Resilience in Sport

Most  athletes  will  encounter  one  or  more  major setbacks or adversities during their sporting career. An  elite  athlete  may,  for  example,  experience  a career-threatening injury, garner demotion from a top-tier team because of poor performance, or need to relocate to another country to continue competing in their sport. Despite the potential for setbacks and adversities to negatively influence one’s developmental trajectories, in some cases, and for some athletes, exposure to major assaults on one’s typical  level  of  functioning  or  performance  does  not always result in negative outcomes. Why is it that some athletes bounce back from adversity or experience  minimal  disruption  when  faced  with  these major  assaults?  The  concept  of  resilience  is  central to coping with such demands and challenges. Although   there   remains   considerable   debate regarding  a  formal  definition,  common  themes among  most  contemporary  conceptualizations reveal that resilience encapsulates one’s capacity to regain or sustain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning.

Historical Perspectives

The  scientific  study  of  resilience  emerged  about 40 years ago from research on children “at risk” (i.e., increased probability of a negative outcome) for  psychopathology,  often  due  to  environmental factors such as psychiatric history in the family or poverty. Within this line of investigation, researchers  observed  a  significant  degree  of  variability  in impairment to normal levels of functioning ranging  from  maladaptive  outcomes  to  instances  of positive  adjustment  or  adaptation.  Intrigued  by cases  of  positive  outcomes  despite  risk  or  adversity,  researchers  subsequently  advanced  the  study of  resilience  in  four  major  waves:  (1)  identifying protective  factors  within  individuals  (e.g.,  optimism,  self-efficacy),  the  family  (e.g.,  socioeconomic  status,  parenting  style),  and  communities (e.g.,  neighborhood  qualities,  public  health  system) that contribute to positive adaptation in the face  of  risk  or  adversity;  (2)  understanding  the processes  by  which  positive  adaptation  occurs across the life span; (3) evaluating the effectiveness and  efficacy  of  interventions  designed  to  protect or  promote  positive  functioning  among  individuals,  groups,  or  communities;  and  (4)  integrating the  first  three  waves  of  research  across  multiple levels  of  analysis  and  across  disciplines  including genetics, neurobiology, sociology, and cultures.

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Resilience in Sport

The scientific study of resilience in sport has typically lacked the empirical and theoretical momentum  evidenced  within  other  areas  of  the  parent discipline such as developmental and gerontological psychology. Only a handful of studies have systematically  investigated  resilience  in  sport  via  the simultaneous  integration  of  the  two  core  components of contemporary conceptualizations, namely (1)  exposure  to  significant  risk  or  adversity  and (2)  returning  to,  sustaining,  or  attaining  positive adjustment  or  functioning.  Nonetheless,  a  considerable  body  of  knowledge  has  been  generated through separate but related lines of inquiry examining the resilience phenomenon.

Risk, Stressors, and Adversity

Exposure  to  both  acute  and  chronic  stressful events  can  represent  significant  sources  of  risk to  the  development  and  functioning  of  athletes. Recent research on the types of stressors inherent within  sport  contexts  has  revealed  that  elite  athletes  experience  and  recall  more  demands  associated with the sport organization (e.g., qualities of the  coach  and  coaching  style,  poor  support  networks, financial concerns) than with the competitive environment (e.g., injury, pressure to perform well). Injury and the processes involved in returning to competition represent a major agenda within the  sport  psychology  (SP)  literature,  not  surprisingly  because  the  phenomenon  entails  a  range  of physical and psychological traumas. Aligned with current  conceptualizations  of  resilience,  empirical  evidence  has  revealed  that  some  athletes  can and  do  withstand  or  recover  from  these  stressors or  adversities  that  threaten  their  normal  levels  of functioning or performance.

Protective Factors

Researchers   have   revealed   that   personal resources  are  important  constructs  for  understanding how individuals effectively approach and respond  to  various  stressors  and  adversities.  Selfefficacy  (i.e.,  one’s  belief  in  his  or  her  ability  to perform  a  specific  task),  optimism  (i.e.,  tendency to expect good things to happen), hope (i.e., motivational  state  encompassing  the  “will”  and  the “way” to attain personally important goals), and coping (e.g., ways in which people respond when confronted with stress) are among the most important and widely studied personal resources. Most recently, researchers have explored such influential personal resources through the conceptual lens of mental toughness, which is considered a reservoir of  personal  resources  that  enable  individuals  to produce consistently high levels of performance or goal  attainment  despite  everyday  challenges  and significant  adversities.  However,  unlike  mental toughness, resilience is not solely a fixed collection of  personal  attributes;  thus,  one  must  also  consider the influence of a multitude of external assets for  understanding  person–stressor  and  adversity transactions.  Social  support,  which  involves  the exchange  of  resources  between  two  individuals (e.g.,  parents,  coaches,  teammates),  is  one  of  the frequently studied external assets in sport contexts with regard to managing stressors and adversities. Collectively, research has revealed that these protective  factors  and  external  assets  can  have  both direct  and  indirect  (i.e.,  moderates  the  negative effects  of  stress  on  psychosocial  functioning  and performance)  relationships  with  stress,  adversity, and important outcomes.


Research on the types of stressors and adversities (e.g.,  injury)  experienced  in  sport  contexts,  and the various protective factors characteristic of elite performers  and  their  psychosocial  environment, has  provided  insights  into  the  ways  that  athletes and coaches respond to and cope with assaults on their development or normal levels of functioning. Nevertheless, the conceptual integration of empirical  evidence  and  theoretical  discussions  on  these independent streams of research within a resilience framework  represents  an  important  next  step  to guide future work. For example, exposure to different types of risk or adversity may trigger different  assets  and  protective  factors  and,  as  a  result, contribute to different outcomes.


  1. Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 669–678. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.04.007
  2. Goldstein, S., & Brooks, R. B. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of resilience in children (2nd ed.). New York: Kluwer/ Academic Plenum.
  3. Gucciardi, D. F., Jackson, B. F., Coulter, T. J., & Mallett, C. J. (2011). The Connor-Davidson resilience scale (CD-RISC): Dimensionality and age-related measurement invariance with Australian cricketers. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12, 423–433. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.02.005.
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  5. Resnick, B., Gwyther, L. P., & Roberto, K. A. (Eds.). (2011). Resilience in aging: Concepts, research, and outcomes. New York: Springer.

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