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Consistent with previous research, this study found resilience to be higher in elite athletes compared to non-elite. Numerous studies show elite athletes tolerate stress more effectively (Fletcher and Sarker, 2012; Belem et al., 2014). Increased resilience provides a buffer protecting psychological health and accounts for 60% of the relationship between exercise and mental wellbeing (Ho et al., 2015).
Previous research shows to reduce vulnerability to stressful situations, self-esteem, social support and coping skills are needed (Smith et al., 1992). Family, coaches, team-mates and support staff create high-quality social support to protect the best athletes from elite pressures (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012). This underpins the resilience–stress–performance relationship and has stress-buffering effects, so social support is essential for resilience in elite sport. Specifically, stressors are appraised as less detrimental when perceived support is high (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Non-elite athletes may therefore lack resilience, since coaches and support staff likely care for and divide attention between multiple individuals, compared to in elite environments where one-on-one support teams are common (Baker et al., 2003).
Also, less elite athletes lack psychological skills training to develop personality traits like resilience (Hardy et al., 1996). Consequently, well-supported elite athletes likely see competitive situations as challenging, not threatening. However, athletes are placed under immense stress to produce successful performances that positively reflect coach’s effort. Sometimes this leads to inadequate coaching support (Balague, 1999). Therefore, support networks should be implemented for athletes but also their support team too, to ensure athlete resilience.
Sport may develop resilience (Padesky and Mooney, 2012), because it involves setbacks like competition stress, failures and injuries to bounce back from. Injury risk increases with competitive sports (Nicholl et al., 1995) perhaps why higher resilience is seen in elite athletes. Additionally, higher level participants encounter more stressors than lower level (Fletcher et al., 2012). The challenge model proposes that having moderate stressors is more beneficial compared to no stressor or sever stressors as they provide positive long-term outcomes. (Garmezy et al., 1984). Consequently, wellbeing in elite may be impaired in the short term, but a resilient mind-set and strengthened problem-solving skills are obtained in the long-term, through overcoming these stressors. Therefore, opportunities for challenges that are the correct difficulty should be provided.
A common demand in sport is the expectation to consistently produce high-performances (McKay et al., 2008). Being the favourite to win, starting well for the team and expectation of others are common external pressure sources. This may explain why sub-elite performers had lowest resilience, due to increased external pressures to reach elite level, the ultimate goal. On the other hand, elite performers integrate such demands with personally held values, critical for resilience.
Therefore, although resilient individuals still experience negativity like anxiety and frustration (Tugade et al., 2004), they interpret this more positively, so cope with sporting pressures more effectively (Golby and Sheard, 2004). Even when stressors are unavoidable, wellbeing is protected if resilience is high. Indeed, elite athletes argue without stressors, they would not have the resilience needed to win gold medals (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012). The present study showed that even the non-elite athletes had higher resilience compared to population norms (Kocalevent et al., 2017), suggesting any level of competition positively effects resilience.
However, athletes in the current study may not be truly elite (Olympic standard) as the ‘elite’ category used included those competing in University first teams and stressors they endure may differ to truly elite athletes. Thus, generalizations of findings for elite performers might be inappropriate (Balague, 1999). Further research with truly high-standard performers is needed.