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’. No traces of Positive Psychology anywhere.

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?

Performance Psychology meets Positive Psychology

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 practise 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. 

Too Much Deficit-Based Coaching

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 improve weaknesses 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-approach 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 distinguish 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?
  • Which aspects 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 and Positive Psychology

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 heart 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 in Theory

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 – athletes with a growth mindset know their abilities develop through hard work and effort rather than natural talent.  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 in Practice

Is it not possible to developed Grit 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 hs 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.

Author: Mindy Simpson

Mindy is an endorsed Organisational Psychologist specialising in performance enhancement within organisations and on the sporting field. Her absolute passion is to help people reach their potential and achieve all they want in sport, work and life.

6 thoughts on “Positive Psychology in Sport and Performance”

  1. Awesome edition! Will be trying to instil this gritty growth-mindset in my team asap

  2. Hi Mandy – many thanks for this blog post! Is there not a risk with postive psychology of sugar coating advice? RW

    1. Hi Richard,

      Thank you! Positive psychology does not ignore the negatives, challenges and setbacks in life. It’s about a change of focus to building the positive rather than focusing on weaknesses and what needs fixing.


  3. Interesting read – I recently heard Dweck talk on the podcast “The One Your Feed” where she talked about Fixed and Growth Mindsets. Thanks for helping to relate it more to sport – I am an elite lawn bowler.

    1. Thanks Philip. Yes adopting a growth mindset has huge benefits in sport. Listening to the language of others can help determine if they have a fixed or growth mindset. Good luck with your lawn bowls.


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