Positive Thinking in Sport

Traditionally, sport psychologists have placed great value on athletes thinking positively about upcoming  and  imminent  performances.  Compared  with practicing  sport  psychologists  who  have  demonstrated a keen interest in positive thinking, theorists and  researchers  have  not.  As  a  result,  a  systematic and thorough knowledge base regarding what positive  thinking  is  and  why  it  is  so  sought  does not currently exist. However, it would be reasonable to state that positive thinking is a broad term encapsulating self-affirmations (e.g., I feel strong, I stay focused under pressure), images of successful goal attainment (e.g., winning an important competition),  as  well  as  thoughts  reflecting  optimism and  an  unshakable  self-belief.  Although  positive thinking can include recollection of previous sporting successes, the essence of positive thinking is a focus on the present goals at hand (e.g., to successful “sink” the immanent golf putt) and the likely attainment of these. Both personal (e.g., personality  traits  such  as  anxiety)  and  social  (e.g.,  coach feedback  about  progress  concerning  the  learning of  a  skill)  factors  can  influence  positive  thinking. The  current  research  and  theories  pertaining  to positive thinking are discussed here.

As well as sport psychologists, coaches around the  world  clearly  value  positive  thinking.  For instance,  we  know  that  North  American  and Australian tennis coaches strongly encourage their players to think positively and say positive things to  themselves  in  order  to  bolster  their  confidence levels. However, despite its perceived importance, it  is  only  relatively  recently  that  researchers  have identified  four  types  of  sports-oriented  positive thinking: psyching up, anxiety control, confidence enhancing,  and  instructional.  Although  instructions  are  not  necessarily  inherently  positive,  it  is likely  that  the  mere  presence  of  directive  thought assists with a positive mind-set by indicating to the athlete  that  she  or  he  has  some  control  over  the situation.  Researchers  who  have  examined  how athletes might utilize positive thinking have developed a self-talk questionnaire, the use of which has revealed  beneficial  relationships  between  athletes’ positive thinking and their mood states (e.g., anxiety, vigor, tension, and boredom).

Perhaps  unsurprisingly,  positive  thinking  has been  shown  to  be  most  strongly  and  positively related  to  state  self-confidence.  Indeed,  studies involving athletes being trained in the use of positive thinking have revealed that athletes experience reduced precompetition anxiety and elevated levels of confidence, as well as more facilitative interpretations  of  the  symptoms  associated  with  anxiety. That  is,  athletes  are  more  likely  to  view  characteristics  associated  with  anxiety  (e.g.,  “butterflies in  the  stomach,”  concern  with  the  task  at  hand) as being helpful rather than a hindrance for their subsequent performance.

Although   the   association   between   positive thinking  and  performance  has  not  been  extensively investigated, based on the limited available literature,  researchers  have  identified  a  consistent positive  effect  of  positive  statements  addressed to  oneself  on  sporting  performance.  One  of  the proposed  reasons  for  this  effect  involves  self-confidence;  more  specifically,  positive  thinking leads  to  enhanced  confidence,  which,  in  turn, assists  skill  execution  and  performance.  Drawing on the sources of self-efficacy proposed by Albert Bandura  offers  some  guidance  about  how  to develop  a  positive  frame  of  mind  and  increase sporting confidence. For instance, athletes can be trained  to  think  more  positively  through  the  use of  specific  positive  self-administered  verbally  persuasive  cues  (e.g.,  I  can).  Research  has  indicated that use of these cues by moderately skilled tennis players prior to task execution improves both their confidence and ability to execute ground strokes.

Although  specific  positive  thoughts  seem  to  be particularly  beneficial  for  enhancing  confidence (and  performance),  there  are  a  number  of  more general  positive  thinking  techniques  worthy  of mention,  not  least  because  they  are  frequently employed  by  sport  psychologists  when  working with  athletes.  As  well  as  monitoring  one’s  mindset (e.g., keeping a diary or log of mental aspects connected with training and competing), a number of methods for modifying thoughts have been proposed. These include thought stopping using physical or verbal triggers (e.g., saying stop), replacing negative  statements  with  positive  ones,  or  more thought  restructuring-based  approaches  such  as reframing,  which  emphasize  positive  aspects  or perspectives  within  a  seemingly  unfavorable  situations  (e.g.,  an  injured  soccer  playing  unable  to practice enables her to realize how much she enjoys playing the sport and being part of the team).

Practitioners  have  been  advised  to  assist  athletes  by  challenging  and  countering  irrational  or distorted thinking and by helping develop affirmation statements or more extensive positive scripts. In  essence,  these  methods  aim  to  help  athletes develop  an  optimistic  and  empowered  explanatory  style  of  events  they  experience;  that  is,  athletes  learn  to  avoid  catastrophizing  about  errors or failure, view themselves as having more control over events, and are able to extract positive information from potentially negative experiences (e.g., a  loss).  It  is  notable  that  positive  thinking  seems to  be  particularly  useful  when  athletes  need  to cope with adversity (e.g., injury, being under pressure).  In  this  setting,  positive  thinking  may  help the  performer  make  a  more  favorable  appraisal of  the  situation  and/or  his  or  her  ability  to  cope with  it.  Thus,  positive  thinking  may  have  both  a direct  and  an  indirect  effect  (via  stress  buffering) on  performance.  Caution  needs  to  be  used  due to  the  relatively  underresearched  nature  of  many positive thinking techniques advocated in the sport psychology  (SP)  literature;  although  theoretically viable, the techniques and reasoning behind them have yet to be tested with athletes.

A final important consideration is that, to date, a  “more  is  better”  approach  to  positive  thinking has  been  taken  within  the  sport  psychology  literature;  indeed,  some  research  evidence  supports this perspective. However, alternative perspectives exist that predict that problems arise with excessive positive thinking, reflecting unrealistic expectations  and  self-perceptions.  Consequently,  it  is possible  that  one  can  have  “too  much  of  a  good thing”  and  that  there  is  a  need  to  optimize  the balance between positive and negative thoughts.

References:

  1. Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Mpoumpaki, S., & Theodorakis, Y. (2009). Mechanisms underlying the self-talk-performance relationship: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-confidence and anxiety. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 186192.
  2. Schwartz, R. M. (1997). Consider the simple screw: Cognitive science, quality improvement, and psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 970–983.
  3. Seligman, M. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf. Zinsser, N., Bunker, L., & Williams, J. M. (2010). Cognitive techniques for building confidence and enhancing performance. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., pp. 305–335). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

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