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An article brought to you in association with our Partners The Platypus Institute
The Platypus Institute is a pioneering leader in the field of maximizing elite-level sports performance based on neurocognitive assessments and has extensive experience working with coaches and athletes. For more information click here.
Some athletes thrive in pressure-cooker situations and perform better when the weight of the world is on their shoulders. In contrast, other players experience crippling anxiety and fumble when the stakes are high.
Tom Nugent, Director of Elite Performance Solutions at The Platypus Institute, says, “As a coach, you want to understand how your players react to stress throughout the season. The seasonal grind, the added intensity of the playoffs, or even the additional weight of a few road games in a row.”
“We’ve seen it in every sport, whether it’s smashing a tennis racket, getting a technical, retaliating at an opponent, or even just becoming detached from the game for a few minutes to a quarter, players react differently to different things,” adds Nugent. “Becoming more resilient against a trash-talking opponent, a ref making a call you don’t agree with, or a play not going your way is part of what separates the best from the great.”
The Platypus Institute has the capability to leverage a wealth of scientific data and research findings relating to stress, resilience, and performance under pressure that can help coaches and players alike. “The ability to recognize how both your body and mind can change in response to stressful outside influences, and the ability to control your reactions through capabilities such as neurofeedback, can provide a distinct advantage by creating a mental shield to help keep you in the game, in the moment, and performing at your best,” says Nugent.
The neurobiology and psychometrics of resilience
Researchers at King’s College London (KCL) recently conducted a meta-analysis, “Adapting to Stress: Understanding the Neurobiology of Resilience that explored how different individuals respond to stress on a neurobiological level.
This analysis by Carlos Osório and colleagues identifies specific neural circuits and other brain mechanisms associated with being more ‘stress-resilient’. Although this paper identifies the neurobiological components associated with a “stress-resilient profile,” more rigorous neuroscientific research is needed. From a psychological perspective, the authors of this review offer some insights regarding character traits, explanatory styles, and lifestyle choices that appear to boost resilience.
“It should be noted that active coping strategies, humor, hardiness, and extroversion can promote resilience through fostering feelings of mastery, commitment, and competence as well as the ability to help others through bonding,” Osório and his co-authors said. “Importantly, the propensity of resilient individuals to express positive emotions, in relation to negative events, enables them to control their anxiety and fears.”
These insights on stress-resilient individuals by researchers at KCL dovetail with the work of Peter Clough at the University of Huddersfield, who famously identified and created the “4C’s Model” of mental toughness (MT). The 4C model incorporates four independent but correlated factors relating to resilience and mental toughness that all begin with the letter “C.”
Further reading in the Headstart series:
What are the 4C’s of Mental Toughness and Resilience?
1. Challenge refers to reframing potential threats as opportunities for growth and mastery;
2. Commitment reflects persistence in the pursuit of goals despite obstacles or setbacks;
3. Control includes emotion regulation and stress-coping mechanisms;
4. Confidence involves having very little self-doubt and strong belief in one’s abilities.
Psychometric assessments that measure mental toughness and resilience are often rooted in Clough’s 4C Model. In 2019, Neil Dagnall and his applied cognitive psychology colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan University created a mental toughness survey called the MTQ-10, which rates degrees of resilience based on the four C’s of challenge, commitment, control, and confidence.
“We view mental toughness as a general construct and use the 4C framework for reflection and development,” Dagnall said in a recent Psychology Today interview. “At the heart of this is an emphasis on positivity (i.e., viewing barriers as hurdles, obstacles as challenges, etc.). The focus is on empowering individuals to adopt an internal locus of control, facilitating a sense of self-belief, and focusing on their self-efficacy. Obviously, this can vary across people. Hence, the 4C framework is useful for examining strengths and potential weaknesses (areas of development).”
1. Even when under considerable pressure, I usually remain calm.
2. I tend to worry about things well before they actually happen.
3. I usually find it hard to summon enthusiasm for the tasks I have to do.
4. I generally cope well with any problems that occur.
5. I generally feel that I am a worthwhile person.
6. “I just don’t know where to begin” is a feeling I usually have when presented with several things to do at once.
7. When I make mistakes, I usually let it worry me for days after.
8. I generally feel in control.
9. I am generally able to react quickly when something unexpected happens.
10. I generally look on the bright side of life.
All of the MTQ questionnaires use a five-point Likert scale, which creates a mental toughness/resilience score based on responses ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” How would you respond to the questions on the MTQ-10?
Much like the discovery of the human brain’s plasticity, the authors speculate that mental toughness is a ‘plastic’ and malleable personality trait that is never set in stone. Dagnall explains, “Mental toughness is ‘trainable’ to the extent that people can learn to adopt non-preferential behaviors. In this context, the short MTQ-10 measures provide expedient, accessible, and easy to interpret indexes for assessing levels of [resilience] in everyday situations (i.e., sport, educational, and occupational).”
Notably, the brevity of this 10-item questionnaire makes it easy to readily assess and test levels of resilience and mental toughness at various points in time and in many different environments both on and off the playing field.
Stress triggers psychophysiological reactions in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that affect the body, brain, and mind. Colloquially, we refer to this as the ‘fight-flight-or-freeze’ response.
Unbridled, runaway stress responses increase sports-related handicaps and can derail an athlete’s career. However, learning to reframe distress (bad stress) as eustress (good stress) has been shown to calm the nervous system and makes the “relaxation response” more robust.
“Stress can have both positive and negative effects on performance, and knowing the variance of an individual player’s response to these things will give better insight into how to maximize their potential while maintaining optimal mental health,” Tom Nugent said in a recent Q&A about resilience.
In 2019, Candace Hogue and colleagues at Penn State University published a paper in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise about the protective impact of mental skills training sessions and motivational priming.
Hogue et al. were able to establish that mental skills training sessions that taught athletes to adopt a ‘stress-is-enhancing‘ mindset improved psychophysiological responses to performance anxiety. These changes were indexed by lower salivary cortisol (a stress hormone) in response to a sports-related performance stressor.
Another paper, “A Qualitative Exploration of Thriving in Elite Sport,” published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology identified eight characteristics associated with “thriving” among elite sports performers. For this analysis, Daniel Brown and colleagues at the University of Bath defined thriving as encompassing “sustained high-level performance and an optimistic outlook.” Each of the eight characteristics identified by Brown et al. were dependent on an athlete’s fundamental “ability to control and manage stressful situations.”
Elite athlete performers quoted in this analysis share personal details that illustrate how possessing the right mental attitude reduces distress, increases resilience, and facilitates thriving.
One elite sport performer said, “I don’t think any athlete exists in the world [who doesn’t feel] some level of pressure on them. I do think at some level an athlete needs stress to thrive.” A teammate added, “You need the mental wherewithal to be able to handle [the pressure of] elite level performance sport, because without it I think it would be a long battle.”
Many athletes fall into a trap of thinking that coping with stressful situations is beyond their locus of control. However, reframing stress as something positive by adopting a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset seems to trick the nervous system into switching off the alarm bells associated with hyperactive fight-flight-or-freeze stress responses and make athletes more resilient.
Carlos Osório, Thomas Probert, Edgar Jones, Allan H. Young, and Ian Robbins. “Adapting to Stress: Understanding the Neurobiology of Resilience.” (2016) Behavioral Medicine DOI: 10.1080/08964289.2016.1170661
Daniel J. Brown, Rachel Arnold, Thomas Reid, and Gareth Roberts. “A Qualitative Exploration of Thriving in Elite Sport.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology (2017) DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1354339
Neil Dagnall, Andrew Denovan, Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Peter Joseph Clough, Andrew Parker, and Kenneth Graham Drinkwater. “Psychometric Assessment of Shortened Mental Toughness Questionnaires (MTQ): Factor Structure of the MTQ-18 and the MTQ-10.” Frontiers in Psychology (2019) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01933
Candace M. Hogue “The Protective Impact of a Mental Skills Training Session and Motivational Priming on Participants’ Psychophysiological Responses to Performance Stress.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise (2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101574
Further reading in the Headstart series: