In over 20 years of research, the emotional skill of Optimism has shown up time and time again to be the single greatest predictor of success in life. Optimistic people regularly outperform people at work, they score higher on aptitude tests, they recover more quickly from illness, and it’s highly likely they will navigate their way through the current situation we find ourselves in. The good news is that Optimism is a skill that can be learned and developed to support your sporting career development.
From a leadership perspective, possessing strong levels of Optimism can enable leaders to see the big picture and have a vision of where they are going. This is not just ‘the glass is half full,’ ‘always look on the bright side of life,’ or ‘rose-coloured glasses’ approach to life. Optimism is a life strategy and involves a way of sensing opportunities, seeing over the horizon and developing a deep emotional courage and resilience in the face of setbacks. This emotional competency is as important now as it has ever been.
Optimism is often dismissed by cynics as false hope or a lack of realism. But, far from being naive or having a Pollyannaish view of the world, optimists have a particular way of seeing reality – they are able to generate energy and a positive mood that can be picked-up and harnessed by others.
Perhaps Melinda Gates captured the strength of this perspective best in a recent commencement address delivered to Stamford graduates. After visiting a TB hospital in Soweto where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was working to supply the technology to increase survival rates, she commented:
“Optimism for me isn't a passive expectation that things will get better; it's a conviction that we can make things better – that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don't lose hope and we don't look away.”
For an optimist, it makes no sense to look away. We can always do better, limit the damage, find an alternative solution, rebuild what has been destroyed.
Optimism is developed by the way you talk to yourself inside your head – what psychologists call your explanatory style.
Optimists see problems as temporary, controllable, and linked to specific situations, rather than permanent and intractable. The way you talk to yourself will not only determine how you feel, but also the range of options you are capable of seeing as you move forward. As you work your way through the current crisis, making sure your self-talk is constructive, helpful and rational will be crucial to enable you to come out the other side stronger and make an easy transition back into normality.
The good news is that, although your explanatory style has become a habit over time, you can learn to change this mindset.
How you interpret an event is under your control and involves three key strategies:
Most people tend to spend too much time thinking about what goes wrong in their lives and not enough time considering what goes right. In most of what happens to us, however difficult, there usually will always be something of benefit we can extract from the experience.
So as we enter another week of lockdown due to the coronavirus, ask yourself: how have I benefited from this situation so far? It doesn’t need to be something big, it could be something as simple as spending more time with your kids, or connecting more with friends. And if you don’t think you have benefited yet, think about how you might like to tell the story of the current crisis to people five years from now. What would you like to be able to tell them in relation to how you benefited?
Most people have experienced the anxiety and disappointment of a setback. But optimists have learnt to limit the damage by containing the disappointment and refusing to let it pervade the rest of their life.
Instead, they cultivate an attitude of gratitude for all the good that is still in their lives – your strengths, your health, the people you know, the skills you have and resources you have access to.
One characteristic that generally stands out in optimistic people is the ability to maintain a hopeful attitude by learning from the lessons of a previous experience to improve their situation.
So instead of focusing on situations such as the one we find ourselves in as completely negative, where you punish yourself over errors of judgements or perhaps having days where you don’t achieve everything you wanted to, choose instead to focus on the valuable lessons to be learned from the experience.
Train yourself to respond to negative situations with the thought, ‘What can I learn from this situation that will make me better the next time I face a setback?’
You know what it’s like, once you face a disappointment the overwhelming emotions of fear or disappointment, or regret or anger can sometimes paralyse you and limit your options going forward.
Optimists instead choose to focus on the tasks that need to be completed to change a situation and move it forward.
The key challenge for each of us as we continue to fight our way through the current crisis is how we let go of those negative emotions that frustrate and disappoint us and keep us pinned in negative ways of thinking. So when something negative happens, rather than allow yourself to be consumed by negative emotions such as anxiety, frustration, anger or low mood, focus instead on the immediate tasks that are within your control, and that need to be done to move forward.
The Covid-19 pandemic is challenging us all on so many levels. To maintain morale and wellbeing, as well as continue to develop and learn from the experience, deploy the behaviours of an Optimist – equip yourself to come out of this situation stronger than you started it.
This article was written by Joe Davis, Head of Sport and Performance Psychology at RocheMartin. To learn more about the powerful skill of Optimism watch RocheMartin’s co-founder – Dr. Martyn Newman – discuss it’s building blocks and some key tactics that can be used to build it.
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