Athletics competition days can be overwhelming. Whether you compete on the track, cross country or the road, we all have competition day stressors that we dread encountering. We as competitive athletes often get consumed with the physical side of training, because that’s what makes us a better performer, right? I’m sure that if you train regularly, you’d quite like your performance to represent the physical hard work that you’ve put in.
Whilst nerves can be beneficial to performance, if competition overwhelms us, then failure is potentially inevitable. Many athletes just assume that competition is supposed to make them feel overwhelmed and accept defeat. Failures are a part of the journey and experiencing highs and lows are part of the process. It is how we deal with those ‘lows’ that actually make us a stronger competitor (1). Lows include stress, anxiety, trauma and past failures; they are all likely to disrupt future success in performance (1). However, through developing effective psychological resilience our failures can provide us with empowerment and alleviate competition day stressors. Therefore, implementing psychological training is just as important as our physical training in order to withstand and adapt to the environmental demands of competition.
Before getting too deep into how we can develop psychological resilience, let us understand what it means! Psychology indicates an understanding of mental processes and behaviours (2). Psychological resilience implies using our mental processes and behaviours to tackle and face the demands that the environment presents (3). It is also important to understand competitive stress due to this not being mutually exclusive from developing resilience. Stress involves us managing the environment, with an attempt to make sense of situations we are in and cope with any arising problems (4). When we experience excessive stress, executing resilience becomes a challenge with a decreased likelihood of us confronting the competitive environment rationally (5,6). If stress negatively impacts us competition may seem threatening, resulting in apprehensive and tense responses with a decreased likelihood of executing desirable physical performance (7). I’m sure many of you are reading this and can relate to experiencing race day stress. Our aim therefore is learning how to appraise competition rationally by developing an efficient level of resilience to lessen any feelings of stress for optimal performance.
The Mental Fortitude Training Program explains how we can achieve sustainable success by developing psychological resilience (8). To summarise, the program consists of three areas that work interchangeably to achieve effective psychological resilience: personal qualities, facilitative environment, and challenge mindset (8). All components help to improve our ability to withstand any stressors or pressure that the competitive environment presents to us (8). I don’t want to be the cause of adding any stress to you by explaining how all elements can help us to reach our optimal performance, so we’ll just focus in on how understanding our Personal Qualities can enhance psychological resilience.
Our personal qualities are interesting as whilst they can prevent a negative interaction with the competitive environment, they can also be the cause of that negativity (9). This is because Personal Qualities are complex and can be easily manipulated by external stressors. Additionally, dependent on context and time, our qualities will fluctuate (8). For example, your anxiety might be heightened because your next race is a course you’ve run before and involves running up what feels like Mount Everest three times! Or you might feel more relaxed going into a 5k road race because it’s just you against the clock and finishing position is irrelevant. Competition stressors directly impact us, which is why we have the ability to train our psychological resilience and exert control over them. If we understand our characteristics at the base of our qualities, we can introduce relevant psychological skill training into training routines to achieve the desirable outcomes. For example:
Our personality characteristics are patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving; they are stable over long periods of time and difficult to manipulate (8). I have summarised some of the main characteristics below that are evidenced to naturally predispose us to high levels of psychological resilience (8).
Do any of those sound familiar? Chances are, if you compete regularly, people around you may have commented on certain traits that link you to being a competitive athlete. If you haven’t experienced the competitive world, it’s very hard to empathise with what it actually takes. An athlete who fails to perform optimally presents with low aspiration, irrational expectations and little persistence (10). However, characteristics such as optimism, competitiveness and flexibility heighten psychological resilience. But what if you feel these characteristics don’t reflect your personality? This is where psychological skill training is key.
Psychological Skills Training
Whilst our personality characteristics are stable over time, psychological skills are unstable and can be learnt, practiced, and used accordingly with the environment in which we are in (8). This means that the correct use of psychological skills helps to maximize our innate capabilities, despite how they present to attain optimal performance (8, 11, 12). To execute the highest level of resilience and achieve sustained success, it is recommended that we have an understanding of multiple skills and use them in conjunction with each other (11, 12).
Setting goals allows us to gain a sense of ownership over out sporting performance (12). If we have clear goals set, this helps us to better
compartmentalise our training and competition so that we decrease the risk of over-training and burnout (12). Ownership means that our goals can reflect our own personal attributes and values, enhancing our self-awareness and understanding over our performance, and providing a sense of purpose (12). As a result, we become more resilient to competition and challenges that present themselves (12). For example, if you know that next summer, you’d like to run a 5k personal best as your overall outcome goal, you can set shorter term process goals such as ticking off each week of training, and ensuring rest and recovery is achieved. Success doesn’t just come from achieving long-term outcome goals, shorter term process goals are necessary to build resilience to achieve the desired outcome as it’s the little wins that motivate us to continue to work harder!
Controlling arousal is important when competing, as if levels exceed a certain point, performance will be weakened (12). There is a lot of evidence to suggest that focussing on controlling anxiety is directly associated with performance superiority and many high-level performers focus on this (12,13). It is impossible to say how we measure arousal levels to achieve optimal performance in individuals, so we must be aware of how to keep a facilitating level (12). This is because these techniques can be used with challenging environmental demands. For example, during tough training sessions, important races and pre-performance routines (12). By controlling our levels of arousal, our ability to withstand stressors from the competitive environment is improved – in other words an improvement in our psychological resilience.
Try some of these techniques in your next training session or competition:
We use imagery in our day to day lives without even realising it. When using imagery, we create or re-create experiences with the utilisation of all our senses which can subsequently control our behaviours positively or negatively (15, 16). Almost all elite athletes use imagery when training and competing as it is believed that our imagination has the ability to enhance or limit our own potential (15). For example, if you imagine yourself failing or letting your competitor beat you, you are using imagery negatively and essentially giving up before you’ve even made it to the start line. However, if you imagine yourself running over that line first or smashing that personal best, you are much more likely to succeed and execute the race with a positive mindset. Remember that course with that hill that goes on forever and makes your legs burn? Imagine yourself powering up and speeding past your competitors, ensuring you’re using it systematically to enhance your performance (15)! Before you next event, use imagery by envisioning the race as a whole or just a particular section that perhaps heightens your anxiety to rid your mind of any doubt.
Progressive Muscular Relaxation
Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) is a popular technique that involves briefly tensing each muscle group to extreme tension, then relaxing them to the pre state condition (16). The point is to notice the difference in how the muscles feel under a state of tension and how the state of relaxation helps us to feel fresher and more in control (16). PMR is best used before competing in order to enhance our awareness around how our muscles feel (17). Careful of the timing around the use as it can actually be detrimental to use after training or competition as it increases the risk of muscular pulls and does not enhance recovery (14). Nevertheless, PMR has been shown to lower levels of stress and arousal in the build up to competition, which means that when used, we exert higher levels of control to withstand the pressure of competition (18). This is because it reduces muscular tension, blood pressure and negative thoughts (19, 20). When you’re in the car driving to a race venue that worries you, redirect your focus to practising PMR. Focus on each muscle group and notice that state of relaxation and strength within each group, the more you use PMR the more likely your sport performance will increase (18).
These are just a few techniques that help us to build psychological resilience as they apply nicely to the training and competing of us as competitive runners. Psychological skill training helps us to optimise our personal qualities and withstand the pressures and stressors of the competitive environment whenever necessary (8). With that, notice the desirable outcomes! Improved resilience increases our motivation, with enhanced confidence when going into competition (8). We are also more likely to execute our skills more accurately under pressure as our belief in our performance (self-efficacy) is also enhanced (8).
Don’t be afraid to fail. Failing is a key driver for us to learn from our experiences and empower us to try again (1). Even if you don’t achieve what you have planned for your training session or competition, it’s never a waste of time. You’ve still pushed your body and will benefit from that long-term. Sometimes just showing up is enough! Running is not easy, enjoy what you do and the incredible experiences you endure along the way.
My name is Elana Albery and like many of you, I absolutely love running and don’t know who I’d be without it. I’m a member of Kettering Town Harriers, Loughborough Students Athletics Club and train with the amazing PGC1 Coaching group. I work in a Sport, Health and Wellbeing role for North Northants Council and am studying a Masters in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University! This blog and infographic summarise the key points around psychological resilience which is very prevalent for when we’re competing. Please fill out the feedback form below to let me know what you think (will take a maximum of 5 minutes)! I hope you found this information useful!