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.

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Where Coaching Accountability Goes Wrong

Coaches love to glorify accountability. We love stories of athlete's "owning up" to their own weaknesses and failures, taking responsibility for them and then making a positive change. "If only more of my athletes were like that" we get caught thinking. 

"Accountability" may make coaches feel all warm and fuzzy in our stomachs. It may also reinforce a stereotype we have about "kids these days" and their lack of it. It's not the best way to coach. If we want to create thriving, resilient athletes, we should focus much less on accountability and far more on depersonalizing failure.

It's not about you

Funny enough, many coaches think of "accountability" as a selfless attitude. I'm about to argue that it is destructively selfish. In taking your failings and making them personal, you're actually draining the energy you need to make change.

Last week I put out a resilience test for swimmers. The test is based on explanatory style. Explanatory style, put simply, is the way that you explain events to yourself.

One aspect of optimistic people is that they tend not to attribute negative events to themselves, i.e they do not take personal "accountability" for bad events. As coaches we desperately want optimistic athletes- these are the people that will shoot high, push to the extreme and bounce back from failure.

Pessimistic people, on the other hand, tend to be very "accountable". More often than not, the negative things that happen to them are "their fault". They are ones that will "stay comfortable" in training and be haunted by failure.

Ego Protection

Again, we tend to think of those that are not "accountable" as egotistical. This is a social concept. I'm not suggesting athletes should not take blame for anything. Then you would just have a team of assholes.

A lot of "accountability", however,  is about ego protection. Coaches like to hear their athletes take responsibility for failures because it protects their ego. "It wasn't my fault," the coach can say to herself as the athlete takes the blame. 

Coaches need to model and teach optimistic explanatory style for their athletes if they expect to have optimistic athletes. One step is to drop all the ego protection around "accountability" and teach athletes to depersonalize failure so they can move on. 

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The 2017 Easterns and Why High School Swimming is the Best

By the end I could barely croak out a few words. My vocal chords were spent and quite lucky that the competition was only two days long.

The 2017 Eastern Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championship was the dawn of a new era for what is still America's top private school competition. Although the meet may never match the glory days of Olympic contenders squaring off, it shouldn't try either.

The world has changed, and elite swimmers have gotten much older since the days when Gustavo Borges could swim at the Bolles School one year and then earn a silver medal in the 100 freestyle the next. Although Borges held on to his 100 freestyle record (now 26 years and counting), his 50 freestyle was finally broken, by Alberto Mestre, a senior from the Hill School.

So what can Easterns hope to be now? Well we started to see it this weekend at Franklin and Marshall. Easterns can and should be one of the most competitive high school meets in the country. The meet had a dramatic improvement of depth from a year ago. It took 4:38 to finish in the top 8 in the men's 500 freestyle, and 57.51 to do so in the men's 100 breaststroke. 

But a meet like Easterns should be judged by more than just the times on the clock. High school swimming is the most consistently underrated area of our sport. In fact, our sport suffers from a great inversion, where the parts of our sport that are actually inherently fun and would help to grow the sport are given the least serious attention from within. 

High school swimming taps into the natural, human love of competition. We love to see individuals and teams go head to head. We like to see a team champion, at whatever scale. Also, in a world where 3 hour plus baseball games test our patience, we like a flow of action that ends in a reasonable amount of time. 

The final crescendo of the weekend was Reece Whitley's high school national best in the 100 breaststroke. It seemed as if the whole pool, swimmers, coaches and spectators, were standing on their toes for it. Two events later, I realized I had the worst headache of my life. I sat down, dizzy. 

After drinking about 1.5 liters of water, I started to feel a little better. I had gotten caught up in the meet- the excitement of the swimmers and coaches, the joy on the faces of not just the winners but that first heat swimmer who went a massive personal best. This is swimming at its best. 

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