Optimism in Sport

Optimism  is  an  expectation  for  positive  or  desirable  outcomes  to  occur.  Viewed  by  some  as  an inherent  and  evolutionarily  adaptive  aspect  of human  biology,  it  has  been  examined  by  psychologists both as a relatively stable dispositional trait  (“big  optimism”)  and  as  a  less  stable,  situation-specific  state  of  mind  (“little  optimism”). In its dispositional form, optimism has numerous similarities  with  the  psychological  constructs  of explanatory style and hope. As a situation-specific variable, it is has similarities with the constructs of confidence  and  self-efficacy.  In  both  forms,  optimism  is  believed  to  be  closely  linked  to  positive emotions and approach behavior.

Optimism and Health

Numerous  studies  have  examined  optimism  as  a correlate of mental and physical health, and there is strong evidence for its wide-ranging benefits. From a mental health perspective, optimism is associated with lower daily hassle scores and lower levels of perceived  stress.  Studies  across  a  wide  range  of populations (e.g., students, working professionals, victims  of  violence,  medical  patients,  caregivers) have shown that optimism is also associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression. In addition, greater perception of control, fewer mood disturbances,  less  loneliness,  higher  levels  of  life  satisfaction, and higher levels of self-esteem have been observed  as  correlates  of  optimism.  Finally,  optimism also appears to be associated with lower levels of chronic anger and less suppression of anger when it does occur.

From  a  physical  health  perspective,  optimism shows positive associations with both self-reported and   objectively   assessed   outcomes,   and   the strength of these associations is similar for healthy cohorts and patient cohorts. For example, healthier lifestyle habits, fewer physical symptoms, better physical functioning, and lower levels of pain have been documented among individuals high in optimism. Physiological markers of health (e.g., blood pressure  [BP],  blood  glucose  level)  and  immune system functioning also appear to be better among individuals  high  in  optimism.  Among  cardiac patients, optimism has been associated with fewer postsurgical  complications,  reductions  in  postsurgical  angina,  better  ratings  of  physical  recovery        by hospital staff, decreases in coronary risk scores over time, and fewer readmissions to the hospital.

Positive consequences of optimism have also been observed among cancer patients for outcomes such as physical symptomatology, physical functioning, and  cancer  antigens.  Studies  that  have  examined optimism in relation to survival or mortality have generally shown small but significant relationships between the two constructs.

Optimism in Sport and Exercise

Studies in the domains of sport and exercise have also  documented  a  number  of  benefits  associated with  optimism.  Interviews  with  Olympic  athletes, their  coaches,  and  family  members  suggest  that these  individuals  are  characterized  by  high  levels of dispositional optimism and hope. Optimism has also been shown to correlate positively with measures of mental toughness among athletes. Similar to findings in other domains, athletes high in optimism report greater use of approach-oriented coping strategies (e.g., logical analysis, increased effort) and less use of avoidance-oriented coping strategies (e.g., disengagement) when facing difficulties. They have  also  been  shown  to  exhibit  greater  persistence  following  unsuccessful  performances  and  to experience  higher  levels  of  positive  affect  following successful performances. In addition, optimistic athletes  appear  to  have  lower  levels  of  perceived stress as well as lower burnout risk scores.

Exercise-related  studies  have  supported  the  distinction  between  big  (dispositional)  optimism  and little  (activity-specific)  optimism,  and  they  have shown that these constructs are differentially related to  exercise  cognitions.  Specifically,  big  optimism appears  to  correlate  positively  with  longer-term thinking  about  exercise  (e.g.,  planning  and  intentions),  while  little  optimism  appears  to  correlate positively with shorter-term thinking (e.g., decision making [DM]). At a more global level, there is evidence  that  high  levels  of  optimism  are  associated with  high  levels  of  physical  activity  (PA),  while lower levels of optimism are associated with lower levels of PA. This positive relationship between optimism and PA levels has been observed in samples of young adults as well as samples of elderly adults.


Optimism  is  defined  by  positive  outcome  expectancies,  and  it  is  reliably  linked  to  positive  affect and  approach  behavior.  Numerous  mental  health correlates   of   optimism   have   been   identified, including lower levels of perceived stress, anxiety, and  depression.  Physical  health  correlates  have also  been  identified,  and  they  include  healthier lifestyle  habits,  better  immune  system  functioning,  and  more  positive  reactions  to  trauma  and disease.  Among  athletes,  optimism  is  associated with approach-oriented coping, mental toughness, persistence following failure, and reduced burnout risk. Within the wider population, it is associated with  exercise-related  planning,  exercise-related DM, and higher levels of PA. Together, these associations  suggest  that  optimism  is  an  important correlate  of  cognitions,  emotions,  behavior,  and performance.


  1. Gyurcsik, N. C., & Brawley, L. R. (2001). Is the glass half-full or half-empty? The relationship of big and little optimism with acute and longer term exerciserelated social cognitions. Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, 6, 108–127.
  2. Peterson, C. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55, 44–55. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.44
  3. Rasmussen, H. N., & Scheier, M. F. (2009). Optimism and physical health: A meta-analytic review. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37, 239–256. doi: 10.1007/ s12160-009-9111-x
  4. Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Bridges, M. W. (2001). Optimism, pessimism, and psychological health. In E. C. Chang (Ed.), Optimism and pessimism: Implications for theory, research, and practice (pp. 189–216). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


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