“Be positive, Think positively, You can do it” This is NOT basic sport psychology 101.

(This article written by Hannah McCormack Also appears in the popular Psychworks magizine.)

It's not just as simple as that!

It’s not just as simple as that!


Being positive is about much more than thinking you can achieve what you believe, at least according to Positive Psychology.

Positive psychology is a movement that evolved from a new paradigm in psychology. It started getting recognition in the last decade or so as an idea to change the way we approached general psychology. Positive Psychology is a shift away from the medical model, the idea that psychological treatment is about fi­nding out about what is wrong with you and what can be fixed or making miserable people less miserable. According to Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, psychologists had become victomisers and pathologisers, it was about looking for the negatives in people’s lives, and “normal” people were ironically neglected. The alternative proposal was that the lives of “normal” people should be enhanced, skills should be developed and encouraged and those of us who were relatively untroubled should be living a life that is happier and more fulfi­lled.

The above ideas resonate with those familiar with the development of sport psychology. Firstly, stereotypes of Sport Psychology practice focus on the idea that consultants work with problem athletes. Our ­field has history in this regard: “Problem athletes and how to handle them” (Ogilvie & Tutko, 1966) is an early publication in within the field of Sport Psychology. Misconceptions abound.  Fix the broken ones, take the negative mind-set of the troubled athletes and make it more positive, or at a minimum: less debilitating. Athletes such as Andy Murray and Dwaine Chambers only (publicly) started working with psychologists when there was something “wrong”, losing successive major finals (e.g., a performance decrement) and returning to sport after a drugs ban, respectfully. If performance issues and fixing the faults is our primary concern, what about the athletes are performing more consistently? Should we not be enhancing their sporting lives or their lives outside of sport, ensuring they feel ful­filled? Taking away a negative does not necessarily leave someone positive.

If an individual is suffering from depression, and through treatment their depression is cured, it doesn’t automatically mean they are going to be happy. If an athlete suffers from pre-performance anxiety and you help them solve this debilitating issue, will they actually be able to use this emotional regulation to promote positive mental health and increased enjoyment of the activity?

As stated by Seligman (2012), the skills of not being depressed, not being anxious and not being angry are entirely different from the skills of enjoying positive emotion, being engaged with the people you are closest with, having meaning in life, achieving your goals, and maintaining relationships. Therefore it seems only reasonable to conclude that the skills that an athlete may want to employ to enhance their performance and their overall well-being, such as positive self-talk, mental imagery, emotional regulation strategies, maintaining effective relationships with coaches, teammates, family and friends, and positive body image, to highlight but a few are often distinct from the skills of not succumbing to negative self-talk, pre-performance anxiety or poor communication. If an athlete presents with any issue, is it enough to ­find a solution without empowering them? Indeed if an athlete is not winning, if we work with them and they improve their performance, is that actually good enough?

The second link between sport psychology and positive psychology is that our field may have provided inspiration for many of the ideas of this new movement (MacIntyre, 2012). In 1988, Martin Seligman and colleagues studied explanatory style among top class collegiate swimmers. They asked swimmers (divided into optimists and pessimists on the basis of Explanatory Style Questionnaire scores) to swim their favoured event and then provided them with false feedback (slightly slower than the recorded times). A short period later they were required to repeat their swim distance and predictably, the optimists improved while the pessimists were slower than their initial effort (Seligman et al., 1990).

He concluded after this classic study that you could predict the behaviour of optimists and pessimists, but he said the jury was out on whether you could change their explanatory style. Furthermore, his primary research collaborator, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, developed ideas of flow and peak performance from working with samples including athletes (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). (The story of how these two characters met is worth a read, see Chapter 1 Donaldson et al., 2011).

Seligman summarises that an individual will be happy when they possess the following, Pleasure, Engagement (or flow, the absorption in a challenging yet enjoyable activity), Relationships (social ties), Meaning (belonging to something bigger than the individual, a family, team or community), and Accomplishment (PERMA). Sport can provide a path towards attaining all of these, but it may also deny them. If an individual becomes too focused on their goals, their relationships or pleasure from goal pursuit could suffer.

Increasingly we hear of athletes who, on their path to the top of the podium, drop the ball when it comes to relationships, not only with loved ones, but with coaches and management. Without sources of well-being from outside their sport, the cheers of adulation may ring hollow very quickly. Athletic identity may be over-emphasised and their personal development and mental health can suffer.

Enhancing an athlete’s positive mental health status can increase their participation, motivation and commitment, reduce burnout and can create a more harmonious team environment. A positive athlete will appraise perceived challenges less negatively; enjoyment in their sport encourages flow or deep engagement and accompanies peak performance; and an optimistic athlete will have a better mood, persevere in the face of adversity, solve problems more effectively and are generally more successful.

Positive psychology aims to enhance the everyday lives of the “normal” population; we should not presume that because an individual is an elite athlete that they have this idea “sewn-up.” On the contrary, as stated in the commentary on mental health in elite sport, they may in fact be more vulnerable (see Hammond, Gialloreto, Kubas, & Hap Davis, 2013)

Positive psychology aims to promote greater well-being within us all, and recognizing that being positive is about more than just achievement. Because if greatness is the only objective, then being “positive” may just be the only result we can expect.


  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The  psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.
  2. Donaldson, S. I., Csikszentmihalyi, M., &  Nakamura, J. (2011). Applied Positive Psychology: Improving Everyday Life,  Health, Schools, Work, and Society. New York: Routledge.
  3. Hammond, T., Gialloreto, C., Kubas, H., & Hap Davis, H. t. (2013). The prevalence of failure-based depression among elite athletes. Clin J Sport Med, 23(4), 273-277. doi: 10.1097/JSM.0b013e318287b870
  4. Mac Intyre, T. (2012). What have the Romans ever done for us? The contribution of sport and exercise psychology to mainstream psychology. The  Psychologist, 25 (7), 2-3.
  5. Ogilvie, B. C., & Tutko, T. A. (1966). Problem  athletes and how to handle them.  London: Palham Books.
  6. Seligman, M.E.P., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Thornton, N., & Thornton, C.M. (1990). Explanatory style as a mechanism of  disappointing athletic performance.  Psychological Science, 1, 143-146.


  1. http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu
  2. Martin Seligman On the State of Psychology
  3. Carr, A. (2011). Positive Psychology: The  Science of Happiness and Human  Strengths. London: Routledge.

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