Optimism for Everyday Coaching

Recently at practice, one of the swimmers I coach, a high school senior, came into the wall and dropped two truth bombs on me:

  1. “Until the last meet I had never swam a race where I was completely tired at the end”

  2. “I want to go under 1:00 in the 100 freestyle” (Personal best was 1:04 with a few weeks possibly left in his entire swimming career.

It’s easy to find frustration in such a moment. My initial reaction was anger. Why hadn’t he been racing that hard before? Why was he just now getting motivated with so little time left?

When I go out and speak to teams and coaches, Optimism is the first topic I address. When I talked to the head coach of Washington State, Matt Leach, about how our first visit went, it was overall positive with one crucial piece of feedback.

The swimmers on the team liked the concepts, but they were still left wondering how exactly to use them. To that I had to admit that I failed, but every failure is an opportunity for growth. See, there’s even a little bit of bonus optimism in that past statement!

So here are some concrete examples of situations I have faced as a coach (I’ll be soliciting real examples from athletes to work through in the near future), and how I worked to have more optimistic thoughts about them.

For each situation, I’ll be doing the same thing I teach. First describing the event, the emotion that followed, and then my initial thought process, followed by some more optimistic tweaks. For the tweaks, I’ll be following the three major categories of explanatory style: permanent/impermanent, pervasive/specific and personal/impersonal.

“Negative events” are events that elicit a negative emotion, like the one I listed above. For these you want to attach impermanence, meaning reasons why such a thing is unlikely to happen again. You want to make it specific, meaning it is not all encompassing. Finally, you want to depersonalize it for yourself.

I want to go under 1:00

Lets take the opening story of this post first. I’ve already told the story and how I felt, and then the thoughts that followed. So how did I work to turn it around? Here’s the best I have so far:

Impermanent: “Maybe this is the new normal for this kid, and having this ‘aha’, regardless of whether it improves his swimming, could really help him to be successful in the future.”

“Maybe his example will inspire other swimmers on the team to figure out what they want and go after it sooner”

Specific: “I coach a lot of swimmers who push themselves as hard as they possibly can when they race. “

Depersonalize: “Every coach deals with situations like this”

“Its not a reflection of whether I am a good coach”

Optimism is about contesting our own natural pessimism with some optimistic, authentic thoughts so that they we don’t circle the toilet bowl of life. Now lets turn a counter example, something good.

A big success

For me, getting to work with Washington State was a huge success. I’m building a small business and each new team I work with is another piece of progress in that building. Washington State was particularly exciting because I was an underground fan of what Leach had been doing at Indiana State and was really excited about what’s possible with WSU.

For a college coach, it might be signing a recruit or getting that swimmer over the hump of a best time/conference place/NCAA qualifying. For a club coach it might be helping a swimmer get that qualifying, or meeting that team goal.

When I got confirmation from Matt Leach that I would be working with WSU, I was thrilled. But like most people, after a brief moment of euphoria, I started to let my pessimism do the talking. For positive events, your thoughts have to be the reverse of everything I worked on above. You want to attach permanence to good events, you want to make them feel global, and you want to personalize them.

For these I’ll be listing my initial, pessimistic thought and then what I fought back with.

Impermanence: “I must have caught him at the right time”

Permanence: “This is just the beginning and there will be more from here”

Specific: “Wow I got lucky”

Pervasive: “There is a need for teams to work on their mental approach and you have valuable information to give them”

Depersonal: “It had nothing to do with me”

Personal: “I’ve been working my butt off for ten years to study, test and implement this stuff to be ready for moments like this”

It Takes Work

Optimism is not an on/off switch. I hesitate to even classify people as an “optimist” or “pessimist”. All of us have pessimistic tendencies. They are hard-wired into us, mainly for survival purposes. But they aren’t very useful for doing your best at anything.

I put the above example because I see so many coaches undermine their own successes by not following them up with optimistic thoughts. There is a sentiment that I think is deeply wrong in sport that somehow not fully realizing victories is somehow more virtuous.

If you like this post, send me some feedback and I’ll do more getting into the nuts and bolts of Positive Psychology and how I use it in my own day to day.