Optimism vs. Pessimism

In our quest for improvement, there is no one right way to go about making it – not everyone must visualize the same scenes in their head, go through the same on-field rituals, or think the same “positive thoughts.” This ends up being a relieving and inspiring idea for many athletes. It’s refreshing for us to know there are many ways to go about making changes, and that we don’t have to follow just one singular path.

Same is true with our attitudes; there’s simply not one right mindset to adopt in preparation for competition.  Consider the two major types of mindsets: there’s the optimist (who anticipates the best, stays calm and sets high expectations for the upcoming performance), and the pessimist (who expects the worst, feels anxious and imagines all the things that can go wrong).

If you’re a pessimist, about a week before the big game you convince yourself that you’re doomed to fail. And it won’t be just ordinary failure: you’ll imagine losing catastrophically and maybe even trip over your shoelaces walking out onto the court.

But pessimism doesn’t guarantee failure. In fact, pessimists seem comfortable – and might actually thrive – in that role. In one recent experiment, researchers asked people to throw darts after being randomly assigned to picture a perfect performance, envision a bad performance, or relax. Pessimists were about 30% more accurate in their dart throws when they thought about negative outcomes rather than imagining positive outcomes or relaxing.

Lots of successful athletes have historically been pessimistic thinkers, too.  The pessimism doesn’t lead them to cheat or give up.  Rather, it’s a strategy to effectively manage anxiety, fear and worry.  After all, once you fear the worst, you’re motivated to avoid it by preparing well. The anxiety reaches its peak before competition, so that when the moment actually arrives, pessimists are ready to succeed. They get confidence not from ignorance or delusions about the difficulties ahead, but from a realistic appraisal and a comprehensive plan. According to Originals author Adam Grant, when they’re not anxious, pessimists become complacent; when encouraged, they become discouraged from planning and preparing.  If you want to hurt a pessimist’s chances at success, try to make them happy.

This isn’t to say we should all work hard to achieve a pessimistic approach to life. Clearly optimism is a hugely effective mindset for many of us.  The importance is that some of us may crumble and falter when commanded to “be positive” or “stay optimistic” – in fact, some will report that such an attitude actually diminishes their effort on the field of play (sounds strange to us optimists, eh?).

Ultimately, we must shine the light of our awareness inward and describe the attitude that works best for us, the attitude that triggers maximal effort in our own game. “What mindset must I have in order to give my best?” might yield some surprising answers for people who assume that “unyielding positivity” is always the way to go.  Take an approach because it feels right for you, not just because it’s what you’ve been told to do.

Phrased a different way, we should not mix pessimism with effort level or lack of trying. Whether you are a pessimist or an optimist you have to ensure that you give your best every minute you are in the ring, in the gym, wherever.

Greg Chertok
About the Author:

Greg Chertok. Greg Chertok, M.Ed, is the founder of New York based Chertok Performance Consulting. Greg specializes in sport and exercise psychology with experience working with athletes and coaches ranging from youth to professionals. Greg’s list of clients includes high performance athletes, high school & NCAA champions, Super Bowl champions, Stanley Cup participants, and Olympic athletes. His expertise and knowledge is evident through his contributions to various publications including the Wall Street Journal, CBS News, Runner’s World Magazine, Women’s health magazine, and the Chicago Tribune, among many others. Greg has also been featured as a sports psychology expert on multiple radio shows, including National Public Radio (NPR), SiriusXM’s “Doctor Radio”, Healthradio’s “Sports Medicine & Fitness Show”, CaptainU radio, and Voice America’s “Enter the League”. ”. Greg is a Certified Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) as well as a Personal Fitness Trainer.