Resiliency in Sport: How is it Developed and Maintained?

As athletes, we face a variety of challenges on a daily basis. We train our skills and condition our bodies. Our schedules are busy, and we deal with stressors that surface unexpectedly in our daily lives outside of athletics. We participate in school, extracurricular activities, work part-time or full-time jobs, maintain family relationships and friendships…and in addition, we strive to reach optimal performance in our respective sports. What separates athletes who can perform under significant pressure, and those who crumble under its weight? What separates athletes who are able to bounce back from failures, setbacks, injuries, and obstacles, versus those who give up or succumb to burnout?

What separates those athletes who are resilient from those who are not?
Let’s dive into some of the latest research on the traits, circumstances, and factors that contribute to the development of resilience in athletes.


First, let’s take a look at the definition of resilience:

Resilience, when referring to a substance or an object, is the ability to recoil, spring back, or resume its original shape after bending, stretching, or compressing (Strumpfer, 1999). When referring to human beings, resilience has been defined in multiple ways. Researchers Abbot et al. (2009) defined resilience as “A person’s ability to persevere in the face of challenges, setbacks, and conflicts” while researchers Sherlock-Storey et al. (2013) described resilience as “when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond to attain success”. “The terms resilient, resilience, or resiliency are used by coaches and athletes interchangeably to describe an athlete’s ability to respond or recover favorably from adverse situations (Galli & Vealey, 2008).

Every committed athlete has faced challenges, setbacks, conflicts, problems, and adversity not only in sport, but also in their everyday lives. Arguably, athletes need to develop resilience in order to remain successful and achieve maximum potential in sport. Resilience is an essential component in the mentality of driven athletes that accomplish great things.

There isn’t just one formula. The development of resilience as a trait varies from one individual to another. Factors include the sport being played, contextual life influences, and motivational outlooks. However, researchers have found significant trends in athletes who develop and maintain resilience.


Researchers Cresswell and Eklund (2007), studying rugby athletes in New Zealand found a significant difference in athletes who experienced burnout versus athletes who did not experience burnout. Those who experienced burnout were faced with heavy training demands, competitive transitions, injury, pressure to comply with demands, public profile pressure, performance pressure, losing status of playing time, and poor relationships with team management and coaches.

Those athletes who did NOT experience burnout had a significant difference in their mentality. They were able to find meaning in participation in their sport beyond just performance and outcome, and found other areas of their lives to be committed to and involved in. Additionally, athletes who did not experience burnout had positive social support systems, experienced free communication with their coaches and managers, and engaged in positive activities outside of rugby.

Key Takeaway: In order for athletes to develop resilience and avoid burnout in their sport, they should strive for open and honest communication with their coaches, seek out encouraging social support systems, and find life-giving activities outside of sport.


Researchers Martin-Krumm et al. (2009) have also tested how the mentalities of athletes affect their performance and confidence after they failed a physical test. In a study of basketball players, researchers required each athlete to complete a questionnaire to find out whether the athlete had a pessimistic, optimistic, or neutral explanatory style. After taking a physical test that challenged their abilities in basketball, each athlete was told he or she “failed,” and needed to take the test again. Athletes with pessimistic explanatory styles of thinking demonstrated low expectations of their abilities, blamed themselves for mistakes, exhibited greater anxiety when their heart rates were measured, and performed worse on the 2nd test. Athletes with optimistic explanatory styles of thinking tended to explain failure not by blaming themselves, but by taking into account environmental contexts as well. They experienced less anxiety and performed better on the 2nd test.

Additionally, researchers Anshel and Kaissidis assessed the differences in coping strategies when athletes were faced with different types of tough situations. When athletes are faced with uncontrollable situations, using an approach (problem-focused) coping style is effective, in which they actively face a challenge and try to solve it head-on. In contrast, when athletes are faced with an uncontrollable situation, using an avoidance (emotion-focused) coping style, by avoiding the situation and coming back to it at a later time, is effective. For example: in basketball, when athletes were faced with uncontrollable situations (such as a bad call by the referee), it was less stressful for the athlete to use an avoidance coping mechanism, and easier for the athlete to let it go and move on. However, when athletes faced controllable setbacks (such as missing a layup), it was more effective for the athlete to use an approach coping mechanism, by directly fixing his or her technique and obtaining a better outcome next time. 

Key Takeaways: Athletes can train themselves to think more optimistically and “bigger picture” by taking contextual factors into account and not only blaming themselves for failures or setbacks. This will allow them to develop greater resilience and bounce back from setbacks more quickly. It’s also important for athletes to understand which types of coping skills are effective in different situations, so that he/she can display resilience more quickly.


It’s been proven by researchers Galli (2008) and Vealey that the mindset of the athlete is not the sole factor that contributes to resilience. One study utilized in-depth interviews of ten elite-level athletes who were able to return to their sports after major setbacks such as serious injury, performance slumps, complete burnout, transition to college, and serious illness. The factors that enabled each athlete to return to his or her sport (and in some cases, perform better than before!) were the following: personal traits, social supports, and cultural and structural factors. Athletes who were successfully resilient did not rely only on themselves, but others who were also willing to support them, as well as cultural identities to guide them. Resilient athletes were open to learning life lessons, gaining perspective from their experiences, and motivated to help others after going through adversity.

Key Takeaways: Athletes who develop resilience (often) cannot rely on themselves alone. Athletes have to understand their limitations, what they are able to accomplish on their own, and when they should lean on support systems for help. Part of developing resilience requires open-mindedness, the willingness to be vulnerable in difficult times, connection with others when support is needed, and sharing our experiences with those who might be going through the same thing.


Resilience is complicated (multi-factorial). From person to person, resilience is manifested in different ways. However, the common traits of resilient athletes in relevant research are:

1) a positive optimistic and open mindset in which athletes take into account contextual factors alongside their own abilities

2) strong and positive support systems during times of adversity

3) finding meaning in life-giving activities outside of sport to enhance identity and self-confidence

As athletes, we will all face setbacks, failures, and challenges. We should know how to prepare ourselves to face those challenges with optimism and resilience. Thanks to recent research, we now know a few tips!

I hope this article is helpful to all the members of the WellU Mental Training community! Thanks for reading.

~Kamila Tan

1 Robertson, Ivan & Cooper, Cary & Sarkar, Mustafa & Curran, Thomas. (2015). Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 88. 533-562.
2 Robertson, Ivan & Cooper, Cary & Sarkar, Mustafa & Curran, Thomas. (2015). Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 88. 533-562.
3 Galli, N., & Vealey, R. S. (2008). “Bouncing back” from adversity: Athletes’ experiences of resilience. The Sport Psychologist, 22(3), 316-335.
4 Cresswell, S.L., & Eklund, R.C. (2007). Athlete Burnout: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study.
5 Charles Martin-Krumm, Philippe Sarrazin, Christopher Peterson, Jean-Pierre Famose. Explanatory Style and Resilience after Sports Failure. Personality and Individual Differences, Elsevier, 2003, 35 (7), pp.1685-1695.
6 Anshel, M. H., & Kaissidis, A. N. (1997). Coping style and situational appraisals as predictors of coping strategies following stressful events in sport as a function of gender and skill level. British Journal of Psychology, 88(2), 263-276.
7 Galli, N., & Vealey, R. S. (2008). “Bouncing back” from adversity: Athletes’ experiences of resilience. The Sport Psychologist, 22(3), 316-335.