The Terrific Power of Optimism in Sports Success

By Dr. Jack Singer

Wise old Abe Lincoln described a pessimist as someone who “finds difficulty in every opportunity,” while an optimist is someone who “finds opportunity in every difficulty.”  This principle is particularly true in athletics.   Much research has shown that athletes and teams that have an optimistic interpretation of their performance (especially after losing) will consistently outperform those who view their performance and losses from a negative, pessimistic perspective.

Sports Success with Sport Psychologist Dr. Jack SingerPESSIMISTIC  VS. OPTIMISTIC ORIENTATIONS

The world’s expert in the study of Optimism is Dr. Martin Seligman, whose book, “Learned Optimism,” is a classic in the field. Seligman’s research shows that pessimistic athletes and teams believe that losses and even poor performance during crunch time reflect their lack of ability to succeed .  These athletes and teams have learned to feel helpless in terms of controlling their performance, and thus their success or failure.

The research shows that when these athletes are confronted by unfortunate circumstances–such as, in tennis,  a series of double faults, windy conditions or the belief that their opponent is cheating — they will weaken, get angry, tighten up and believe they cannot succeed. This self-fulfilling prophecy almost always leads to continued poor performance, so the athlete will ultimately lose the set and match.  These pessimistic thinkers don’t expect to win the next time out and with this negative expectation, they most likely will lose subsequent matches.  This, of course, reinforces their negative view of themselves and their abilities and the negativity snowball is rolling down hill.

On the other hand, optimistic athletes look at the same negative events as temporary setbacks, and as opportunities to actually re-focus and crank up their performance during the rest of the match.  They recognize that they have ultimate control over their internal dialogue and how they view negative events.  For example, they may “blame” a poor game or set on being distracted by fans cheering for their opponent or on the weather on getting irritated by the opponent cheating.  They recognize that they can now change their thinking, re-focus on their game plan, re-capture the momentum and still grasp victory. Even if they eventually lose the match, these optimistic thinkers understand how to change their internal dialogue prior to and during their next match.  Accordingly, these players will go into the next match expecting success and will usually win!


There are wonderfully researched, brief methods available to determine whether a person (or even a team) is oriented more toward optimism or pessimism.  This is great news for both the athlete and his/her coach:

  • All other things being equal, coaches should concentrate on recruiting athletes who are optimistically oriented.  They are definitely more successful over time than are pessimistically oriented athletes;
  • For athletes already on a tennis team, learning their orientation can help the coach make better decisions related to spot positions and substitutions.
  • The really good news is that a pessimistic orientation is a learned phenomenon.  Therefore, once the athlete understands her/his degree of pessimistic thinking, there are excellent programs for retraining that athlete to develop an optimistic orientation.  This will definitely lead to improved and more consistent performance.
  • Entire teams can learn how to interpret defeat in an optimistic way.  This is a powerful and proven tool for improving team performance, particularly after a tough loss.

Free 20 Minute Telephone Consultation with Psychologist Dr. Jack Singer

**You have permission to reprint in your publication or to your website/blog any articles by Dr.Jack Singer found on this Website as long as Dr. Jack Singer’s name and contact information is included. Jack Singer, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Pyschologist, Sport Psychologist, Marriage, Family & Relationship Therapist, Professional Motivational Speaker., toll free 800-497-9880.

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