A lot of people believe that the primary job of a performance coach or sports psychologist is to help you think more positively. That the biggest single catalyst for achieving more or breaking out of a slump is to believe that you can, and that good things will happen to those that can trick themselves into thinking this way. I believe this is why some people have a critical view of self help material in general, because they don’t agree that attitude alone is enough to thrive.
As it turns out, research has proven that for some people a positive attitude is actually detrimental to performance. That’s correct. Contrary to what many in my field believe, some people hurt their performance by trying to be optimistic.
The problem with over reliance on positive thinking is that you are whitewashing over any genuine negatives that exist. People have a problem with negativity and acknowledging weaknesses, especially in America where self belief is everything. There is actually a real benefit to pessimism and understanding that negatives are real, the problem is that people treat negatives as permanent rather than something that can be improved, which is why they try and discount negativity all together.
If you have real weaknesses in your skillset, just being optimistic won’t solve them. It may help you focus, but if you are not addressing the negatives, optimism is, in fact, delusion.
“If you don’t address the negatives, optimism is, in fact, delusion”
The danger of positive thinking
I have had lots of clients who believed that the weaknesses in their performance were confidence issues. That if they just believed in themselves, they would perform at a higher level. However in many instances it was other emotional issues holding them back, like anger and fear. In other instances it wasn’t anything mental at all, it was their technical ability that was holding them back, they simply needed to practice their craft more effectively. No matter how much you believe in yourself, if you don’t know how to do open heart surgery, you are not going to be able to will yourself to perform it (well).
Mood does, however, influence results. Being angry can cause you to make basic errors, being overexcited can cause you to take silly risks, and being depressed can prevent you from showing up entirely. So what’s the ideal? It depends. Some people perform better by being slightly optimistic, and some actually do better being slightly pessimistic.
The power of realism
A research study found that some participants performed at higher levels by being pessimistic rather than being optimistic. After completing a survey, participants were divided into two groups, one group was deemed to be have an optimistic outlook and the other a pessimistic outlook. Both groups were then taught to play darts. The optimistic participants did better when they received instruction that was encouraging, supportive, and positive, compared with more negative feedback. The results for the pessimistic group were the exact opposite. When they received instructions that highlighted real statistics, their shortcomings, and criticised flaws in technique their performance was significantly better than from optimistic feedback.
A positive attitude is not the be all and end all of performance. In fact, it actually makes some people perform worse. Instead, being positive works for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. If positive thinking works for you then great, I always say do what works for you, but if it stops working after a short while, positive thinking can actually be part of the problem. The pessimists embraced their negatives and used them to improve. Being a pessimist doesn’t sound as nice as being an optimist, but at the end of the day results matter most. If being pessimistic helps you to perform better than how can that be negative?
The most easily accessible example I can think of to highlight this is Michael Jordan. I’m not saying he was a pessimist, but his approach to learning definitely borrowed from this school of thought. Rather than believe he could do anything, Jordan is famous for doggedly working on his weaknesses so hard they became his strengths. One might argue that this makes him a positive thinker, ie. he turned a negative into a positive. I prefer to think of this as a prime example of the value of acknowledging the weak points in your skillsets instead of glossing over them. This is something positive thinking advocates do not like to do.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying we should always be brutally negative on ourselves all the time. Not only would that be no fun, it would probably stop a lot of talented people even trying to achieve great things. All I am trying to do is make the case for a little realism and to debunk the belief that all you need to do is to think positively and the results will look after themselves.
The power of positive thinking is real for some people, but for others it hides real weakness. What I do with my clients is help them identify, analyze and fix real problems that can’t be solved just by thinking positively.