Project update: Resilient Athletes

How can we ensure that athletes are resilient (resilient) and remain mentally and physically healthy in order to perform optimally?

That is the research question the project led by dr. Ruud den Hartigh (Associate Professor of Talent Development & Creativity at the Department of Psychology at RuG) has been focusing on since the fall of 2019. We spoke to Ruud in November 2022.

In this project both the mental and physical resilience of individual athletes is analysed. Next to that, a feedback system has been developed to be able to act directly on this data. By combining knowledge in the fields of psychology, exercise science and data science, researchers can statistically analyse the resilience of individual athletes and detect periods of risk. By doing so, science can take sport a step forward, with the goal of physically and mentally stronger players in the future.


"Resilience is the ability to recover after stressors (physical and mental)," Ruud explains. However, mapping, analyzing and adjusting resilience has so far been a rather unexplored area. The team from the University of Groningen (RuG) and partners is changing that with this project. In the project, psychologists, exercise scientists, data scientists, and professional sports organizations are working together intensively. The project lasts four years and is subsidized by ZonMw. With research and interventions, ZonMw aims to promote a healthy lifestyle.

Collaboration between science and practice

Athletes experience all kinds of stressors of a physical nature (high training load) and mental nature (losing a match). To deal with this adequately, athletes must be resilient. Therefore, Dutch top sports organizations such as NOC*NSF and KNVB make it a priority to keep athletes physically and mentally resilient.

Through sports innovator center Sport, Science & Innovation Groningen (SSIG), scientific knowledge finds its way to daily practice. Collaboration partners are the soccer clubs PSV, Vitesse and FC Groningen. Institutes such as LIACS, Univeristy of Applied Sciences Arnhem Nijmegen (HAN), the Dutch Sports Data Center (SDC), UMCG and the University of Osnabrück are also involved.

Committed partners

Professional sports organizations, such as soccer clubs, already do a lot of mental and physical measurements on athletes. "In this innovative project, we use data from athletes (in training, ages 15-21) via sensors and an app, which we feed into a secure data platform. We deploy these tools and new data science algorithms to detect athletes' resilience and periods of declining resilience."

There currently is a collaboration with three soccer clubs. "These project partners already have a sophisticated infrastructure to measure physical and mental data of athletes on a daily basis. Participants are also already accustomed to it, and permission to use the data is well organized."

Previously, interpretation of this data took place based on estimates by experts within the soccer clubs and mostly only at the group level. Being able to reliably and scientifically determine the resilience of individual players is a major step forward.

"From the soccer clubs there is a high commitment: they can now intervene faster, using the knowledge generated in this project. This allows them to better utilize the potential of their players. The staff is therefore happy to cooperate, we have a response rate of almost 100%!"

Ruud emphasizes that the knowledge about the players is used to keep them physically and mentally fit, to guide them as best as possible during training – and not as a selection tool. "These players want to develop themselves and we can support that with our tools. Through science, it is possible to take a step forward in sports."

Collaboration gems

The app was created for and together with the participating soccer clubs. "We as scientists listened to their needs for information and then incorporated this directly into the app. This way we developed a tailor-made app and the soccer clubs really have a sense of control. Because of this fine cooperation, we can continue to collect a lot of data and therefore make better analyses."

Another gem is the feedback module. "The feedback module was realized faster than expected, this was planned for the end of the project but we were able to build it very quickly. And it was also used right away." Information about physical and mental resilience is shared with staff and coaches through the app. They can then use this to take timely action, preventing the athlete from developing physical and/or mental problems. "For example, does the player show mental and physical changes that could lead to an injury or mental dip? If a player status turns orange, that may be a sign that intervention is needed. Based on this, the coach can adjust a workout or start a conversation with the player, who might not have raised the alarm himself. In this way, worse can possibly be prevented, the player maintains his health and continues to perform well."

Moving forward

"We have already realized much of what we planned. All data is shared directly with researchers as well as with people using it in everyday practice. It is now easy to see how individual players are doing and, based on the knowledge about the individual player, appropriate action is already being taken. We are also developing analyses that can predict when a player's resilience is declining and building this into the system of the cooperating soccer clubs."

Testing is also underway (somewhat more low-key) with other types of athletes, such as rowers. If this works, the tools will be used in similar ways as the soccer clubs are now using them. Exploring the possibilities with several parties is therefore on the to-do list in the last year of the research as well as future-proofing the current collaborations. Although the project officially ends in fall 2023, Ruud still sees plenty of opportunities to continue and expand it. "Both inside and outside the sports world we see opportunities, resilience is also very relevant in a broader context."


Three articles are currently in progress:

  1. on warning signs (what can you tell if a player is going to run into physical and/or mental problems);
  2. on how the interplay between physical and mental factors looks different for each player;
  3. about coming back after an injury or other serious problem.

More information, news items and publications are available at

Episode of ‘Atlas’ November 2022 on NPO 2 (Dutch public broadcasting):

Top Sports Topics podcast:

Resilient athletes