Motivation and Resilience for Athletes

Original Editor - Wanda van Niekerk based on the course by Carl Bescoby

Top Contributors - Wanda van Niekerk and Jess Bell  

What is Resilience[edit | edit source]

"Resilience refers to a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity."[1] Adversity may involve stressors such as:

  • Serious injury
  • Illness
  • Loss of loved ones

However, this definition refers to "significant adversity". This implies that adversity or a setback may negatively influence the function of a system in a severe and fundamental way.[2] A system may be an individual, a team or an organisation.[2] The severity of specific adversity distinguishes between a setback that calls for resilience versus a setback that calls for regular coping responses.[3] People do not experience adversity in the same way and each individual has their own protective factors to use in the case of adversity.[4]

Positive adaption is implied through how successful an individual or any other system is at meeting developmental tasks.[5]

Recently, resilience is thought of as a "process".[6] The American Psychological Association describes resilience as: "the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioural flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands." Hoegl et al.[7] describe the resilience process as follows:

  • A significant setback can disrupt an individual or team's balanced state
  • This may lead to a decrease in motivation and performance
  • A period of reorientation follows
    • During this period, methods or ways to achieve a positive adaptation are explored and implemented
  • In the case of a non-resilient response:
    • Reintegration with loss may occur e.g. permanent decrease in motivation
  • In the case of a resilient response:
    • Bouncing back to a balanced state
    • Setbacks can provide chances for growth and development, and this may enable individuals or teams to become stronger and even more capable than before the setback - "bouncing beyond"
    • New skills and capabilities may be developed this way

When working with athletes who are returning to sport after an injury setback, it can be unhelpful to consider bouncing beyond; these messages may be more harmful to the athlete than helpful.[5]

Why Does Resilience Matter?[edit | edit source]

Individuals with low resilience[8]:

  • May easily feel overwhelmed and helpless
  • May rely on unhealthy coping strategies such as:
    • Avoidance
    • Isolation
    • Self-medication
  • Show low ability to adapt to a changing environment[9]
  • Show low ability to attain good adjustment[9]

Resilience Within Sport[edit | edit source]

Athletes face a variety of stressors in sports, and they need a range of mental qualities to be able to withstand this pressure. This is where having high psychological resilience helps athletes.[10] These stressors can be broadly divided into three categories[10]:

  • Competitive stressors
    • Associated with competitive performance
  • Organisational stressors
    • Demands within the organisation that the athlete is part of
  • Personal stressors
    • Demands within personal and "nonsporting" life events

Athletes are exposed to stressors, setbacks, adversities, obstacles and failures.[11] These can include injuries, underperformance, abuse, and mental health concerns. Athletes will experience adversity. The question is how will they respond when adversity comes across their path?[11]


Resilience in Sports Injuries and Rehabilitation[edit | edit source]

Psychological resilience plays an important role in injury rehabilitation.[13] Resilient athletes show a tendency to[13]:

  • Overcome negative feelings and emotions following injury
  • Better cope and deal with negative psychological aspects of an injury
  • Engage in a positive and active way with the rehabilitation process
  • Have a quicker recovery compared to athletes with low resilience
  • Maintain rehabilitation adherence
  • Better manage setbacks along the rehabilitation continuum

Rehabilitation professionals working with athletes should be aware of psychological factors that can play a part in increasing the risk of injury.[14] Some of these factors are[14]:

  • Confidence
  • Fear of movement
  • Fear of re-injury
  • Fear of inferior performance

It is important to ensure that athletes concentrate on both physical and psychological resilience throughout rehabilitation. This may reduce fear-avoidance beliefs and behaviours at the return to sport. Clinicians should be aware of the "possible iatrogenic (induced unintentionally by a medical professional or medical treatment) effects that create fear in patients by over-emphasising risk of re-injury during the rehabilitation process."[14]

Characteristics of Resilient Athletes[edit | edit source]

Resilient qualities in individuals include[10]:

  • Positivity
  • Determination
  • Competitiveness
  • Commitment
  • Maturity
  • Persistence
  • Passion for the sport
  • Strong networks of social support
  • Easy temperament
  • Good self-esteem
  • Planning skills
  • Supportive environment inside and outside of family
  • Hope
  • Extraversion
  • Optimism
  • Spirituality
  • Self-efficacy

In the sport context, it has been shown that the best athletes (for example Olympic champions) use and optimise the following characteristics to deal with the stressors they are exposed to[10]:

  • Positive personality characteristics such as:
    • Optimism
    • Hope
    • Proactiveness
  • Motivation
  • Confidence
  • Focus
  • Perceived social support

"Physiotherapists, athletic trainers, and medical support staff can help identify and monitor these personal psychological characteristics to help athletes develop individual resilience."[5]

Development of Collective Resilience in Teams[edit | edit source]

The literature focuses a lot on individual resilience, but there has been a shift towards research into the resilience of sports teams in the last couple of years. In sports teams, unique challenges exist in coping with setbacks.[15] Stressors specific to groups are[15]:

  • Group tensions
  • Blame
  • Sudden and/or unexpected slumps in collective performance

It is clear that team members do not exist in isolation and that team members have shared experiences of adversity. Further research into resilient factors above the level of the individual is warranted.[15]

Morgan et al.[16] define team resilience in elite sports as "a dynamic, psychological process which protects a group of individuals from the potential negative effect of stressors they collectively encounter."

This recent review provides some more definitions to consider on team resilience: Recent developments in team resilience research in elite sport[15]

Carl Bescoby provides eight components to build greater collective team resilience[5]:

  • Create a psychologically safe environment
    • Promote self-awareness
    • Demonstrate concern for athletes/team members as human beings
    • Enable an environment where mistakes or failures are seen as opportunities to learn from
    • Enable team members to learn, contribute and challenge without fear or repercussions
    • Transparency will help build trust and this will help build resilience
  • Create a shared sense of purpose
    • Enable individuals to collaborate to achieve a common goal
  • Foster a collective identity
    • Encourage the development of a shared sense of identity
    • Shared experiences of adversity can enhance team cohesion
  • Promote a shared sense of belief in developing coping strategies
    • Utilising positive coping skills such as optimism and sharing, can help strengthen resilience more than non-productive coping skills[17]
  • Cultivating emotional intelligence
    • Deliberately deal with emotions that arise and understand how these emotions can affect the team's performance and dynamics
    • In difficult scenarios such as injury rehabilitation and recovery settings, displaying positive emotions is not always possible or easy. The capacity to manage these potentially overwhelming emotions (or seek the necessary help to cope with these emotions) helps teams to maintain focus when overcoming challenges such as severe injury. This capacity has been linked to improved resilience.[18]
  • Enhance the motivational climate
    • "motivation refers to the need, drive or desire to act in a certain way to achieve a certain end"[19]
    • Motivation is required to be resilient
    • Achievement goal theory is "competence-based end states that individuals strive to either approach or avoid in achievement contexts"[20]
      • Four types of goals are[20]:
        • Mastery approach
          • Improving competencies, skills and knowledge
        • Mastery avoidance
          • Prevention of loss of competencies, skills and knowledge and becoming stagnant
        • Performance approach
          • Striving to perform better than others
        • Performance avoidance
          • Avoiding doing worse than others
      • In a rehabilitation setting, influential persons such as the physiotherapist, athletic trainer, coach and team mates can help promote a setting which focuses on improvement, effort, cooperation, learning and relationships. This will promote mastery.[5]
      • Focusing on performance goals that foster social comparison, competition, evaluation and criticism may lead to athlete burnout.[5]
        • Sorkkila et al.[21] reported that high-level athletes with strong mastery goals were less prone to burnout compared to performance goal-orientated athletes.
        • Performance goals were also positively linked to emotional and physical exhaustion.[22]
      • There should be an emphasis on developing mastery climates in teams and rehabilitation environments. This will enable athletes to rely on their intrinsic motivation of learning, curiosity and developing abilities and competencies that will enhance their skills during rehabilitation. This will also help athletes manage adversities and help them become more resilient.[5]
  • Build the skills of dialogue
    • Teams or groups need resources that all members can rely on to deal with group emotions
      • One important resource teams can draw on is a common vocabulary
    • Open and honest dialogue should be encouraged
    • Learn skills of advocacy and inquiry to promote mutual learning
    • Learn to skillfully disagree without being disagreeable
    • Being able to communicate clearly and effectively helps people seek support, mobilise resources and act
    • People who can interact with, show empathy towards, and inspire confidence and trust in others, tend to be more resilient[23]
    • Physiotherapists, athletic trainers, and other rehabilitation professionals may be able to influence and develop collective resilience in teams and athletes if they are able to communicate effectively[5]
  • Develop and maintain self-compassion
    • Self-compassion refers to being supportive towards oneself when experiencing adversity[24]
    • Practices of self-compassion can include:
      • Self-kindness instead of self-judgement
      • Common humanity instead of isolation
      • Mindfulness instead of over-identification

Resources[edit | edit source]

Infographic: Tips for developing resilience

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Luthar SS, Cicchetti D, Becker B. The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child development. 2000 May;71(3):543-62.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hartmann S, Weiss M, Hoegl M. Team resilience in organizations: A conceptual and theoretical discussion of a team-level concept. In Research handbook on organizational resilience 2020 Aug 13. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  3. Richardson GE. The metatheory of resilience and resiliency. Journal of clinical psychology. 2002 Mar;58(3):307-21.
  4. Bonanno GA, Romero SA, Klein SI. The temporal elements of psychological resilience: An integrative framework for the study of individuals, families, and communities. Psychological Inquiry. 2015 Apr 3;26(2):139-69.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Bescoby, C. Motivation and Resilience for Athletes Course. Plus. 2022
  6. Williams TA, Gruber DA, Sutcliffe KM, Shepherd DA, Zhao EY. Organizational response to adversity: Fusing crisis management and resilience research streams. Academy of Management Annals. 2017 Jun;11(2):733-69.
  7. Hoegl M, Hartmann S. Bouncing back, if not beyond: Challenges for research on resilience. Asian Business & Management. 2021 Sep;20(4):456-64.
  8. Yadav CS. Resilience in times of the Coronavirus pandemic outbreak-a way forward.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Liang S, Dong M, Zhao H, Song Y, Yang A. Mindfulness and life satisfaction: The moderating effect of self-control and the moderated moderating effect of resilience. Personality and Individual Differences. 2022 Feb 1;185:111241.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Sarkar M, Fletcher D. Psychological resilience in sport performers: a review of stressors and protective factors. Journal of sports sciences. 2014 Sep 14;32(15):1419-34.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Galli N, Gonzalez SP. Psychological resilience in sport: A review of the literature and implications for research and practice. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 2015 Jul 3;13(3):243-57.
  12. The Sports Psychologist Breakdown. How to develop resilience in sport. Available from:[last accessed 07/11/2022]
  13. 13.0 13.1 Codonhato R, Rubio V, Oliveira PM, Resende CF, Rosa BA, Pujals C, Fiorese L. Resilience, stress and injuries in the context of the Brazilian elite rhythmic gymnastics. PLoS One. 2018 Dec 31;13(12):e0210174.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Paster E, Sayeg A, Armistead S, Feldman MD. Rehabilitation using a systematic and holistic approach for the injured athlete returning to sport. Arthroscopy, sports medicine, and rehabilitation. 2022 Jan 1;4(1):e215-9.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Morgan PB, Fletcher D, Sarkar M. Recent developments in team resilience research in elite sport. Current Opinion in Psychology. 2017 Aug 1;16:159-64.
  16. Morgan PB, Fletcher D, Sarkar M. Defining and characterizing team resilience in elite sport. Psychology of sport and exercise. 2013 Jul 1;14(4):549-59.
  17. McGarry S, Girdler S, McDonald A, Valentine J, Lee SL, Blair E, Wood F, Elliott C. Paediatric health‐care professionals: Relationships between psychological distress, resilience and coping skills. Journal of paediatrics and child health. 2013 Sep;49(9):725-32.
  18. Mestre JM, Núñez-Lozano JM, Gómez-Molinero R, Zayas A, Guil R. Emotion regulation ability and resilience in a sample of adolescents from a suburban area. Frontiers in psychology. 2017 Nov 13;8:1980.
  19. Resnick B. The relationship between resilience and motivation. Resilience in aging. 2018:221-44.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Daumiller M, Rinas R, Breithecker J. Elite athletes’ achievement goals, burnout levels, psychosomatic stress symptoms, and coping strategies. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 2022 Mar 4;20(2):416-35.
  21. Sorkkila M, Aunola K, Salmela‐Aro K, Tolvanen A, Ryba TV. The co‐developmental dynamic of sport and school burnout among student‐athletes: The role of achievement goals. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports. 2018 Jun;28(6):1731-42.
  22. Isoard-Gautheur S, Guillet-Descas E, Duda JL. How to achieve in elite training centers without burning out? An achievement goal theory perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2013 Jan 1;14(1):72-83.
  23. Levine S. Psychological and social aspects of resilience: a synthesis of risks and resources. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2003 Sep;5(3):273-80.
  24. Neff KD. Self-Compassion: Theory, method, research, and intervention. Annual Review of Psychology. 2022 Aug 12;74.