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 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. The message contained 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 emotions came back from the time I first received the email many years ago. The feedback was all negative but phrased as ‘the areas I needed to improve on’.  Comments like ‘you need to do this more’, and ‘in this situation, you need to be doing this’. No traces of Positive Psychology anywhere.

None of the feedback was given to me during the tournament itself. 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 at all. After reading his email, I felt unmotivated and deflated. I’m sure this is not what he intended but it’s what happened. Is this type of feedback going to make for 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. I was curious, engaged, and fascinated by the content and the vibe of the conference. During the even 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 their weaknesses. Positive psychology asks ‘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 values. I started introducing positive psychology initiatives into my work in organisations. Later as my sporting clients grew I felt that they too would gain a lot from some simple positive psychology principles.

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. 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. These mental skills are just as vital to success as being able to hit a hockey ball or shoot a basket.  Talent and technical ability is not enough. Whilst important we all can name truly gifted athletes that never make it. 

What sets most athletes apart is their mental toughness. It’s their character, their grit, their positive mindset and the belief that their ability can be developed through dedication and hard work. 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 minimise distractions, keeping you relaxed, and increasing your confidence. It also has the added benefit of being a pleasant person to be around!

Grit 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 compared with 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.

Positive Psychology Is Not Positive Thinking

The below is an old post from 2014 written by one of the interns at the time (sorry, can’t call which one). It was called The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking. Note, the below was not written by Mindy but it feels like this is the best place to add it.

The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking

It goes without saying that negative thinking can be unhelpful, particularly from a performance perspective. But have you ever considered that the opposite of negative thinking may also be unhelpful? Or even that trying to change how we think in the first place is where the problems lie?

How often do we hear people say that to overcome difficult situations we just need to think positively? Let’s start with a story about how our thoughts influence the way we feel and act.

Three Soccer Players

Imagine three soccer players each taking a penalty kick in a shoot out. They all miss the goal. The first player thinks: “I’ve let the whole team down. I’ll never get selected again.” She gets upset and feels really sad about missing the goal. The second player thinks: “It’s not fair that we had to go to a penalty shoot out! This is all because the referee disallowed our goal in the 88th minute!” This player kicks the ground on their way back to the team and feels angry about missing the goal. The third player thinks: “Well, that didn’t work out the way I had hoped, but overall I had a pretty good game today. I’ll have to practice those spot kicks a bit more in training.” She remains calm on her way back to the team, and even though they feel a bit disappointed about missing the goal.

So why did three people who were in the same situation experience such different cognitive reactions? They all missed the goal, but only the third player coped effectively with this stressful situation. As you may have noticed, these three players all had different thoughts going through their minds after they missed the goal. Their thoughts influenced their emotions (i.e. how they felt) and their behaviour (i.e. how they acted). This story highlights two important points for athletes and coaches to understand:

  1. Our thoughts influence how we feel and act; and
  2. We can’t change the outcome of our performance once it’s in the past, but we can certainly control how we react to this outcome.

Thoughts Influence How We Feel and Act

Over time our thoughts become more consistent and habitual. We develop our own unique way of making sense of situations. This is called our thinking style. There are three distinct styles of thinking. Negative and positive thinking sit at either end of a continuum. They are both extremes, like the colours black and white. Both of these extreme thinking styles have the potential to be unhelpful when it comes to coping with stressful situations. Negative thinking can lead to self-doubt, being hyper critical, blaming others and feeling guilty. Likewise, positive thinking (not grounded in reality) can be equally unhelpful and lead to over-confidence and under-preparation in some athletes and coaches.

This leaves us with the third (and most helpful) thinking style. Realistic Thinking is characterised by the shades of grey that fall between the extremes of negative and positive thinking. As the name suggests, realistic thinking is based on real life – and for most people, life consists of ups and downs rather than “all good” or “all bad” situations. Realistic thinking is a balanced way of thinking that acknowledges limitations or setbacks whilst developing and maximising strengths. Here are a few tips to help you develop a more realistic thinking style:

7 Quick Wins

  1. Evaluate the validity of your thoughts. Don’t just treat them as facts. Try to find supporting evidence for thoughts that enhance your confidence and motivation and refuting evidence for thoughts that undermine your confidence and motivation.
  2. Be careful not to over-generalise after a setback. Just because one shot, tackle, or game wasn’t your best, doesn’t mean that every performance in the future will be the same.
  3. Focus on the controllables – What you are thinking and doing in the present moment. You can’t change the past, and the only way you can influence your future is by how you manage the present.
  4. If your mind starts focusing on a worst case scenario, ask yourself “How likely is it that this scenario will actually come true?” and “Will the consequences be as bad as I’m predicting?”
  5. Try not to use extreme words in your thinking, such as “should,” “must,” “always,” and “never.” These words lead to athletes and coaches putting unnecessary pressure on themselves. Think about what is reasonable rather than ideal.
  6. Work with supportive people around you (i.e. coach, family, team mates, psychologist) to develop realistic performance goals. Expectations need to be in line with capabilities and logistics in order for goals to be achievable.
  7. Accept that things sometimes don’t go according to plan and sport can be unpredictable and unfair. Use these stressful experiences as an opportunity to learn and build resilience for the future.

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.

      Cheers
      Mindy

  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.

      Cheers
      Mindy

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