MENTAL REPS: TRAINING RESILIENT MINDS IN ATHLETES

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As an ex-professional athlete, I am well aware of the need to stress the body in order to strengthen and prime it for the rigors of competition.

In my sport, Australian Rules Football – affectionately known as ‘Aussie Rules’ – physical conditioning is a prime focus as players are expected to run upwards of 16km/10miles over the course of a two hour, fast paced, full contact game. 

As a result of the highly demanding physical nature of the sport, AFL pre-seasons are a gruelling five-months of non-stop physical ‘stress’, both in the gym and on the track.

But professional AFL players know, as do all elite athletes, the benefits of a high training load far outweigh the pain they must go through to be prepared for competition. Without putting their body through the stress of hard training, they wouldn’t last a season of full-blown competition. There’s no growth without stress …

But what about the mental stress that comes with being an elite athlete? The stressors associated with performing at an elite level week after week. The training and performance pressures are extreme. There is significant media speculation, public scrutiny and most of all, the expectations athletes’ have of themselves.

The life of an elite athlete is a stressful one both physically and mentally. The physical stressors associated are addressed but the mental stressors aren’t often given much credence at all.

It begs the question, where’s the ‘injury prevention’ program for the mental side of the game? What are athletes being provided by way of a mental strength and conditioning program so they are put in position to thrive and enjoy the unique experience of being an elite athlete?

Unfortunately, over the last few years there have been numerous current and retired elite athletes coming forward to share their stories of their battles with mental health. USA Today published an article earlier this year that told the stories of such prominent athletes as Michael Phelps, Allison Schmitt, Brandon Marshall and numerous others – all of whom have faced their own mental health demons. (See the article in full here - https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/2017/08/30/michael-phelps-brandon-marshall-mental-health-battles-royce-white-jerry-west/596857001/)   

Athletes are human, and studies have found that one-in-five adults suffer from a mental health related issue, so just because someone plays a sport for a living doesn’t rule them out of that 20%. In fact, studies have shown that “elite athletes experience a broadly comparable risk of high-prevalence mental disorders (i.e. anxiety, depression) relative to the population” (The Mental Health of Elite Athletes - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26896951).

Athletes who find themselves suffering from a mental health related issue are directed to seek help from professional experts – psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists. Similar to a doctor or physio prescribing an appropriate treatment plan for a physical injury, the mental health experts do the same for the mental rehabilitation.

But again, what about the athletes who may not be suffering from a full-blown mental health issue but are still struggling with the pressures, expectations and stress that comes with competing at the highest level?

As discussed earlier there is no growth without adversity. Trying to solve the issue of pressure, expectation and performance anxiety by removing it from sport altogether is both futile and counter productive. Elite sport always has been and always will be inherently stressful.  Any attempt to hide athletes from the realities of competition is only doing them a disservice

Interestingly, one study on rats found that those who had been exposed to “daily episodes of stimulating or stressful manipulations” (i.e. handling) at a young age, were “less fearful or “emotional” when exposed to threats as adults than were non-stressed control animals (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2538855). Of course, many other studies have found that ‘too much’ stress at a young age can cause numerous negative consequences. As with most things, balance is the key.  

This is where resilience training comes in. Just as athletes focus on injury prevention exercises to mitigate the physical stress of performing, resilience training can help build the ability to handle the inevitable adversity they will face throughout their sporting careers.

The term ‘resilience’ as defined by Dr Ann S. Masten, a Professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, is “a set of processes that enables good outcomes in spite of serious threats.” Resilience isn’t a notion of ‘curing’ stress or anxiety or making it go away.  Resilience is the foundation that provides individuals the ability to persist through adversity, that is why it is particularly applicable to elite sport.

How does resilience work? There’s no set application of tools and processes that cover the concept of resilience in its entirety. Depending on the need of the individual, team, organisation or industry, resilience can cover a range of different areas and topics. The Penn Resilience Program, developed out of the University of Pennsylvania – a world leader in resilience and positive psychology – focuses on:

-          Optimism

-          Problem solving

-          Self-efficacy

-          Self-regulation

-          Emotional awareness

-          Flexibility

-          Empathy and,

-          Strong relationships

The Penn Resilience Program laid part of the foundation for the U.S Army Master Resilience Trainer course, which focuses on helping soldiers enhance their “ability to handle adversity, prevent depression and anxiety, prevent PTSD, and enhance overall well-being and performance.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21219045)

In the sporting and education world, The Resilience Project, an Australian based organisation that works with school students, corporate organisations and a myriad of professional Australian athletes and teams, focuses on three core areas of resilience: gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.

The Resilience Project has had a profound impact with many of Australia’s top sporting talent, including the current best player in the AFL – Dustin Martin – who publicly said it has helped him become calmer and in the moment, and also to be more grateful for his opportunity to play football at the elite level. (https://thenewdaily.com.au/sport/afl/2017/09/25/dustin-martin/)

In North America and the United Kingdom, Resilience Based Performance – a group comprised of experts from the athlete development, counselling psychology and high-performance world – work with the concepts of: mindfulness, perspective and connection. Their work in the school system in the UK and with student athletes at colleges in the US, has seen positive impacts in both the realms of performance and general well-being.  

No Stress.  No Growth.

Even if you haven’t competed at the elite level in a sport, no doubt the concept of ‘no growth without stress’ resonates with you. Everyone in life has to learn to deal with and overcome setbacks along their journey. Resilience training provides an opportunity to upskill athletes so they, and you, can be confident they possess the tools required to help them overcome the inevitable challenges and setbacks that ALL elite athletes face at some point in their career.


Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.
Dan Jackson