Optimism vs. Pessimism
By Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP
In their quest to help young athletes, many parents and coaches tend to spout universal truths.
That is, they give advice that comes across as valid for everyone.
The message being sent is that everyone who performs this task MUST follow this advice, because otherwise you’d be doing something wrong. Some of these spoutings are appropriate – “let’s all shake hands with the opposing team after the game” is a fine way to demonstrate sportsmanship and good advice for everyone. Or “we’ve got to hustle on and off the field at all times” because, as is usually the case, we seem to play our best when we’re giving our best. This, too, is solid advice for everyone.
But what about other, just-as-commonly-spouted bits of advice?
“Imagine getting a hit before your at-bat,” “take a few deep breaths before your free throw” and “think positive thoughts about the parallel bars” are seemingly benign and well-intentioned – but are they universally valid? Must we all follow them? Is this the right advice for every ballplayer and gymnast?
The fact is, there is no one right way to go about making improvement – not everyone must visualize the same scenes in their head, go through the same on-field rituals, or think the same "positive thoughts."
This ends up being a relieving and inspiring idea for many athletes. It's refreshing for us to know there are many ways to go about making changes, and that we don't have to follow just one singular path.
Lots of young players who inevitably have a hint of anxiety before a big at-bat may think of the presence of anxiety as “wrong” or “bad” – since they’ve been told that before, by a trusted older person – which creates more anxiety. Knowing that anxiety is normal, even helpful for some of us, is often comforting.
The same is true with our attitudes; there's simply not one right mindset to adopt in preparation for competition.
Consider the two major types of mindsets: there's the optimist (who anticipates the best, stays calm and sets high expectations for the upcoming performance), and the pessimist (who expects the worst, feels anxious and imagines all the things that can go wrong).
If you're a pessimist, about a week before the big game you convince yourself that you’re doomed to fail. And it won’t be just ordinary failure: you’ll imagine losing catastrophically and maybe even trip over your shoelaces walking out onto the court.
But pessimism doesn't guarantee failure. In fact, pessimists seem comfortable – and might actually thrive – in that role.
In one recent experiment, researchers asked people to throw darts after being randomly assigned to picture a perfect performance, envision a bad performance, or relax. Pessimists were about 30 percent more accurate in their dart throws when they thought about negative outcomes rather than imagining positive outcomes or relaxing.
Lots of successful athletes have historically been pessimistic thinkers, too. The pessimism doesn't lead them to cheat or give up. Rather, it's a strategy to effectively manage anxiety, fear and worry. After all, once you fear the worst, you’re motivated to avoid it by preparing well. Many athletes, young and old, report that pessimistic thoughts – those that paint a picture of potentially bad outcomes in the future – light a fire under them to train and prepare even harder, and to come up with a more comprehensive plan for the game.
This isn't to say we should all work hard to achieve a pessimistic approach to life. Clearly optimism is a hugely effective mindset for many of us. The importance is that some of us may crumble and falter when commanded to "be positive" or "stay optimistic" - in fact, some athletes claim that such an attitude actually diminishes their effort on the field of play (sounds strange to us optimists, eh?).
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what attitude works best for us, the attitude that triggers maximal effort in our own game. "What mindset must I have in order to give my best?" might yield some surprising answers for people who assume that "unyielding positivity" is always the way to go.
Take an approach because it feels right for you, not just because it's what you’ve been told to do.
Phrased a different way, we should not mix pessimism with effort level or lack of trying. Whether you are a pessimist or optimist you have to ensure that you give your best every minute you are on the court, in the gym, etc.
We’re all unique inside and out. Let’s remember that universal pieces of advice might not be universally helpful.
Greg Chertok has more than 10 years of applied sport counseling experience with athletes and coaches ranging from youth to professional status. His clients include high school and NCAA champions, Super Bowl champions, Stanley Cup participants and Olympic athletes. He serves as the Director of Mental Training at CourtSense, a high performance junior tennis academy in Bergen County, N.J., and at Magnus Potential, its fitness training affiliate.
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