Resilience for Athletes

Over the years, I’ve seen coaches create a reaction in their athlete by saying inflammatory things. They often do this to try to evoke an emotion. For some athletes, it works. For most athletes, it has a negative outcome. It may initially give coaches the reaction they are after, however, any enhancement in performance is short-lived.

It has a lot to do with the mental and emotional resilience of an athlete.

I was recently working with an athlete and their coach. The coach is very knowledgeable about their sport, they’ve got some great results out of their sport, and they’ve been around a long time; so they know how to coach.

While I was working with the athlete, I asked the coach to do what they’d normally do, to coach the athlete so I could observe the interaction, and work out what I could do to make it more effective and efficient. When the coach was watching the athlete doing some specific skills, the coach was imparting some great technical knowledge to the athlete. You could see this athlete actually adored this coach and hung off every word they were saying. Every time they gave an opinion, thought, or directive, this athlete was keen to apply what they’d just learned.

As the coach turned around to walk back to observe this athlete doing what he just told him to do, the coach made a flippant remark.

I watched the athlete completely deflate…

The next performance wasn’t what was expected…

The athlete was down, no longer processing information and was focusing on this flippant remark.

I could see the emotional weight they were carrying with them.

I asked the coach if they knew what they had just done. They had no idea. They’d given information, made sure the athlete was aware of what to achieve and how to achieve it, and then in their mind, the job was done.

So I asked the coach what their role was. They said “My role is to coach and teach.”

I asked them to be more specific and the coach was silent.

This coach has a long history of success in the sport; a great technical knowledge of the sport; knows how to coach, and how to get a result for athletes.

What he didn’t understand was the key role he played.

Their role is to give information and make sure an athlete takes it on in a way they can use, see relevance to, and have a tangible application of.

This coach didn’t see it in that way.

The throwaway comment and the reaction from the athlete undoes all the great information just given.

Where does that leave a coach? Does it mean we have to be conscious of every single word we have to say?

In a way, yes.

Does it mean we can’t joke and have that human interaction with athletes?

Of course not. It’s part of the responsibility of the coach, and part of the athlete, to make sure they understand what they’re getting and what they’re giving.

From a coach’s perspective, being aware that once the information is given, the comments also given will be associated to an emotion. If you give information that makes the athlete feel really good about that, they’re more likely to apply it. If you give information and they feel great, then you give a parting comment that changes the associated emotion, you no longer have a clear and concise application of that information.

That all sounds technical, what it means is if you want an athlete to do their best, leave them with a positive emotion. Make sure you’ve left them feeling comfortable when trying to apply something new – let them use that information in the most efficient format.

From an athlete’s perspective, it comes down to having emotional and mental resilience. There are couple ways to do this.

For older athletes, it’s more about recognition of the relevance of the information. Take a logical approach of “This is what I need for this skill, let me sort that from my coach”. The relationship from the coach to the athlete has to be equal in communication. The information needs to sit well and they have to have an open relationship of good communication.

With younger athletes – teens and lower – building emotional resilience is asking them to see things through a ‘protective layer’. We all have filtering systems that have developed over our life spans and are formed by things we’ve experienced in life. Young athletes are influenced by themselves, parents, social groups, peers, etc. These are inbuilt, cultivated filtering systems.

By tweaking these filters to become more relevant for the younger set is to teach them to create an image in their brain. That is, when anyone is trying to give them information, having a set of filters to put that information through, in order to keep the relevance of that information – is key.

I explain the process of how to build resilience in athletes in detail on my Brain in the Game podcast.

The resilience process gives the athlete wider control over the information they receive, to apply the bits they need, or put it away for later. It also allows athletes to unemotionally bounce the negativity away.

As a coach, how do you give your information? Are you undoing all that great work with your throwaway comment, or not making information relevant?

If you’re an athlete saying “That’s me! My coach has made me feel really negative even after giving me great information…”, then be proactive about managing that information, more aware of what you need to use, to keep, to store and to bounce off.

Also being conscious about how you ask the questions will help this process. Asking in a certain way is more likely to get the response in the same way. If you ask very emotionally-charged questions, you’re more likely to get emotionally-charged responses. How you ask questions will often dictate how you receive the answer.

This process of emotional resilience is about being specific with what we get, how we get it, and how we used it; and letting all the other stuff that comes with it, go.

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