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Mental skills: Your journey to becoming more resilient starts here

Jason Brennan is back with an examination of the factors that go into being a resilient competitor.

Updated 13 February

  • Read the first three pieces of Jason Brennan’s series on mental skills here

WE ALL KNOW resiliency when we see it.

The comeback victory, a team holding out a lead against the odds, an athlete bouncing up from a heavy setback to grasp success from the jaws of defeat.

But how many of us are actually aware of what goes into being resilient? How many of us have worked on building our resiliency?

Your journey to becoming more resilient starts here.

Conor Murray celebrates Robbie Henshaw's try Ireland showed resiliency in Chicago. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Resiliency of the mind

One of the beauties of sports is the raw competitiveness, the stretching and striving for human achievement and the instantaneous results. Without a doubt, one of the greatest pull cards is the instantaneousness and immediacy of sport – no one knows what’s going to happen.

The highest ranked team can play a bad game on any given day. The lowest ranked team can play a blinder. The top-paid and top-points-scoring athlete can fail to show up, while a complete unknown can steal the day. This is sporting achievement, this is competing.

When a team or an individual athlete looks like they are off their game, some of the regular comments heard include; ‘Will they have the ability to come back? Can they bounce back from this? Will they come back in time?’

At these times, commentators will ask, ‘What must be going through their mind?’

Spectators might comment, ‘It’s too late now, they’ve lost it, there’s no coming back now’ – even when there might still be over a quarter of the game left to play.

Another interesting phenomena is when a team is leading, but their supporters are worried now that they are ahead. We often hear comments like ‘Yeah, but can they hold on? Don’t give the ball away!’

Sound familiar? Coming from behind or holding on to win has a lot to do with the resiliency of a player’s mind and the resiliency cultivated within a team. Some teams or athletes are famous for their resiliency. You can think of a few you know in each sport.

Like any skill, resiliency can be taught, grown and developed. It doesn’t need to be left to chance.

Under pressure, it is not the technical and tactical skills that have deserted a player. These are skills they have trained hours and hours for and are secure in their body’s tissue memory.

At times like these, it is the athlete’s or team’s ability to psychologically regroup and harness these skills that counts. Understanding what resiliency involves is the first step towards growing it in yourself or your team.

Spain Soccer La Liga Lionel Messi is a resilient athlete. Source: Manu Fernandez

Individual and team resiliency 

Resiliency can be broken into two perspectives – individual and team.

Resiliency means bouncing back or getting back up, not staying down, not giving up, not giving in. Resiliency is the skill and ability to bounce back quickly from errors of judgement, mistakes, misfortune or loss.

There are four key actions that enhance a resilient player and team. They are:

  • Awareness
  • Fluency
  • Support
  • Execution

Let’s take a closer look at each of these four actions.

Awareness

Our mind is very efficient at surveying what is going on and quickly regrouping, re-planning and refocusing, as long as it is able to think clearly and with context, i.e. ‘What’s going right here, right now?’

What effects clarity of the mind is an excess of stress chemicals and excess emotional reaction. The result of both of these can lead to what is commonly known as ‘freezing’ or ‘choking’.

Excess stress chemicals trigger our primary survival system (fight, flight and freeze). Freeze is a natural part of our arsenal in response to an external threat – in the middle of a game or competition, however, this is not useful.

These chemicals need to be cooled down, quickly. When the mind is in freeze mode, it just isn’t thinking. A player or a team can feel powerless – but they aren’t!

For example, a young hockey player kept freezing when the ball was passed to him. The coach tried to help by asking, ‘What were you thinking when you got the ball?’ Reply: ‘I don’t know’.

‘What was going on in your head?’ Reply: ‘I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking’.

The student was exactly correct – his brain froze and therefore he couldn’t think of what to do next. He locked up.

A simple solution here is: don’t think – just act!

Take action, move and get the system going again. The coach moved from a thinking question to an action invitation – ‘When the ball comes, do this next’ – visually showing the player something to do, be able to practise and later recall.

Paul O'Connell Paul O'Connell was always good at bouncing back from setbacks. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

‘Choking’ is the opposite, where a player or a team is over thinking. The mind is over working and being driven by feelings. The base feeling here is excess worry or fear. Other feelings can be excess frustration and anger.

These are useful feelings if harnessed, but not so useful if left to spill about inside and outside a player.

The first step in resiliency then is awareness of what is going on in the moment and taking action towards quickly getting back to clarity of thought.

By extension, speaking up and helping other members of the team to think more clearly – with options around what is happening in the game – and reacting with appropriate measures and a plan of action that has been practised in training.

It’s not about getting angry, accusatory or blaming. This is risky and while it might inspire some action initially, over time it will destroy team culture.

Fluency

If a player or athlete is more aware of what they are feeling or what is stressing them in the moment, they can then use this information.

Fluency is being able to acknowledge and express feelings and thoughts in a useful way.

Resiliency involves using this energy in a motivational and encouraging way – as opposed to a demotivating and discouraging outburst. Players and teams can learn a simple emotional fluency technique called ‘labelling’.

This involves figuring out which of our four primary feelings are being felt. The big four are: happiness, sadness, anger and fear.

Labelling a feeling helps release the energy that is associated with it. Sharing this with themselves first can help players. Sharing with others at times will also help, as others may also feel this way. Labelling, or just calling out a feeling, brings teams closer – if done in an honest and constructive way. This is then practised in training.

Cory Jane scores a try The Canes showed their mental strength last year. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

It is where players can learn to express themselves in a non-destructive or overly aggressive/critical way. If annoyed, speak with facts, speak with data and contribute to creating a plan of action.

In the heat of a game, there is not much time to express feelings, however they do rise within players. Happiness (passion) and anger (focused aggression) are very useful; sadness (disappointment) or fear (worry or anxiousness) are not so useful – and can be postponed until after the game.

An aspect of fluency is not having to express all feelings in the moment. Feelings can be labelled and acknowledged but expressed at a later date, perhaps after a game or competition. Feelings can be ‘parked’, for a period.

Support

Resiliency is strongest when it is a team effort. With a basic understanding of awareness and fluency, a team or an athlete can look at strategies of how to channel the energy connected to feelings in a constructive way. Converting what is frustrating them into a useful plan of action.

Another resiliency technique for athletes and teams is a basic understanding of what they look like under distress. What are the signs of stress?

It’s important to take the time to know your own tell-tale signs (awareness) and then share them with others (fluency). This will help coaches and teammates to be aware and have the ability to help (support).

Examples of these signs are:

  • Going quiet
  • Head down
  • Overly urgent
  • Overly aggressive
  • Visible self-criticism
  • Overly critical of others

In one workshop, I remember a player openly sharing with his team that he hated when team-mates came up to him and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get him next time’ after he missed a tackle.

It would make him even angrier – ‘mad’ inside, he said. Of course, his team-mates were only trying to help, but what they said did not help.

So, we looked at what he would like his team to say or do when he missed a tackle. They then made a plan of action.

Any team can plan ahead of time for when it gets tough – don’t wait.

Execution

Execution is having agreed a plan of support – of how to encourage, motivate, refocus, share leadership, and to then deliver this in competition.

Some athletes are naturally good at this, while others need to recognise they have a responsibility to grow their own resiliency and have a plan of action to call on.

New ZealandÕs Dan Carter Dan Carter was always capable of rising to a challenge. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Team resiliency techniques include connecting quickly and effectively in games; using stoppage or down time to connect and communicate well; or using signs and signals to pass messages across distance and to check on players – especially after a mistake or error or bad call. Ensuring messages from the sidelines are spread and understood.

For individual players, examples of resiliency techniques are grounding – which we’ve discussed before – centering, Performance Enhancing Thoughts (PETS), physical anchors or support agreements (with other players, coaches etc).

One simple and useful anchoring technique is clapping. The harder and louder the better.

To help clear the mind, clap hard a couple of times – then feel the sting on the hands. Allow attention to go to this temporary sensation and temporary pain. This brief pause will allow time for the stress chemicals to divert there. A few deep breaths will then give a burst of oxygen to the blood and clear the mind even more.

In a team event, clapping is also a resilient strategy to inspire and share energy with others. The more players clapping, the more the message that gets to other players – ‘we’re in this, keep it going.’ Especially useful after small in game wins.

Finally, some quick guidelines to a resilient player and resilient team focus are:

  • Embrace the challenge
  • Plan to succeed
  • Adjust to the situation
  • Fight to achieve

Exercise 

Below is an exercise for you to carry out as you look to become more resilient. Grab a pen and paper and take some time to work through the points below.

  • Sit down and think about what your stress signs are.
  • Write out what others would see when you’re stressed.
  • What is the predominant feeling you go to when stressed – which of the big four?
  • How could others help if they saw you were stressed?
  • Which mental skills technique could you turn to when stressed?

Now put your plan into action and become a more resilient competitor.

Feel free to comment below or via Jason@thinkwell.se.

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