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.
- 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, 186–192.
- Schwartz, R. M. (1997). Consider the simple screw: Cognitive science, quality improvement, and psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 970–983.
- 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.