is challenging yet achievable. Having a good grasp on each athlete’s limit is largely a matter of experience. Some athletes will give you the “I’m dying” face at 40% of their true capability, while others go straight to 100% and still don’t want to rest (make them!).  

 

2. Give Them Freedom To Fail

When coaches believe passionately in their athletes’ potential, they will be equally, if not more, frustrated than the athletes when they fail. But a good coach knows not to show it.

If a coach shows frustration or scolds or belittles athletes every time they fail, they will learn to fear failure. Failure will be a stressful, shameful thing. Given that some failure is inevitable in the pursuit of excellence, how long do you think it will be before the athlete gives up altogether?

falling
The more you fall, the faster you learn

To build resilience, good coaches give their athlete freedom to fail. They understand the value of failure and even encourage it.  

In the words of Christopher Sommer (former USA men’s gymnastics national team coach):

“Dealing with the temporary frustration of not making progress is an integral part of the path towards excellence. In fact, it is essential and something that every single elite athlete has had to learn to deal with. If the pursuit of excellence was easy, everyone would do it. In fact, this impatience in dealing with frustration is the primary reason that most people fail to achieve their goals. Unreasonable expectations time-wise, resulting in unnecessary frustration, due to a perceived feeling of failure. Achieving the extraordinary is not a linear process.

…accept that quality long-term results require quality long-term focus. No emotion. No drama. No beating yourself up over small bumps in the road. Learn to enjoy and appreciate the process. This is especially important because you are going to spend far more time on the actual journey than with those all too brief moments of triumph at the end.

Certainly celebrate the moments of triumph when they occur. More importantly, learn from defeats when they happen. In fact, if you are not encountering defeat on a fairly regular basis, you are not trying hard enough. And absolutely refuse to accept less than your best.

Throw out a timeline. It will take what it takes.”

 

3. Teach Optimism

girl-bossing it in the gym
Ever optimistic, ever strong

In the 1970s, psychologist Martin Seligman discovered through research that pessimists are more likely to give up without trying, and at greater risk of depression. Optimists, however, resist helplessness and persist when faced with problems. He also discovered that it was possible to immunize people against giving up by teaching them optimism. 

In his book “The Optimistic Child“, he explains that optimism isn’t just positive self-talk, but a specific mindset used to view setbacks. Optimists habitually interpret setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable, while pessimists interpret setbacks as permanent, pervasive and general.

Coaches can build resilience in their athletes by teaching them to think like optimists.

For example, if they do badly in competition, teach them to use a optimistic explanatory style:

   Pessimistic explanatory style  Optimistic explanatory style
Permanent / Temporary I will never do well. I did badly this time/I’m not good enough yet.
Pervasive / Local I am bad at gymnastics. Vault is my weakest event.
General / Changeable I  did badly because I’m just no good at gymnastics. I did badly this time because I didn’t work hard enough in practice.

 

4. Teach Radical Responsibility 

Radical responsibility is accepting full responsibility for everything in your life, no matter who is at fault.

Author Mark Manson explains:

“For example, if you woke up one day and there was a newborn baby on your doorstep, it would not be your fault that baby was put there, but the baby would now be your responsibility. You would have to choose what to do. And whatever you ended up choosing (keeping it, getting rid of it, ignoring it, feeding it to your pet parrot), there would be problems associated with any of those choices and you would be responsible for those as well.”

Accepting radical responsibility for your life builds resilience because it shifts your focus from what you can’t control (fault) to what you can control (your response).

Athletes who accept radical responsibility for everything in their lives are more resilient, because they believe they are masters of their own fate, and take action to create the future they want.   

Mark, again: 

“With great responsibility comes great power.

The more we choose to accept responsibility for in our lives, the more power we will exercise over our lives. Accepting responsibility for our problems is the first step to solving them.

…Many people may be to blame for your unhappiness, but nobody is ever responsible for your unhappiness but you. This is because you always get to choose how you see things, how you react to things.”

pike hold, l hold
The face of determination in a 6-year-old

Resilience > Talent

Resilience is more important than raw talent in achieving excellence. You can make up for a lack of talent with hard work and resilience, but not the other way around. 

Build resilience in athletes by pushing their limits incrementally each practice, giving them freedom to fail, and teaching them optimism and radical responsibility.  

 

P.S. If you liked this post, check out how to help young athletes excel at competition and why parents should choose gymnastics

Continue Reading

4 Ways To Help Young Gymnasts Excel At Competition

Competition Team Gold!

As coaches and parents, we all want our young gymnasts to excel at competition.

But if we’re not careful about what we say or how we act around our young gymnasts come competition season, we may hinder their performance instead. 

Here are 4 simple strategies to help young gymnasts overcome nerves, feel confident and perform their best at competition:

1. Make Bouncing Back A Habit

At competition, you only get one attempt at your routine. And that attempt lasts just one minute.

It doesn’t matter how many perfect routines you’ve done in practice. If you mess up in competition, you can’t fix it. 

Can you imagine the pressure?

No wonder young gymnasts fear mistakes. Fearing mistakes may:

  • Make them nervous,
  • Cause them to ‘play it safe’ by reducing the amplitude or power of their movement so as not to fall, 
  • Cause them to lose focus after a mistake, which can derail the rest of the routine. 

The tragedy is that any of the above can end up costing the gymnast more points than a mistake itself!

So how can we teach our gymnasts not to fear mistakes? By making bouncing back a habit.

I tell my gymnasts that if they make a mistake during competition, they should move on, focus on the next skill and keep fighting. This is easy enough to understand. But understanding doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to do it when it counts. So, we have to practice. Before the competition, we have many mock competitions so they can practice bouncing back, until they can do it automatically.

While coaches should take the lead on this one, parents can help to soothe pre-competition jitters by reminding young gymnasts that it’s ok to make mistakes, and that bouncing back is an achievement in itself. 

2. Focus on Process, Not Outcome

Sometimes, well-meaning parents and coaches tell their gymnasts, “If you work hard, you will do well”. Unfortunately, the reality of competitive sport (and life in general) is that sometimes you work hard, and you still don’t do well.

There could be many reasons for this: other competitors were more experienced, or they were luckier on the day, or the scoring was slightly subjective…the list goes on. The point is, the competition outcome is beyond the gymnast’s control. And trying to control something which is beyond your control is not only stressful — it also doesn’t work.

Instead, get the gymnast to focus on what they can control: effort and attitude. Set process goals like: work hard in training, stay focused in competition, bounce back from mistakes. Have gymnasts focus on what they need to do to be successful, rather than the outcome –success– they want.

When gymnasts focus on what they can control, not only are they more confident, they’re also more likely to achieve the outcome they want.

3. Make Competition Fun

Gymnastics Party
Party shenanigans!

My gymnasts love competition, because they know that after every competition, regardless of outcome, there’ll be a party!

At our party, there’s cake, there’s jelly, but most importantly (to them), there’s 2 hours of PLAYTIME in the gym.

Our young gymnasts are serious athletes, but they’re also kids. Kids work harder, persevere longer, and perform better when they are having fun. (Adults too, for that matter.) We should help them associate competition with fun, joy and laughter, rather than fear and stress.

4. Rack Up Competition Experience

An experienced coach once told me“高水平是比出来的,不是练出来的。” This roughly translates to Excellence is developed through competition, not (just) training.

I basically treat the first competition any of my gymnasts do as a write-off. It is strictly for experience, and I tell them as much. If they do well, it’s a bonus. It’s important that parents understand this as well, so they don’t come away from their child’s first competition thinking that they aren’t any good at gymnastics. 

The more competition exposure young gymnasts get, the more experienced they will be. They will get used to the competition pressure, get better at bouncing back from mistakes, and learn to rise to the occasion. They will also have more opportunities to observe the best, which will motivate them to work harder.

Every Competition Is An Opportunity

At the end of the day, every competition is an opportunity, no matter the outcome. It is an opportunity either to excel, or to learn. Oftentimes, the learning is more valuable to long-term success. As coaches and parents, we must teach our young gymnasts to make every opportunity count

 

Now I’d love to hear from you! If you have any other strategies for helping young athletes succeed, leave a comment below. I read every single one. 

Continue Reading