The best performers in sports and other performance areas are able to bounce back from adversity—setbacks and obstacles they face before and during performances. In this article, I discuss psychological techniques which are integral to this skill.

One of the most important psychological skills successful athletes, public speakers and other performers possess is the ability to rebound from adversity—setbacks and obstacles encountered before and during the performance. Falling behind in a match, making a mistake that costs your team a goal, getting an unfair call from a referee, encountering a hostile crowd and experiencing inclement weather are just a few examples of adversity which athletes must frequently overcome if they are to be successful. In this article, I will first describe how adversity can affect performance negatively and then discuss skills to facilitate rebounding from adversity. Using these skills will allow you to perform effectively in the face of adversity of various kinds.

How adversity can have a negative effect on performance

When adversity occurs, it typically has the following negative effects: (1) Negative thoughts and self-talk typically occur. Thinking and self-talk such as “I screwed up”, ”There goes my chance at a good performance”, “My teammates and coach are upset at me” and ‘I’m such a loser’ are just a few examples of the kind of negative thinking and self-talk that may occur in response to adversity; (2) Negative physical reactions also are likely to occur to accompany the negative thoughts and self-talk. Increased heart rate, shallow breathing and excessive muscle tension are some of the common physical reactions experienced by an athlete facing adversity. As a result, the performer is likely to go beyond their optimal level of arousal. That is, they are feeling too ‘keyed up’ to perform effectively; (3) These negative cognitive and physical reactions to the adversity then result in their performing actions which affect performance negatively; (4) This subsequent bad performance leads to more negative thoughts and negative physical reactions followed by, as a result, worsened performance.

In short, the negative cycle which began with one mistake or other kind of adversity can snowball into a poor overall performance. Note that the poor overall performance was not primarily the result of the adversity the athlete encountered but rather how they responded to it. Were the athlete to have psychological skills to respond to adversity in a better way, they could have got back on track and avoided the negative cycle to give a good overall performance. In the next section, I will discuss skills you can use to deal with adversity when it occurs so you can stay on track in the face of adversity to give a good performance.

Dr. Patrick Keelan Sport and Performance Psychology

Skills which help you to rebound from adversity

The skills used to rebound from adversity involve targeting the negative effects of adversity with positive responses by doing the following: (1) First, calm your body to counteract the negative physical reactions you experience. Taking one or two deep breaths is often enough to center yourself so that you can think clearly and calmly; (2) Secondly, respond to your negative thoughts and negative self-talk with positive thoughts and positive self-talk based on putting the adversity you’ve encountered in its proper perspective. For example, if your having made a making a mistake leads to negative self-talk like “Oh no—I made a mistake! I’ll never recover from it!” you can remind yourself of times when you and other athletes have bounced back from a mistake to perform well; (3) Thirdly, focus on actions you can take to get back on track in your performance. For example, if you fell during a race, focusing on resuming your normal stride after you’ve returned to your feet would allow you to get back on track to a good performance.

Rehearse rebounding from adversity for the best results

You will be more effective at executing the above skills to rebound from adversity if you practice them ahead of time. Mental rehearsal through visualization is one of the most effective ways to engage in this practice. To do this, go through your game or event in your mind imagining various kinds of adversity you may face. Practice mentally using the skills discussed with each type of adversity. Doing so will make it easier to execute these skills if these kinds of adversity occur during your game or event. Simulation or role-playing is another effective way to rehearse these skills. For example, if you are concerned about being able to stay calm in the face of a hostile crowd, you could practice having your friends or teammates shout negative comments to you while you practice staying calm and performing effectively in the face of this adversity.

I help my clients in sports psychology counselling learn and practice the skills in this article in my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist. Please feel free to contact me if you would like me to help you learn these skills to help you with your performances in sports and other areas.

May you rebound from adversity that you face,

-Dr. Pat