Positive Psychology in Sport and Performance

Are sporting coaches and competitive athletes amongst the more likely to benefit from the principles of positive psychology?

The Positive Psychology Movement is all about building on existing strengths.

Recently I was cleaning out my filing cabinet and I came across an email from a previous coach of mine which outlined some feedback on what he felt I needed to improve on after a recent tournament.  I scanned through the email and felt a heaviness settle in my stomach.  The feelings and emotions came back from the time I first received the email many years ago.  The feedback was all negative, however, it was phrased as ‘the areas I needed to improve on’.  Most of the comments were around ‘you need to do this more’, and ‘in this situation, you need to be doing this’. 

He even finished the email with recognising that this was his ‘critical observation’.   None of the feedback was given to me during the tournament, it was all put in an email and sent when we got back and with no follow-up.  What I noticed most was that there was no positive feedback, not one bit!  After reading his email, I felt unmotivated and deflated.  I’m sure this is not what he intended, however, is this the response we want from our athletes?  Is this type of feedback going to make them better athletes and competitors?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Happiness and Its Causes conference in Perth, and I was curious, engaged, and fascinated by the content and the vibe of the conference.  I was introduced to Positive Psychology, the science of flourishing.  Dr Martin Seligman, one of the main researchers in this branch of psychology, believes that psychological practice should be as concerned with people’s strengths as well as their weaknesses.  Positive psychology asks the question: ‘what’s good in our lives’ compared to the traditional psychology approach which can focus more on ‘what’s wrong with us and how can we fix it’. 

As a performance psychologist, I have always had a passion for helping people thrive in their work and life, so this theory sat well with me and aligned with my goals.  I started introducing positive psychology initiatives into my work in organisations and as my sporting clients grew I felt that those striving for high performance also benefitted and that positive psychology has a lot to offer sport. 

Sport is also often focused on ‘fixing weaknesses and problems’, called deficit-based coaching.  How often do you come off the field at half time and a coach says “this is what we need to change because we’re not doing it right.”  Strengths-based coaching, on the other hand, is about identifying, enhancing and exploiting athletes’ and teams’ strengths and focusing on what we do well. 

Athletes, coaches and sporting organisations generally have the goal of excellence, both on and off the field, and by using positive psychology strategies, performance psychologists are able to support athletes, staff and families develop resilience and coping skills in order to deal with setbacks, focus on strengths to achieve their goals, and to strive to increase grit (the combination of perseverance and passion for long term goals).  These mental skills are just as vital to success as being able to hit a hockey ball, run fast, or shoot a basket.  Talent and technical ability is not enough.  Whilst it is very important, we all can name truly gifted athletes that never make it. 

What sets most athletes apart is their mental toughness: their character, their grit, their positive mindset, and their belief that their ability can be developed through dedication and hard work, most recently introduced as a growth-mindset according to Carol Dweck. 

So what are the key factors of positive psychology that can be applied to sport?

Strengths focus

Research has demonstrated that it is easier to promote a strength than it is to develop a weakness, and that our areas of greatest potential are our greatest strengths.  This is not to say don’t focus on your weaknesses, but the best results will come when you are also working on your strengths.  Research shows that those who use their strengths are more likely to have higher levels of confidence, vitality and energy, are likely to be more resilient, have higher self-esteem, and to perform better.  Coaches and athletes are encouraged to know their strengths and the focus of development should be around their strengths.  Many coaches have a negativity bias and need to train their brains to focus on the good things their athletes are doing.

The two key elements of a strength are “delivering a high level of performance and experiencing a sense of energy when you are doing it” (Linley, Willars, et al., 2010).  Spotting the energy is crucial to distinguishing the real strengths from learned behaviours.  So how do you know what your strengths are?  Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you love about your sport?
  • What’s your favourite role?
  • What do you get complimented on?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What do you do in your spare time?
  • How can I harness my strengths?

Growth Mindset

In 2006, Carol Dweck introduced us to the notion of growth and fixed mindset.  Those with a growth mindset are more comfortable with failure as they see it as a learning opportunity in comparison to those with a fixed mindset who believe their success is based on innate ability and talent.  Athletes with a growth mindset are more likely to see challenges as opportunities rather than barriers, and believe that they can improve, learn and get better with practice and effort.  The good news is, we can choose which mindset we want – we can choose to view our mistakes and setbacks as learning opportunities, or we can view them as limiting obstacles.  Those choosing a growth mindset are more likely to persist in difficult times than those with fixed mindsets.  And athletes know better than anyone, that if you want to achieve success, there are always barriers and obstacles in the way, including poor form, injury and confidence issues.

Positive Emotions

Sport is emotional – for athletes, coaches, and spectators.  Many emotions are felt from elation, excitement and nervousness to fear, sadness, anger and disappointment.  Emotions drive behaviour and often dictate how you perform as an athlete in competition.  To become a high performing athlete, you need to understand and manage your emotions so they help rather than hinder your performances.

Many people falsely believe that positive psychology only recognises positive aspects of people and their performances, and ignores the negative.  When viewing emotions, both positive and negative are considered, and the impact both these have on an athlete’s performances.  Negative emotions like anxiety and anger can trigger our body’s “Fight or Flight” response to threat and these emotions affect our bodies physically.  These physical effects can include increased heat rate, nausea, muscle tension, stomach aches, weakened focus, and physically drained.   Positive emotions on the other hand can have the opposite effect.  Happiness can relieve tension, lower your heart and blood pressure, strengthen your immune system and help to combat stress.  Staying calm, focused and positive can help you attend to what you need to by minimising distractions, keeping you relaxed, and increasing your confidence.  It also has the added benefit of being a pleasant person to be around!

The best way to increase your emotional intelligence in sport is to be aware of how your emotions impact your behaviour and performances, be able to manage those emotions that lead to poor performances, and create and enhance emotions that lead to good performances.

Grit

Recent research has shown that one of the key factors in success is what is termed as ‘Grit’, defined as passion and perseverance in working toward significant long-term goals.  Elite athletes across many sports are grittier than non-elite athletes.  They also commit to their sports for a longer period of time.  This concept pioneered by Dr Angela Duckworth (2007), explains why some people achieve success without being gifted with unique intelligence or talent.  So, if you are an athlete or coach who feels like you missed the talent boat, then there is hope for you.  How many of you can credit your successes to your passion, commitment, resilience and perseverance? The good news is that you can develop your grit to become grittier.  Ways to do this include:

  • Develop your passion – find what you love doing, and it will be easier to stick to it.  Not many people stick to things they are not passionate about.  Ask yourself, what do I like to think about?  Where does my attention wander?  What do I really care about?
  • Practice deliberately – don’t waste your time at training, practice deliberately.  Set stretch goals, practice with full concentration and effort, seek feedback and reflect on what went well and what didn’t to refine for next time.
  • Consider your purpose – why are you doing what you do?  In life and sport, there are bound to be setbacks and challenges along the way.  If you have a purpose for what you are doing, then you are more likely to persevere and stay committed.  When times are tough, always go back to your ‘why’.
  • Adopt a ‘growth’ mindset.  Remember, those with a growth mindset believe their abilities can be developed through hard work and effort rather than ability.  Those with growth mindsets are much better at dealing with setbacks as they view them as learning experiences, rather than being directly related to their ability. 

Grit cannot be developed overnight; it is an ongoing process.  What we do know is that it’s worth developing – the gritty athlete is not only successful, s/he is also more likely to be happier and more satisfied with his/her ability than other athletes.

The adoption and implementation of positive psychology have been shown to have a significant impact on sports performances by shifting the focus from negative (what’s wrong with you) to positive (what’s right with you). 

Understanding your strengths and how to use them, adopting a growth mindset, using your emotions strategically and developing grit all contribute to building mental toughness, optimism, motivation and resilience.  I know from firsthand experience how focusing on the positive can have a much greater impact on an athlete and bring out the best in us. 

If you’d like more information about working with me on some of these ideas then get in touch by completing our Contact Us Form here and mention my name (“Mindy”) somewhere in the comments sections and I will call you back.

Sporting Comebacks – A Mental Perspective

Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt to win during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Sporting Comeback Or Otherwise ~ The Term ‘Comeback’ Is An Interesting One

What first comes to my mind when I think about ‘sporting comebacks’ is ‘coming back to what’? The Oxford Living Dictionary defines comeback as ‘a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful’. Which of courses begs the question successful as defined by who and what?

Unless you have been hiding out in a cave somewhere over the last few weeks I’ll assume you have at least heard about the fact that golfer Tiger Woods – at age 43 – recently won The US Masters golf tournament (one of the four majors). Many commentators are calling it one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time.

Apologies if you already know all of this. However, it’s important for the non-golf followers out there to be aware of the facts around this remarkable sporting victory.

Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. It is easy to understand why many regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance might have been a contender but we all know what happened to him!

Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles (majors being the Key Performance Indicator that is typically used as the main barometer of success in professional golf) fourteen of them came between 1997 (winning his first US Masters) and 2008 (a third US Open). Fourteen majors in eleven years mean he was averaging more than one per year during the glory years.

And then came the decline by his standards …

Only Tiger will really know what contributed to the slide in his form. He went from more than a Major a year to none for the following 10 years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of factors. Maybe ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals or a combination? Between 2009 and 2018 his trophy cabinet did not continue to fill up at quite the same rate as per the previous decade.

Tiger won most of his 81 golf tournaments (so far) during the first half of his career.

The above graph is very telling in many ways. For me, the most meaningful takeaway is this notion of success as defined by who and what – as mentioned earlier. I work 1-on-1 with dozens of professional golfers who would love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like so much in sports psychology, comebacks are all relative.

Tiger’s win at Augusta in April will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat for such a long time, and then went for a long period without one. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) got ignored, dismissed or underplayed.

With this in mind, I would suggest that athletes and coaches be very mindful of letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as successful. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of them, not just the ones the tabloid journalists write about.

Our Metuf model suggests that Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as the four ‘engines’ that most influence our performance outcomes (such as winning a golf tournament). But maybe it was only really Tiger’s physical capabilities were an issue during the 2009 and 2018 period. 

Take a look at Tiger’s injury “timeline” combined by ABC new (with a nice graphics if you only have a couple of minutes and would rather spend your time reading the rest of this blog). As you can see what he had to go through from a physical point of view would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement.

But most athletes don’t have the mindset of Tiger Woods.

The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance if one of your four engines is not functioning properly. Of course, a much more common scenario across all sports are athletes who are physically fine (injury free at least) but who Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised (if this sounds like you shoot us an email).

The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. This includes – amongst other factors – relationships, happiness, mental health and fun! It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so and I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness.

During the famous green jacket ceremony – where the winner of the US Masters gets a green jacket in their size – Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’ suggesting how he is thinking about his family in the immediate aftermath of his most epic comeback ever.

Although there is still a lot of data missing proving the link between improved wellbeing and sporting results trust me as a performance psychologist whose team of psychologists currently assists athletes and coaches from across the English speaking world – the two are linked.

Another couple of sporting comebacks that just took place and that probably gives readers some clues about the sports that I tend to follow in my downtime were the two recent Champions League semifinals. The Champions League is Europe’s premier inter-club competition where the best teams from all the major leagues take part in a separate competition the following year.

Again, if you know how the Champions’ League work then skip this paragraph but it’s important to put all stories into context. The Champions’ League consists of first a round robin “pool” format (similar to FIFA World Cups) and then a second knock out stage. All the matches except for the final are played over two legs meaning that the scores from each pair or games get summed to decide the overall winner of the tie. In the event of deadlocks (even number of goals scores across the two games) then the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.

In this year’s semi-finals Barcelona (of Spain) took on Liverpool FC (England) and Ajax (Holland) played Tottenham Hotspur (England). After the two first games, it was looking very unlikely that either of the English teams would advance to the final in Madrid in early June. Barcelona would take a 3-0 lead into the second leg meaning a single goal for the Catalans’s at Anfield would mean LFC would need to score 5 against arguably the best team in Europe! Ajax fans were forgiven for starting to think about a trip to the Spanish capital after their team beat Spurs 1-0 in London at therefore would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.

Yet despite all the odds, the Champions League final will, in fact, be played between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur and the internet / social media will provide you with more than enough opportunities to see just how they did it. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way but what is obvious from the outside looking in is the seriousness with which the two managers / Head Coaches take the mental side of the game and have created a ‘never give up’ attitude across there playing squads.

In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback win as ‘mentality giants’ – a term I have not come across before but will be passing onto my coaching clients for sure.

Mohamed Salah’s ‘Never Give Up’ T-shirt epitomises Liverpool’s mindset in Barcelona victory

Of course although Tiger Woods’ latest major title and a couple of football (soccer) matches on the other side of the world might not, at first glance, appear to have too much in common they add to the growing list of remarkable sporting comebacks where the performers have learnt to harness the power of the mind.