Nine ways to develop resilience as a student athlete

Performance athletes need to have the ability to overcome setbacks (Credit: Action Images / Steven Paston Livepic)

Ever wondered how student athletes can better withstand pressure and develop resilience? Dr Mustafa Sarkar, one of the key speakers at the 2019 TASS Strategy Day and Practitioner Conference, has the answers.

Based on his research with high achievers in sport and other performance domains such as business, here are his top tips for dual career athletes:

Be positive

Speak to any of the world’s best athletes and it’s likely their positivity will shine through. These high achievers share many common personality characteristics including openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, (realistic) optimism, competitiveness, and proactivity. Be positive and you’ll perform positively.

Optimise motivation

Studying at university and looking to compete in sport at the highest level is a choice – that choice is a motivating factor in itself. View this decision to combine education and sport as an active choice rather than a sacrifice. Athletes who successfully perform at the highest level actively choose to tackle challenging situations and they develop greater resilience as a result.

Strengthen confidence

Confidence can come from many different sources. The world’s best athletes gain greater confidence from better preparation, new experiences, increased self-awareness, better visualisation of their goals and challenges, the quality of coaching and the ability of their team-mates. Soak up the confidence when you can and where you can.

Maintain focus

A common attribute amongst elite performers is their ability to maintain focus. That focus can be on your own performance or on the process – rather than the outcome. Don’t be distracted by others and do recognise when to switch your ‘sport focus’ on and off. In Mustafa’s research, gold medallists mentioned that working part-time while competing helped them learn how to maintain focus. Focus on what you can control and forget the rest.

Dr Mustafa Sarkar presented to practitioners at the TASS Strategy Day and Conference (Credit: Sports Beat)

Recognise the availability of social support

When high quality social support is available – recognise and use it! The world’s best athletes frequently point to a network of family, coaches, team-mates and specialist support staff who can help to alleviate pressure, encourage you to see the positives and offer crucial advice at key moments.

Use setbacks to move forward

Setbacks can be opportunities for growth. Ask yourself what you have learnt and what you would do differently next time. These questions can help improve your resilience. As a performance athlete, you never stop learning – from the good and the bad.

Take responsibility

Take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Avoid the temptation to play the blame game. Externalising all your problems may protect your self-image for a while but it is unlikely to help you improve in the long run. A lack of responsibility erodes resilience.

Be proactive in your personal development

Update your skills, expand your competencies and engage in career planning. Securing your future can help you focus on the present. According to high achievers, nothing builds resilience like proactively expanding your skillset.

Mix it up

According to the world’s best athletes, a key aspect of their resilience is an ability to utilise and optimise a ‘specific mix’ of personal qualities to withstand the pressures they face. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to developing resilience but find the right balance for you and you’ll deal with pressure better.

Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012).A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions.Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 669-678.
Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (2014). Ordinary magic, extraordinary performance: Psychological resilience and thriving in high achievers. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 3, 46-60.