resilience training

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It’s competition season and there’s a million things going on… but are you thinking about resilience training? During this season many teams have multiple events and exhibitions over the span of a few months. Everything is in preparation for the final big event. Whether it’s preparation for a state championship, the national finals, your final end of season show, or last game… you want that final performance to be your best of the season.

In an ideal world, each performance would get better and better. You’d do well at your first event, get good feedback, make improvements, and get better the next time. Realistically, that’s not how it goes. What happens if your first time competing is a disaster? Little Suzie stands there for an 8 count and stares blankly, Mary looses a shoe, and Jessie completely falls and hits on her butt. Now what? How do you prepare your team to bounce back from this and improve at the next event? Why are some athletes resilient in the face of failure and others loose hope? The simple answer:  It takes resilience training.

resilience training

Failure is Part of the Process

So much of your dancer’s reaction to a failure is how you as a coach react. Remember it’s a perceived failure, so you have to teach them how to react to failure. There are three key things to remember:

  • Failure is a part of the process
  • Failure is something to be embraced
  • Athletes don’t react to success and failures the same way

In order to be resilient to failure, you want a group of athletes who perceive failure as part of the learning process. It’s ok to feel a sense of disappointment at first, but that should quickly turn to “What did I learn from this?” “Where do we go now?” “How can I be better?” If they learn to embrace failure, they are much more emotionally prepared for the next event and are more likely to improve their performance.

The first step to teaching your dancers how to become a resilient athlete is to think about perceptions of fault. When something doesn’t go well, who’s at fault for the failure?

Resilience Training PART 1: Who’s at Fault?

First, this is not the blame game. You never want to let your team go to a place where they attack each other and blame Mary for her shoe falling off or yell at Jessie’s partner who was standing in the wrong place and tripped her. But think about all the things your dancers usually say when they don’t perform at their personal best.

resilience training

When you hear an excuse, pay attention.  Are they blaming something that was in their control (internal) or something outside of their control (external)?  How a dancer interprets internal vs. external control says everything about her personal sense of ability. If dancers perceive that they have control over the failure, they believe it’s in their ability to change what happens next time. They believe they have the ability to bounce back. And when they believe they have the ability, the will stay motivated and work harder after a failure.

Attribution Matters

Psychologists often discuss and research a concept called  “ability attributions.” An athlete will make either an internal or external attribution of her ability. Something is either in her control or not. This applies beyond failures too, and relates to how an athlete perceives the source of success. When your team does well, was it in their control or was the success lucky?

Essentially athletes make an attribution about their ability. Is it fixed or can it change?

Success Attributions & Emotions

If dancers attribute a success to an internal source like their own effort or talent, they are likely to feel pride and confidence. If they attribute success to an external source like another team made a major mistake or they just got lucky then the dancers are likely to feel gratitude for the success but have no confidence that the same success will happen again.

Failure Attributions & Emotions

The same thing happens with failures. If dancers attribute a failure to an external source, like the floor was slippery or they went first in the competition, they can maintain confidence in their abilities. If dancers attribute a failure to an internal source like a lack of talent or ability then that’s often perceived as a stable thing that likely won’t change in time for your next competition. That athlete is more likely to have a big drop in confidence and not maintain a positive attitude going into the next event. The failure was in their control and their ability isn’t good enough. No amount of practice will change that, so they give up.

Resilience Training PART 2: How do YOU the Coach React to Failure?

Once you understand what you’re listening for, the next step in resilience training is to pay attention to your dancer’s attributions. When something doesn’t go well, be it during practice or at a competition, listen to the excuses the cheerleader provides. Then you can try to determine if he attributes the failure to something internal or external. If it’s external, determine if it was something in his control or not. If so, great focus on that. But if not, help him move on and find a focal point within his control. If the attribution is internal, it’s the same process. Make sure the internal failure is something he perceives as either out of his control and unlikely to happen again, or in his control and fixable.

resilience trainingFor example if a dancer makes an internal attribution for the failure, focus on what’s in his control and what he can change. If he doesn’t think he has the talent, focus on work ethic and effort and things in his control. When a dancer says “I’m not a turner” or  “I’m terrible at jumps,” you can say something like, “a lot of people feel that way, but you can change things. I’ll work with you on _______. We have time before your next game and practice really helps so let’s make a practice plan to help you improve your skills.” Focus on the fact that the athlete’s  excuse, i.e. their ability, is changeable! They need to know you will help them get better and feel that sense of internal control over their potential for success.

If the excuse is based on something external, again focus on what’s in their control. If the attribution is completely out of their control, remind them of that and dwelling on it doesn’t change anything. Judges are not in your control… so dwelling on that uncontrollable external failure just breeds anger! Instead, find something they do have control over and put your effort there.


It’s easy to go too far with this and encourage athletes to never take responsibility for failure. If you always attribute failure to an external thing that’s not your fault, then sure emotions are protected and you feel good about yourself but you’re not likely to improve. There is a balance to this. Help the athlete make an external attribution to the failure if it’s valid. But if they really did make a mistake and should have an internal attribution for the failure then it’s important that the internal attribution is viewed as changeable and unfixed.

You want to encourage accountability while improving confidence by instilling the view that ability is changeable with effort and practice. So when you make a mistake OWN IT! And then focus on why the mistake happened and what you can do about it. You can also point out the successful parts of the routine that were in their control as well, so they can feel confident that effort and work will make a difference.

Resilience Training PART 3: How To Build Up a Resilient Athlete

There are four steps to follow when you are helping athletes deal with a mistake.

R = Recognize the error and the frustration it has caused

Validate their feelings and emotions while guiding them to the mindset mantra “Control the Controllables” (for much more on that read THIS).

E = Evaluate the trick/skill/routine and determine how and why the error occurred and how the athlete interprets the situation

Don’t assume they are making the same attribution for the mistake that you are. Talk about it, evaluate it together as a learning process so the dancer can learn to be better at self-evaluation as she continues to grow and improve

A = Allow for time to practice

Big changes in skill won’t happen overnight. Keep reminding the athlete that hard work matters, offer instruction and feedback, praise when deserved, and guidance towards the end goal.

D Develop a plan (and communicate to your athlete) to make the necessary corrections for the future

When an athlete feels like there is a clear plan in place to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again they are much more likely to maintain focus and effort during that time. Without it, they may resort back to stable internal attributions of failure where they assume they aren’t good enough and cease to put forth any effort.

Resilience Training PART 4: Bringing It All Together – How to Build a Resilient Athlete

  • Help athletes explain failure as CONTROLLABLE and CHANGEABLE. Your language matters, make sure failure is always in their control and changeable. If you believe it was uncontrollable (judges opinion) focus on what you can control and emphasize that it’s changeable.
  • Remember (and remind them) – It won’t change overnight. Some athletes have relied on negative attributions for a while.  Keep at it and keep reminding them they are in control of their success too!
  • Challenge them – It’s tempting to compete against teams or at levels where you know you will be successful. But the athletes know what’s going on. They attribute success to the other’s lack of ability not their own. “We won because it was easy, not because we are talented.” External success attributions are dangerous too! Challenge them and give them an opportunity to experience success they know they are responsible for.
  • Talk to your athletes so you can recognize negative failure beliefs. Don’t assume they are making the right connections, but have explicit conversations and make the failure or mistake a valuable learning process.

Coaches, I know all of this can be tricky. You may have a large team and they all probably approach success and failures differently. I encourage you to take action this week by simply paying attention to the attributions that you hear. Notice any that you feel are negative or likely to lead to diminished confidence and pull that dancer aside. Don’t be afraid to talk to your athlete’s about the source of their failures and success. It’s up to you to help them learn how to embrace failure and see it as a learning process on the path to success.

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