“The lads showed great resilience today, they just never gave up”. How many times have you heard this, or something similar, regurgitated by coaches in a post-match press conference? Is resilience simply “not giving up” or does it have a deeper meaning? And just how can the military help athletes develop resilience?
Do you know what resilience is?
Before reading any further, close your eyes and attempt to define resilience. If you thought of performing under pressure or dealing with setbacks, you are on the right lines. Essentially, it is using personal qualities in order to withstand ‘pressure’1. ‘Robust’ resilience is probably what most of you are thinking of; holding off an opponent by not letting negative thoughts, emotions or events affect performance1. Not too dissimilar is ‘rebound’ resilience, which is the term given to an ability to bounce back from a setback1; an athlete getting injured right before an Olympics who goes on to win gold at the following Olympics four years later. Simply, those who lack resilience are likely to crumble under pressure and suffer a subsequent rapid deterioration in performance. Conversely, high levels of resilience will protect an individual from the negative effects of pressure, helping to facilitate optimum performance.
How does anyone become ‘resilient’? First, you need stress or adversity2. Take Leicester City Football Club for example. Facing relegation in March 2015, they turned the tide and were league champions 14 months later in what was arguably the greatest fairy-tale in Premier League history. This was a team who experienced being at the lowest of lows that seemingly developed both robust and rebound resilience in order to withstand the negative effects of pressure and bounce back from the brink. Olympic champions have reported that without a significant adversity, winning a gold medal would not have been possible2. It may be necessary then, for athletes to experience a setback in order to perform at the highest level.
Adversity is just one part of the resilience story. The grounded theory of psychological resilience9 (image 1) explains how, in order for there to be optimal sport performance, a performer requires psychological factors such as positive personality, self-determined motivation3,4, confidence, focus and perceived social support. They also need to be able to perceive stress as an opportunity to grow (challenge appraisal) as well as being self-aware of emotions and thoughts (meta-cognition).
Image 1. A grounded theory of resilience
Fletcher and Sarkar created the Mental Fortitude Training Program for Sustained Success1 (image 2) which suggested psychological resilience is underpinned by an individual’s personal qualities; the personality characteristics and psychological factors that enable one to overcome the negative effects of stress. According to this training program, athletes require personality characteristics such as conscientiousness and perfectionism, whilst possessing confidence and self-determined motivation. A facilitative environment that is high in both challenge and support is required. Finally, a challenge mindset is necessary, where the individual interprets pressure and cognitive processes positively9.
Image 2. A mental fortitude training program for sustained success1
Resilience in the military
Psychological resilience is probably the most important psychological skill in the armed forces. In a theatre of war, they experience an unprecedented number of adverse situations, and are required to prepare for unknown challenges. What can the military teach us about resilience?
Comprehensive Soldier Fitness
Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF), based on the concepts and benefits of ‘positive psychology’6, was developed by the U.S. Army to help soldiers prepare for the stress of being in a theatre of war. It is a preventative programme, developing psychological resilience to improve soldier responses to adversity, thus reducing the number of those returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder7. Master Resilience Trainers (MRTs) deliver resilience training and are trained in self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, character strengths and connection8. These skills are, in the U.S. Army’s opinion, critical for the development of resilience, and are taught through Institutional Resilience Training (IRT).
Through IRT, soldiers receive training on the ABC model7. This model teaches soldiers to recognise an event (A), understand their beliefs surrounding the event (B) and assess the consequences of their thought processes about the event (C). Additionally, soldiers are educated in energy management, problem solving and address deeply held beliefs. They are also taught how to minimize catastrophic thinking, fight counterproductive thoughts and learn ways of cultivating gratitude. The energy management component of the programme is grounded in mindfulness training, with breathing control and positive imagery used to maintain resilience8. In my opinion, this is central to developing resilience; accepting and recognising that negative thoughts are a natural process will help prepare both soldiers and athletes to face adverse situations. Following this education, soldiers focus on identifying character strengths and strengthening relationships, something that is thought to be imperative wehen developing team resilience11.
What is particularly interesting about CSF is the suggestion that this training programme, coupled with military training, will make a soldier ‘fit’ to serve. The military are often associated with being physically fit; superhuman strength giving them an ability to overcome obstacles and terrain many civilians could only dream of. However, many people forget the distressing images and experiences that soldiers are exposed to, the day-to-day challenges they face and the high pressure situations they must work in. Physical fitness alone will not prepare soldiers for battle or athletes for competition, so resilience and a challenge mindset are clearly a requirement in order for them to operate effectively in their chosen domain.
Resilience training in sport
A theatre of war is very different to a competitive sporting arena, but there are more similarities than you realise. Both usually involve a battle between opposing teams or individuals; both can have disastrous consequences should one lose this battle; and both require individuals to overcome numerous challenges and set-backs along the way. For this reason, it would appear that the resilience training received by soldiers could also be utilised by athletes and teams.
Think about it, how many times have you seen a football team race into a 2-0 lead in the first-half, only to lose the game 3-2? At 2-0, a team is comfortable. If the opposition score (2-1), there is an increased pressure to hold on to the lead, resulting in a necessity to withstand this pressure. A resilient team would be likely to make correct decisions under pressure and see the game out to win. However, teams lacking in resilience are likely to experience catastrophic thinking; deep thoughts about worst-case scenarios (e.g. “we are doomed to lose because…”). IRT is used to minimize catastrophic thinking in soldiers, thus the techniques used by the military would seem appropriate to develop resilience in athletes and help them prepare for pressurised situations.
“Icebergs”, or deeply held beliefs8, are discussed during IRT and should be addressed in athletes. According to CSF, a belief should be questioned in the following way: is it meaningful; is it accurate in this situation; is it able to be changed; is it useful? Following this, icebergs can be appraised and assessed, with a decision made on whether they are facilitative to performance or not. There are infinite times this process could be used in sport; “striving to be the best player on the pitch” may be incredibly meaningful but may not be useful, particularly in team sports where cohesion and selflessness are two attributes necessary for optimal performance. Whilst these deeply held beliefs can be incredibly resistant to change, an athlete must at least recognise them if they are to develop psychological resilience.
Resilience training for sport through military training camps
It seems then, that sport can learn plenty about resilience from the military. Military-style training camps are one way sports teams are beginning to improve a number of attributes in order to achieve success. Resilience, teamwork, cooperation, problem solving, decision making…all important attributes that the military teach that sport stars undoubtedly need. So what are the benefits of athletes attending a military training camp to develop resilience? And are there any times it is not such a good idea?
Military training camps for resilience done RIGHT
Sports teams have been attending military training camps for the last 20 years, with Clive Woodward’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning England team one of the earliest examples. Woodward used the Royal Marine’s knowledge and training to identify those players that possessed the qualities to succeed under pressure. After a marine training session in 1999, Woodward stated that “one wrong team player can sap all of the energy from the group”10, aligning with the famous quote from Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. It is not a group of resilient individuals and their personal qualities that make a resilient team (although this can help improve team resilience), it is the collective qualities of a group that heightens the resilience of the team as a whole1. These collective qualities include the interpersonal relationships built within the team, something that the CSF programme has sought to develop; developing these relationships should be a focus when attempting to develop resilience through a military camp.
More recently, Brian Ashton also took the England rugby team to a Marines training camp. Ashton assessed how his players developed a challenge mindset following their Marines training camp experience. Players were constantly reminded during rugby training post-camp about how they had dealt with significant adversity and challenges during their time at Lympstone. During the military camp, players had to quickly find the best way to overcome a challenge, similar to the response required in a competitive match by an elite athlete. Whilst cooking a wild animal on an open fire during a sustained army exercise is a far-cry from walking out in front of millions representing your country, the personal qualities and mindset developed during the military camp undoubtedly helped these players to withstand the negative effects of pressure; they reached the 2007 Rugby World Cup final.
These examples of exposure to stress align neatly with Pressure Inurement Training1 (PIT) (image 3); gradually increasing the demand of stressors whilst subtly adjusting the level of support given to an individual to foster psychological resilience. A military training camp, when done right, uses a form of PIT, putting athletes in a highly pressurised environment with adequate support. England football manager Gareth Southgate talked about a “dislocated expectation” during a marines training camp, helping his players realise how they must be “…adaptable in moments of difficulty…”12. This adaptability is crucial due to the dynamic nature of sport, but care must be taken to avoid exposing athletes to pressure that they are unable to deal with; if pressure is high, level of support should also be high. Without care, consideration and support, the effects of delivering a military training camp poorly can be catastrophic…
Image 3. Pressure Inurement Training1.
Military training camps for resilience done WRONG
At the same time that Clive Woodward was utilising the skills and mindset of the Royal Marines in preparation for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, Gideon Sam and Rudolph Straeuli put their South African rugby team through what was described as a ‘team building’ military camp in the Limpopo bush13, infamously known as ‘Kamp Staaldraad’, or ‘camp barbed wire’. Naked and held at gunpoint, players were forced into tight spaces and covered in ice-cold water as well as being ordered to pump rugby balls up in a freezing lake, with Sam boldly stating, “the guys were pushed hard, but that is what preparing for battle is about”13. Whilst being vulnerable and succumbing to this insanely high level of stress in order to become resilient may be true14, it seems entirely unethical and inappropriate to subject someone to this level of physical and psychological distress. This camp happened before much of the resilience research had been published, so now we can see the importance of an appropriate level of support through developmental and motivational feedback1.
One other example of a military-style camp done wrong is the infamous Melbourne Swimming Boot Camp ‘execution’; two swimmers were mock-executed by gunshot and their ‘bodies’ were removed on stretchers in front of other members of the swimming team. Again, this was part of putting the athletes through considerable levels of emotional stress but it seems that, like Kamp Staaldraad, the coaches crossed an ethical line that should not be crossed. Coaches must not forget that no athlete is ever completely resilient to the effects of pressure; with enough adverse circumstances and added pressure, any individual can experience psychological distress and problems15. Despite so far discussing resilience as a ‘necessity’ for elite sporting performance, there has been a tendency for weakness to be misconstrued as strength, with people pushing themselves to the limits when it is clear that the effort is wasted and is only serving to endanger one’s health1. To what extent is it necessary to push someone to their limits?
Developing resilience in the army is not too dissimilar to developing it in athletes and teams. Whilst the environment it is developed in is entirely different, the methods and techniques used are almost identical. The lessons, mindset, personal qualities and psychological characteristics taught in the military have the potential to help athletes and teams acquire the necessary resilience required to perform at the highest level.