The Pessimism Trap

Over the last weekend I had the pleasure or presenting on the skill of optimism to swimmers at the Midwestern Elite IMX Camp. It's a tough conversation to have with anyone, but especially young athletes. Why? Because pessimism can be a performance enhancer for young athletes.

First, let's back up and define both terms. By optimism and pessimism I am talking about explanatory style. Explanatory style is the way you explain events to yourself. Pessimistic explanatory style involves taking good events and depersonalizing them while making them seem specific and unlikely to happen again. Let me give you an example.

Let's say you had an athlete that broke through and qualified for Sectionals for the first time. A pessimistic athlete might explain it themselves the following way:

"It was so easy" (It had little to do with my effort to create the result)

"I was really feeling good in the water" (It was specific and not pervasive)

"I had the swim of my life" (Once in a lifetime events are by nature not likely to happen again).

Some coaches might find those statements to be "positive" or even praiseworthy. While most coaches wouldn't encourage all of those statements, pessimistic young athletes have a certain false humility that can be tempting for coaches to encourage. They are "tough on themselves" and "accountable". They don't "rest on their laurels". I say false humility because humility is also a term we misunderstand in sports contexts.

The core of humility is putting yourself on an equal plane with others and recognizing that in the words of the late, great, Chris Peterson "other people matter". Humility is not dismissing your own personal role in the positive events that take place in your life.

Young athletes often succeed with pessimism for a couple reasons. One is pessimism can work as a motivator in the short term. Sometimes we call it "staying hungry" in sports. The second is that younger people are in many ways nearly as emotionally resilient as they are physically.

This morning, my three year old transitioned from crying to singing happily within about three minutes. Teenagers are known for their "mood swings", which are really an evolving emotional resiliency. Adults are far more "steady". This is when pessimism's positives for athletic performance get overwhelmed by the damage it does.

The motivation that pessimism creates is not enough to overcome the downward spirals of pessimistic thinking. The older an athlete gets, the harder time they have pulling out of these spirals. Eventually, they are left "burned out" or worse.

It's incumbent on us as coaches to teach optimism as a skill for the long term development of athletes (and people). Otherwise, we are sacrificing long term life success for very short term athletic success.

Want to learn more about how to up your mental game? Write me!