The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 23, 2012

Psychological resilience can make you a better athlete

Cindra Kamphoff

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As I began my run outside this afternoon in fresh snow, 20 mph winds and a “feels-like” temperature of 6 degrees, I couldn’t help but think of the word resiliency. Resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from set-backs or adversity, is a key attribute for any athlete or performer. It can be the key difference in a whether or not a team or individual is able to nail it when it matters most. 
 
For me, being resilient meant that I couldn’t back down and go home. If I want to perform at my peak in my next race, I had to keep going despite the snow, wind and cold.
 
Psychological resiliency has begun to be studied in the field of sport psychology and so far the results have been fascinating. Psychological resiliency has been found to be the key difference in a performer’s ability to withstand and even thrive in high-pressure situations such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl. It has been the distinguishing factor in whether performers succumb to the pressure or rise above it and perform to their potential. 
 
Performers who are resilient see stress and adversity differently than others. They view adversity as a challenge to overcome, not as something that will crush them. They know it is necessary to help them be at their best — and they know that they will rise above it. Resilient people and performers have certain psychological qualities that help them manage stress on and off the field better than others, including confidence, a strong work ethic, the ability to focus and optimism.  
 
We also know that the world’s best athletes such as Olympic gold medalists believe that if they would have not had experienced a major life adversity — a serious illness, parental divorce or a career-threatening injury — they would not have won gold. In hindsight, they saw these stressors as opportunities to develop a psychological or competitive edge over their opponents. They saw adversity and stress as opportunities for growth and a means to improve.
Adrian Peterson, the Vikings running back, is a great example of resiliency. Last December he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee — an injury that can end an athlete’s career.
 
Instead, it has propelled him to be better. He worked tirelessly in the off-season to recover and rehabilitate, and now he’s about 200 yards away from the NFL single-season rushing record.
 
Adjectives such as remarkable, astonishing and unimaginable have been used to describe his recovery. Peterson himself described various psychological qualities — motivation, determination and mindset — as key to his successful return.
 
We are not all Vikings running backs, but we can all develop resiliency to help us deal with adversity in our daily lives. It is our daily habits, thoughts, and actions that make the biggest difference in its development.
I see performance broadly — we are all performers in the game of life. See the accompanying chart for a few tips about developing resiliency that can apply to you.
 
One of the reasons I like sports so much is its application to life. Sport is like life. We experience ups and downs.
There are days that go perfectly, and days we want to throw in the towel. There are training runs that seem easy and beautiful, and training runs that are cold, windy and difficult to get traction.
 
The key is to keep your chin up. Remember that this too will pass. See the bad days and the adversity as important for you to be at your best.
 
They are an opportunity for you to learn about yourself and what matters most. Adversity is an opportunity for you to be better than you were yesterday.
 
 
© Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Sport and Exercise Psychology in the Department of Human Performance at Minnesota State University. She is the Director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology which will open this month in University Square. Her column appears in The Free Press periodically. Contact her at cindra.kamphoff@mnsu.edu.