Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States of America once noted that “nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent”.
Whilst he might have been slightly over-egging the importance of resilience, the desire to help children improve these skills is probably more popular now than ever. But is this something that can be learnt and developed? If so, can the latest research from educational and sport psychology help point us in the right direction?
The Sutton Trust define this as a ‘positive adaptation despite the presence of risk’. In their report, ‘The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcome for young people’, they note that resilience and coping skills have high malleability (meaning that they can be improved and developed).
Resilience, originally studied in young children suffering major traumatic events, has since been researched in both sport and business. A recent overview by leading resilience researchers (which we strongly recommend everyone interested in this area should read) highlight that for an environment to facilitate resilience it needs to be both high in challenge and support. Too much challenge and no support results in excessive stress, burnout and isolation. Too much support but not enough challenge can lead to complacency and boredom.
Other ways to help develop resilience include (but are not limited to):
Maintain a sense of perspective. A recent study on university students found that keeping a sense of perspective was a key factor to developing resilience. The key here is to keep an eye on the big picture as well as the small details. This combination of the end goal helps maintain motivation on tough days, whilst focusing on the smaller details helps maintain focus and concentration. Doing both helps develop sustainable resilience.
Viewing decisions as active choices not sacrifices. This was a consistent theme in a study on how Olympic Gold Medallists developed their resilience. By viewing their commitment as an active choice and not as a sacrifice, they focus more on keeping their motivation levels high and less on what they are missing out on. You can read more about this here.
Surround yourself by people who make you feel good and further your development. Poet John Donne once said, “No man is an island”. The more we isolate ourselves, the more we brood over bad decisions which increases our stress and frustration. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore said in his acceptance speech, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”
As well as making ourselves feel better, other people can also have an impact on our effort levels. That was the finding of a recent journal which found that if the person next to you is working hard then it increases your work ethic. Interestingly, this impact was found to be consistent regardless of whether they were doing an easier or more difficult task, or whether the task was similar or unrelated to yours.
Believe in your ability to overcome hardships and guide your own destiny. Researcher Angela Duckworth states that having a sense of hope and optimism is a key component to developing resilience and grit. Indeed, researchers from Staffordshire University have found that if you believe you have the abilities to meet the demands of the situation, you are more likely to be in a ‘Challenge State’ (as opposed to a ‘Threat State’) and perform better under pressure. We strongly recommend checking out their work and blogs here.
Fail Better. Albert Bandura, one of the most eminent psychologists of our time once said that “in order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life”. Essentially, some failure along the way is inevitable.
Indeed, Elbert Hubbard once said “a failure is a man who has blundered and not cashed in on the experience”.
Setbacks are not always a bad thing. We can teach students how to fail better, by encouraging them to ask for feedback, reflecting on what they’ve learnt and what they would do differently. This is something we’ve already written about.
Some Stress. Don’t totally avoid stressful situations. Some stress can be helpful, as it means you care. Excessive stress can hinder learning and damage well-being. Finding the right balance is tricky but important, with a recent study noting how self-regulation and resilience are closely linked.
Be flexible and adaptable so that you can respond well in challenging situations. Author Jodi Picoult wrote in ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ that “the human capacity for burden is like a bamboo – far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance”. This theme is similar to one promoted by Bruce Lee who noted that “the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind”.
Being adaptable is a key part of resilience, as well as setting effective goals. Research suggest that having a growth mindset makes you more adaptable, and as such able to deal better with change and transitions as well as promoting resilience.