The Psychological Attribute That Forges Resilient Athletes

In basketball and in life, negative events happen all the time. How you respond to those events determines whether you and your team are resilient or fragile.

But what does it really mean to be resilient? And how do we go about building resiliency? To answer those questions, it’s helpful to look at a psychological attribute known as explanatory style.

Put simply, explanatory style is how we explain the things that happen to us. 

Explanatory style is useful for a few reasons. First, because it can help us understand on a deeper level what it means to be resilient. Second, it provides a framework for how we can develop resilience in athletes.

Here’s how explanatory style works. You have 3 filters through which you can explain an event that happens to you. 

  1. Internal vs External Locus of Control. Do you believe you have control over why the event occurred or does it happen to you?
  2. Global vs. Local. Do you think this always happens or just happened this one time?
  3. Permanent vs. Temporary. Do you think the effects are permanent or will diminish in time?

Let’s use an example to clarify. Imagine you’re a player who’s been taken out of the starting lineup. How will you explain that event? Let’s go through the 3 filters. 

1) Internal vs. External Locus of Control.

    a) internal locus of control: I must have played badly this last week in practice, that’s why coach is benching me. If I perform better next week, I can earn my spot back. 

    b) external locus of control: Coach is going to do whatever he/she wants, I don’t have any control over it. 

2) Global vs. Local

    a) global: My coach is terrible.

    b) local: My coach made a decision that I don’t like. 

3) Permanent vs. Temporary

    a) permanent: I’m a bench player forever now, I’ll never be a starter again.

    b) temporary: Coach put me on the bench now, but I might be a starter again next game. 

It’s pretty easy to see how pessimists view negative events like this. Their coach benches them and they think: Man, I’m benched because I’ve been playing terrible. I’m never going to make it off the bench again because my coach is an idiot. 

Pessimists view negative events as internal, global, and permanent. 

On the other hand, optimists view this exact same situation in a very different light. They think to themselves, well, coach benched me but I can’t control what he does. If I play well he might change his mind and I can be right back in the starting lineup next week. 

Optimists view negative events as external, local, and temporary.


So We Should All Be Optimists, Right? 

After learning this framework, I assumed that the optimistic view would be most resilient. Optimism beats pessimism right? But Seattle Seahawks sports psychologist Michael Gervais disagrees. 

On his terrific podcast Finding Mastery, Gervais says that the most resilient mindset is mostly optimistic. It’s optimistic in that resilient athletes have a local and temporary response to negative events. However, the difference occurs when you get to internal vs external locus of control. This is an important distinction that’s worth analyzing more deeply.

While an optimist would explain negative events using an external locus of control (I can’t control whether coach benches me or not), the resilient athlete accepts responsibility for their role in the event (I played poorly in practice this week, that’s why I’m benched). By accepting responsibility, the resilient athlete adopts an internal locus of control. 

A possible downside of an internal locus of control is lack of confidence. When things go badly, you blame yourself. Is that a price worth paying to be resilient? How do we balance taking control of our lives without blaming ourselves when things go wrong? I don’t have the answer to those questions but they’re worth thinking about.

Regardless, an internal locus of control is useful because it encourages future action. If you believe you can influence the events that happen to you, it’s worth working hard to create better outcomes. But if events happen to you and you can’t control them, then what’s the point in even trying? It’s easy to begin feeling powerless. 

An internal locus of control provides a reason to get back on the horse. That’s why Gervais advocates a mostly optimistic mindset (local and temporary) with an internal locus of control: it encourages ownership over the process. 

The Other Pieces of Resiliency

The resilient athlete doesn’t generalize or over-emphasize a negative event. This is where the local and temporary filters come into play.

While fragile athletes think negative events are insurmountable, resilient ones believe they are conquerable. 

Resilient athletes view a negative event with clarity and perspective while fragile athletes overdramatize it.

Under the right light, a tiny mouse can make a gigantic shadow. Resilient athletes see the mouse for what it really is, while fragile athletes see the huge shadow and quiver in fear. 

Building Resilient Players

As a coach, it’s important to understand how you and your players explain negative events. Players that have a pessimistic explanatory style are going to be hit hard by a negative event. They’ll need someone to pick them back up and shake them out of their mental rut.

How do you go about helping a player with a pessimistic mindset? The same 3 explanatory filters are a useful guide (internal vs external locus of control, global vs local, permanent vs temporary). 

Using the benched player example from earlier, Here’s an example of something you might say: 

“It's one game that you're not starting. This doesn’t mean you're going to ride the pine for the whole season (temporary). You’re a hugely an important part of the team whether you start or not. I know you might not like the decision right now (local) and you might disagree with it. But you can’t control that. What you can control is how you respond to it (internal). You can choose whether to pout about it, or keep coming to practice with great attitude and effort. I know it’s easy for me to say that, but it’s up to you to decide how you respond to this adversity."

Obviously, you need to tailor the message to the individual. Some players really need to understand that it’s not the end of the world. Others may need to be reminded that they can control their response to the situation. Regardless of the emphasis you place on each of the 3 filters, the broader goal here is to give players a sense of perspective and an internal locus of control moving forward.