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New research reveals the key to resilience in elite level sport

18 Oct 2019

As England prepare for their Rugby World Cup quarter-final tie with Australia, the ability to cope under pressure is sure to be front of mind for Head Coach Eddie Jones and his backroom team.

As such, university academics have published research detailing the key building blocks needed to develop team resilience in elite level sport.

The research is the latest in a series from the Sport Psychology Research Group based at Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences.

The group is made up of Dr David Fletcher, Loughborough University, Dr Paul Morgan, Buckinghamshire New University, and Dr Mustafa Sarkar, now at Nottingham Trent University.

The project included a prolonged season-long study of a leading English national league-winning semi-professional rugby union team. Here, data was collected across multiple methods, including interviews, observation, and field notes.

Once analysed, five key pillars were identified:

  • Inspiring, motivating, and challenging team members to achieve performance excellence
  • Developing a team ethos based on ownership and responsibility
  • Cultivating a team identity and togetherness based on a selfless culture
  • Exposing the team to challenging training and unexpected/difficult situations
  • Promoting enjoyment and keeping a positive outlook during stressful periods

Dr David Fletcher, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Performance Psychology, Loughborough University explained:

“A lot has been said and written about psychological resilience at an individual level, but our research suggests that resilience also occurs at a group or team level.

“Rather than simply aggregating individuals’ levels of psychological resilience, it appears that team resilience is, to quote Aristotle, ‘greater than the sum of its parts’.

“For any team performing under pressure it is critical that it focuses on building not only individual capacity but also on interpersonal relationships, shared processes, and group functioning.”

Dr Paul Morgan added:

“The key factors identified provide advice and guidelines to coaches and managers to develop robustness within their teams. It goes without saying that at the elite level a certain edge of resilience is expected to bring success.

“By breaking down each pillar and implementing key practices, teams will become harder to beat in periods of difficulty during play. We are seeing a number of teams exhibiting this during the Rugby World Cup such as Wales, New Zealand, and England. These teams rigorously rehearse and practice how they will collectively respond to setbacks during matches (e.g., such as losing key players to injury, receiving tough officiating calls), and maintaining working communication channels.

“There is an increasing emphasis on developing a strong leadership group to navigate pressurised situations and this will be very evident during the final phases of this World Cup.”

The full research paper, titled ‘Developing team resilience: A season-long study of psychosocial enablers and strategies in a high-level sports team’, has been published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise and can be downloaded here.

Previous research papers in the series include ‘Defining and characterizing team resilience in elite sport’, and ‘Understanding team resilience in the world's best athletes: A case study of a rugby union World Cup winning team’.