How to Cultivate Optimism in Your Athletes

According to New York Times bestselling author, Jon Gordon, “Optimism is a competitive advantage.” I couldn’t agree more. When I talk to coaches about the mental makeup of champions, optimism is a cornerstone. Inevitably they ask, “How can I help my athletes become more optimistic?” Let’s dive in.

Optimism, Coaching, Coaches, Mental Toughness, Mindset, Mental Conditioning, Sport Psychology, How To Build Optimism

Optimism is a Game Changer

Coaches want players who are resilient, gritty, and relentless. Optimism is a driver of those characteristics. Winston Churchill put it this way, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Essentially, an optimistic minded athlete is going to be the one who makes lemonade out of lemons. Whether she’s struggling for playing time, fighting back from an injury, or simply felt an official’s call was unfair, she won’t deny reality. Instead she’ll look to make the best of every situation.

Optimism comes with huge benefits for an athlete’s health, relationships, performance in the classroom, and on the playing surface.

It impacts how athletes respond to failure and adversity. Optimism even makes for better teammates [link to teammates post]. I know I’d rather be on a team where people focus on the good in tough situations, and the possibilities [link to possibilities post] of what we can achieve rather than a locker room of negative Nancys.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the World Champion Chicago Cubs recruit players who are more optimistic and resilient. And I doubt they are the only ones.

The Kansas City Royals, 2015 World Series Champions, expect their “managers, coaches, and instructors to teach with a very positive and uplifting style…a positive environment.”

3 Ways to Cultivate Optimism in Athletes

There are numerous ways coaches (and parents) can cultivate optimism in their athletes. Here are my top 3:

1. Ask Optimistic Questions

The questions you ask send a message to your athletes about what is most important. For example, a parent asking a daughter if her team won tells her that winning is all that matters.

Ask, “What went well?” rather than “How did it go?” Do this for a typical school day, tryouts, post-game… basically all the time.

Focus on the positives first. Then you can talk with players about strategies to improve their games.

2. Promote Controllability

A large part of optimism is focusing on what is controllable. This is especially true when things don’t go an athlete’s way.

If he didn’t perform well, or his team didn’t win, help him focus on what he can do about it. What can he work on in practice? How could he focus better or put in more effort?

Focus the conversation on what the player can do differently next time. If she performed well, ask how she can play well again.

Michael Jordan was notorious for this kind of approach. Reportedly, after a loss, he sat in the locker room with a towel over his head – as a Do Not Disturb sign. He’d analyze the game including missed opportunities, poor decisions, and bad plays. Then he’d determine a game plan for preventing them from happening again.

After he had a plan in place as to how he would get better and help his team improve, he’d take the towel off and move on. No wallowing in defeat. No berating himself or teammates.

3. Lead By Example

Your athletes will follow your lead. They’ll copy what you do more so than what you say. So it is important to demonstrate an optimistic mentality as you lead your team.

Here are 3 all-too-common reactions I hear from coaches that undercut their team’s optimism:
  • “We got lucky today,” robs your team of the controllability they have. Coaches who say this are sending the message that attitude and effort don’t matter.
  • “The calls just didn’t go our way.” Blaming referees prevents your team from taking responsibility for their performance. The same is true for sport parents who want to pin a loss on one or two kids when it was a team effort.
  • “It just wasn’t our day,” encourages athletes to make excuses for why they didn’t perform well. It was too windy. I didn’t eat enough. Again, this sends the message that a high level of performance is not controllable and deflects individual responsibility.

Dan Quinn, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, said after their loss to New England, “No doubt that was a tough one for us…I am proud of the fight these guys have…Tonight we came up short.”

He didn’t blame anyone. He didn’t shirk responsibility for the team’s performance. His underlying message was that they simply didn’t play well enough to win – implying that they can work harder and execute better in the future.

How are you reacting to wins and losses?

Bonus Download

To help you cultivate optimism in your athletes, I created a quick guide which outlines 10 questions coaches (and sport parents) can ask. Click the button below to get yours.

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Lead Your Team with Optimism

In You Win in the Locker Room First, Jon Gordon writes, “One of the most important things leaders can do is to be positive and optimistic.” Cultivating optimism and reaping its rewards is your responsibility as a coach. Discipline yourself to ask optimistic questions, promote controllability, and lead by example. Your players are watching and you set the tone.

Take a page from Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. His football team’s sixth commandment says, “Expect to Be Successful.”

Question: What suggestions do you have for promoting an optimistic mentality?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.