SPORT The Importance of Mental Resilience in Athletic Recovery

5 mins

A closer look at the rising star of sports psychology and its effects – from the playing field (or the open ocean) to the boardroom

Maya Gabeira

The athletic world usually fosters a ‘win at all costs’ approach. But it can go unnoticed that winning often has as much to do with adversity and vulnerability as it does with success and ‘hardness’. While it might seem that athletes simply possess exceptional genetic gifts and superhuman qualities, athletes themselves know better than anyone that victory is often as much in the mind – and in training the mind – as it is in the body. Increasingly, equal emphasis is being placed on tracking and developing psychological skills, as on the physical aspects of training.

Growing Mental Muscles

The word ‘resilience’ is becoming an extremely popular term within the athletic world – whether in relation to coaching, physiology or psychology. This might be due in part to the rise of positive psychology – and its proven benefits on well-being and vitality. In simple terms, positive psychology focuses on the strengths of an individual, and how to emphasize these in order to achieve happiness, fulfillment – and peak performance. The concept of ‘Mental Toughness’ depends on robust resilience, and understanding how to cultivate this quality. 

Having an ability to respond well to, and learn from, stressful situations is what we think of as resilience – it’s your ability to cope with, or recover from, difficult or even traumatic experiences. Resilience allows athletes to overcome adversity, bounce back, and possibly even rebound to even greater achievements. Rather than being a solely inherent characteristic, it is built over time through experiences that require one to overcome obstacles and develop coping strategies, and thus becoming mentally ‘stronger’.

Our guest on The Edge Podcast, Big Wave world record holder Maya Gabeira, shared some of her own strategies for building mental and physical resilience when overcoming a traumatic injury during a ride at Nazare beach in 2013.  We’ve included her excellent suggestions, along with some of our own, in a mini-course on Resilience in sports – and life!

Maya Gabeira

How To Build Resilience 101

There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’: even in solo sports or endeavours, there is usually a team of people supporting the individual – even if they are your friends, family, or significant other. Lean on teammates, coaches, or trainers, and offer your encouragement in return.  Creating an environment of collaboration and support, without any stigma attached to asking for help, is one of the best ways to foster resilience.  Big Wave surfing has evolved into a sport that ‘takes a village’ – a team of supporting collaborators is now mandatory to ensure the safety of any individual surfer.

Fail again, Fail Better: Samuel Beckett’s most famous line isn’t just applicable to the arts – it should, arguably, be the benchmark of sports psychology too. There’s no success without failure, and there’s no better way to succeed than learning how to get back up gracefully after a fall. The best training atmosphere for improvement is one in which players – or colleagues, employees, teammates – are not afraid to fail. 

Think positive: reflect on ‘negative’ experiences or perceived failures, and reframe them in a positive narrative.  Even a crisis can be taken as an opportunity for growth, a door opening to new possibilities.  When Gabeira had her wipeout, she looked at it as an opportunity to develop new safety strategies within the sport. 

Maya Gabeira

Slow and steady wins the race: while it may be tempting to focus on immediate achievement, most victories are the product of persistence and determination over momentary brilliance. Think long term, and see any setback as a temporary obstacle rather than a final judgment on your ability.  Maya’s recovery took many years, but ultimately, playing the ‘long game’ allowed her to set two world records in quick succession. 

Find your purpose: a helpful resilience strategy is to find your driving purpose, and frame any daily struggles within the bigger picture of achieving that goal.  Do you want to inspire others? Set records? Leave the world a fairer place than you found it? Passion and purpose go hand in hand, and provide both a solid foundation and a rich source of inspiration when the going gets tough. For Gabeira, sharing her story about building resilience has become a purpose that not only complements her athletic career – it helps others along the way.

Intrigued? Join us for our conversation with Maya Gabeira on The Edge, for an open and frank discussion of how resilience led to the surfing superstar’s greatest successes, from setting world records to raising the game in the arena of women’s Big Wave surfing, to advocacy in athletics and ocean conservation.