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Building resilience is a skill and a team sport – two common myths around resilience

The psychological demands placed upon Formula 1 drivers are remarkable. In this article we discuss resilience on two levels – the individual and her environment.

Just consider this: What does a typical workday look like for you? Now imagine how your ability to perform would be impacted by a live crowd of over 100,000 and a TV audience of over 80 million watching your every move. Think about how even your smallest mistake or misjudgement could have catastrophic consequences costing millions and resulting in weeks of media scrutiny, not to mention the very real likelihood of you losing your job.

Under this sort of psychological pressure, even the simplest task becomes complex. Driving a Formula 1 car, however, isn’t a simple task. For a Formula 1 driver, performing at an elite level consistently requires mastery of the hottest topic in performance psychology – resilience.

But first, what is resilience? We often hear that resilience is the ability to effectively respond to setback or crisis. But it’s more than that: resilience is the ability to adopt a preventative and proactive approach to managing stress – to withstand and function under pressure. There are two persistent myths related to resilience that I wish to banish.

Resilience is not a special quality you have or lack – it can be trained

Resilience is related to several personal qualities that are often associated with individuals who have risen to the top of their field:

  • High levels of healthy confidence (that is, self-assurance, not arrogance)
  • Maintaining focus and blocking out irrelevant noise
  • Balancing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to drive training and performance
  • A positive, forward-thinking mentality, allowing to learn lessons from the past and continuously develop one’s skills

We tend to think that these qualities are rare and only found in extraordinary people. That’s not true. Each of these can be taught, trained, and developed. Many of the world’s best athletes have once suffered from low self-confidence, a tendency to get distracted, low motivation, or negativity bias. Each of these can be trained, overcome, and turned into resilience.

But instead of going into each of these, I’ll present the one quality to rule them all. The one quality that helps you not only boost the above but maintain your ability to draw upon them under stress. That quality is a challenge mindset. Imagine this: we tend to make plans where progress is linear – we advance step-by-step, there are few setbacks or surprises, the sun always shines, and no one ever gets upset. Reality is often much messier. We face obstacles, our authority is challenged, someone wilfully obstructs us, delays happen, we revise our plan, we scrap it, and we start over.

This is where the challenge mindset steps in. An athlete with a challenge mindset does not get impacted by the inevitable highs and lows of elite sports. An athlete with a challenge mindset considers the realities of their world, they acknowledge and accept that what they’ll face will be difficult, uneasy, and emotional. Adopting a challenge mindset is a form of priming: it gives you a head start to focus on your process, routines, and what you can control. If a driver has a firm grasp of this there is little room for fear; when a threat emerges, it has been predicted and workarounds are in place. Pressure can be even seen as a privilege because the resilient ones feel equipped to deal with it.

To adopt a challenge mindset, ask yourself this: Can you reframe your default stance to not expect a linear, sunny road ahead, but be mentally prepared for uneven terrain, bad weather, and surprising detours?

Resilience is not only individual – the environment plays a huge part

Resilience is often focused on the individual. But one crucial piece is often overlooked: the environment. Research on resilience shows that performing under pressure relies on a dynamic process between the athlete and their environment. When a flower isn’t growing, you turn your attention to the soil, not the flower itself.

The literature marries nicely with anecdotal evidence - I have seen first-hand how in times of stress an F1 driver will lean on their social support network to help organise their thoughts, regulate their emotions, and reinforce their mindset. Top teams will create training environments that balance high challenge, deep support, and recognition for achievement. What is also fascinating is the level of psychological safety in top teams’ interactions - conversation is honest, open, and to the point, there is no fear of repercussion for expressing an opinion or making a mistake. Put simply, when this way of working becomes the norm, a positive culture starts to develop, and those within it are more likely to demonstrate resilience in the face of pressure.

Creating a facilitative environment is about reinforcing desired beliefs and behaviours. Here, actions speak louder than words. When working with an athlete to develop qualities and mindset, my primary focus is on how the people around them support the work we’re doing. I can make note of the following: What behaviours are demonstrated towards the athlete after a successful performance? How about after an unsuccessful one? What messages are communicated by coaches and management? How much do they work together to form joint plans and processes? What behaviours boost better results in subsequent performances, and what behaviours – however well-intended – miss the mark completely? There are so many lessons that can be learnt from how remarkable athletes, like Formula 1 drivers, demonstrate resilience regularly. I would, however, suggest that the starting point is to assess whether the environment you operate in is truly facilitative. In other words, is your soil conductive for growth? After all, building resilience is a team sport.

Chris Gooder

Chris Gooder is a Performance Psychologist with a double degree - first in Psychology from the University of Manchester, and later a Master's in Sports & Exercise Psychology from Brunel University. Chris has worked with clients spanning from the Arsenal Football club in Singapore, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and a wide range of elite athletes in tennis, golf, Formula 1, and football.