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.

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?

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

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