Resilience: A mental skill you can cultivate

September 15, 2019 0 Comments

In every competitive atmosphere (or life in general) we are faced with adversity, either internal or external. For example, we may internalize losses, injuries, failures, or rejections from others as deep invalidations of ourselves (inner critic dialogue), while other forms of adversity will be presented based on external events. These external events may feel out of our control; the weather, the referees, the plane that got delayed, the coach that will not play you, or the team you were cut from. These internal and external events are individually unique to one’s experience. They may leave us feeling dejected or deflated, lacking hope or maybe a sense of giving up. When adversity strikes, you have a choice. The defining moment in your sport (and in life) is how you choose to respond. 

The words that come to mind that will most effectively steer us in the right direction during these challenges: resilience, perseverance, and plasticity - (fluid, flexible, or supple, much like a river moving around an obstacle). Each competitor must find a way to encapsulate this mindset when adversity strikes and each competitor MUST find a way to build and add resilience to their mental tool bag if they are to have longevity and success in their sport. Building this skillset takes practice. Trust me, if you are a competitive athlete you will have plenty of opportunities to practice resilience. You must first start by finding what works best for you, but fear not, you do not have  to learn from scratch. 

Some people are under the notion that either you have resilience or you do not. There is no research to specifically tell us that resilience is a genetic trait. Therefore, it is my professional opinion, that resilience can be built. Just like the work and training you put into your body, your resiliency muscle needs to be exercised.  Let’s dive into some core tools that can help kickstart your resilience muscle. 

First: Define your foundation. What I mean by this is you must identify your core belief or foundation that you stand on or behind in life. Then apply this to your sport. They should cross over. This can take the form of many different things for each person, religion for some, or family for others, or it may be an ideology such as “the universe provides”. If you do not have a core belief in life or a solid foundational rock of faith that you can always stand on or go back to, then it will be important to spend time cultivating one or two core beliefs in your life. 
Second:  Leverage your experience. Each one of us face significant challenges in our sport and in life that are unique. It doesn’t matter how significant that challenge is in comparison to your peers, all that matters is the relevance to you and your experience of that event. Your ability to work through and overcome this challenge allows you reassurance that you can conquer new and future challenges as you compete. These experiences feed belief in your ability to overcome new obstacles. Draw upon your past victories no matter how small to build belief in your ability to overcome new challenges. This becomes a snowball effect as we get older and we can keep moving forward and going over or through life’s hurdles. Through this process, we can become more and more resilient. You might ask what if I haven’t overcome a challenge yet or am still in a really difficult time? This is where we look to someone in our environment close to us who has overcome adversity, which leads us to our last principle in building resiliency. 
Third: Learn vicariously. This draws upon the principle that you may not have acquired the skill, but someone before you has acquired this skill. This is the beauty of history. We learn and grow from what we see, hear, read, or experience. This is a basic human tenant (nature/nurture). Athletes before us have all overcome. We just need to look to their personal stories and listen. From here you can gain insight into how someone else has overcome and you can begin to model and apply those same principles to your situation. Research tells us that vicarious learning helps us to establish belief once we know or see that someone else has been in a similar situation and they reached success. 

Here are three examples of athletes who exemplify these three principles of resilience: 

  1. James Anthony Abbott: James Abbott was born without a right hand, yet went on to become a successful major league baseball pitcher. Even batting at times.  
  2. Shaquem Griffin:  Shaquem Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome affecting his left hand, which ultimately was amputated at the age of 4 years old. He pursued his dream and went on to be drafted into the NFL, where he currently plays for the Seattle Seahawks. 
  3. Toni Harris: Toni Harris became one of the first female athletes to earn a collegiate scholarship to play football. She dreams of going to the NFL. 

These examples are just a fraction of the athletes that have paved the belief path for others behind them. Examine these 3 guiding principles to begin your resilience practice today. 

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Ami Strutin-Belinoff, M.A., LMFT and CMPC, is a certified mental performance consultant. His private practice is based in San Diego, CA and he works remotely with athletes at all levels and in all sports.

If you would like to train your resilience, you can follow training programs by downloading the WellU Mental Training App on apple and google play devices. WellU provides engaging mental training opportunities to help athletes develop peak performance. Visit to download the app!

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