Leadership & Culture, Performance | Apr 22, 2021
A snapshot of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brisbane Lions, the Royal Military Academy and the English Institute of Sport.

High performing organisations are increasingly making the link between resilience and wellbeing and their ability to influence performance.

By John Portch

“Resilience means ‘to spring back’ and comes from the Latin ‘resilio’,” Gareth Bloomfield, a psychologist at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst told the Leaders Performance Institute in 2019. “Of course, people don’t always spring back; and they might spring back in a different shape or they might spring back and break.” There are, however, steps that can be taken to give people the best possible chance of springing back.

Bloomfield said that social relationships are an essential part of resilience. “There is considerable evidence that demonstrates our ability to get through any event in our lives relies on the support of other people. In a military context, where you have other people around you who you like, trust and respect, they’re strong leadership qualities. You don’t need to make a decision that other people like, but you need to be liked, respected and trusted; and that means you need to be forming social relationships and social resilience together with other people.”

Cultural readiness

At the Pittsburgh Pirates, Héctor Morales, who serves as the club’s Director, Cultural Readiness and Peak Performance Coach, has devised a Cultural Readiness program that helps players from overseas adapt and assimilate to life in the US.

“The biggest challenge I saw is when players first come to the US,” Morales told his colleague Michael Chernow in conversation for the Leaders Performance Institute last year. “The players were in the back of the lines, standing in the background, they were just trying to follow the crowd, and more followers with fear, which I can relate to.”

The objective of the Cultural Readiness and Peak Performance program is to identify how much can the Pirates equip these players with the tools to solve the problems that are going to come with each one of those confidence choke points.

“It’s not that we’re going to give them the solutions – the ‘keys to the kingdom’ – we are making them aware of the speedbumps they are going to find that will significantly harm their career if they are not prepared for them,” Morales added, “if you don’t have a contingency plan, a mental tool to pull out at that moment to reset and get back to where they need to be.

“The effort with our program is tied to the player understanding what they are going to be facing along the way, what can we help them with, and what are the things that only the player can solve themselves. At the end of the day, if you don’t want to change it, if you don’t want to fix it, nobody is going to do it for you. All we can do with our program is set the conditions for the athlete to be successful. We set parameters, we hold them accountable, but they are the ones who have to make the decision to follow the path or not.”

Helping athletes with their self-care

Athlete self-care has taken on a different dimension during the pandemic, where athletes were forced to work in isolation during spells of lockdown across the globe.

When it came to reintegration, the English Institute of Sport [EIS] called upon a crisis response framework currently used by the UK’s National Health Service. This model defines three primary needs for athletes when it comes to reintegration: accessing, affirming and reconnecting.

The second need, ‘affirming’, largely concerns self-care. Athletes were relatively well-prepared for the lockdown, which some viewed as akin to a training camp. “[They had] strategies developed from times when they’re remote from family or support networks,” said Sam Cumming, the EIS’ Mental Health Manager last year.

“Having been a bit more independent in how they look after themselves it’s fair to say that many already had familiar coping skills coming into lockdown. Self-care is something that the EIS Mental Health team have pushed through our mental health awareness programme; and these strategies can certainly be applied to the lockdown situation”

Additionally, an EIS document on Psychosocial Guidance for Returning to Training, encourages practitioners to help athletes and others to ‘accept alternative experiences to your own and be willing to hear a perspective that may not align to yours’. It also highlights that ‘individual responses and readiness to return will be fluid, changeable and nonlinear.’

“On reflection, I think really focusing on self-care is something that coaches and support staff can find challenging” said Cumming. “But maybe through this situation there’s been some forced focus on it and that might be a positive thing for some people.”

Watching your energy

Last but not least for Bloomfield and Sandhurst is the importance of sleep in ensuring the resilience of their cadets. Bloomfield said that, in general, people must achieve 6.5 hours sleep each night to permit a full neurological reset. “Your neurological performance depends on how much sleep you’re getting,” he said. “I don’t care who you are – you need sleep. If you’re not getting enough sleep then your sleep is disrupted in some way then that’s going to affect your mind and powers.”

Bloomfield has an ally in Brisbane Lions Senior Coach Chris Fagan. “I have a saying: ‘resilience is not about your ability to endure, it’s about your ability to re-energise’,” he told the Leaders Performance Institute in 2019. “We pay particular attention at our club to make sure that we keep that energy in place.

“An example of that is, if we play interstate on a Sunday, and we get back to Brisbane at midnight, then I don’t expect the players to come in the next day. I want them to wake up and do their own recovery and they know we’ll see them on Tuesday. I think if we made them come in when they’re tired from playing and travelling, then they’re going to be flat and not really tuned in.

“It’s the same with our staff. A game goes on for two hours and it takes a long time to code a game; I wouldn’t expect them at work at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning with all their work done. I’d say, ‘come in at 3 o’clock and we’ll plan what we’re going to do on Tuesday then.’

“I really watch the energy in our environment closely.”

Download the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives.

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