Optimism and Mental Toughness

"Optimism lies at the heart of mental toughness" - Michael Gervais

Note: Most of this information comes from Michael Gervais’ podcast “Finding Mastery.” 

Optimism isn't usually associated with mental toughness. And that's a shame because optimism is a highly effective tool for athletes. It enhances performance, resilience and even improves mental and physical well-being. But unfortunately, optimism isn't how humans are programmed.

Humans have evolved to scan the world around us for danger. A load of research has verified our emphasis on negative information. 

From the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath:

A group of psychologists reviewed over two hundred articles and concluded that, for a wide range of human behavior and perception, a general principle holds true: “Bad is stronger than good.” Exhibit A: People who were shown photos of bad and good events spent longer viewing the bad ones. Exhibit B: When people learn bad stuff about someone else, it’s stickier than good stuff. People pay closer attention to the bad stuff, reflect on it more, remember it longer, and weigh it more heavily in assessing the person overall. This pattern is so robust that researchers who study how we perceive one another have a label for it—“positive-negative asymmetry.” Exhibit C: A researcher reviewed seventeen studies about how people interpret and explain events in their lives—for example, how sports fans interpret sporting events or how students describe their days in their journals. Across multiple domains—work and politics and sports and personal life—people were more likely to spontaneously bring up (and attempt to explain) negative events than positive ones.

Although this focus on negative information seems harmful, it actually helped humans survive when they were cavemen. Let’s illustrate with an example.

Take Caveman Alfred and Cavewoman Bonnie. Caveman Alfred scans the world searching for the danger: snakes, tigers, poisonous berries, and any threat that his cave-mates are conspiring to kick him out of the cave. Cavewoman Bonnie scans the world searching for the good: beautiful sunsets, cuddly rabbits and how thoughtful her cave-mates are. Who’s more likely to survive and pass on their genes? 

Caveman Alfred is ready to fight off that tiger and keep himself firmly planted within the life-saving good graces of the tribe. He might be a little paranoid and anxious, but at least he’ll survive.

Cavewoman Bonnie on the other hand will probably enjoy her life more. But that won’t help her survive that surprise tiger attack or make her particularly adept at recognizing when her cave-mates are trying to slip her a poison berry.

As a result, finding the good in a situation is not an evolutionary advantageous trait. In other words, it’s in our genes to scan the world to see what could go wrong. 

This view of the world is essentially the definition of pessimism. According to Google, pessimism is "a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen.” Planning for the worst helped us survive when we were cavemen but it can be harmful for our sports performance.

What it Takes to Become Elite

To become elite at your sport (or anything really) requires 2 things, both of which are aided by an optimistic perspective.

1) To become elite requires a long-term dedication to improving your craft. An athlete striving to reach their potential must have incredible persistence and diligence. There will be stretches of intense struggle and frustrating plateaus that they must fight through.

The best of the best have the internal fortitude to doggedly drive forward during these periods of difficulty. Where does this drive come from? It comes from the belief that your situation will change for the better. To push forward through challenging times a player must believe that good things are around the corner. This is optimism.

2) To become elite requires a willingness to embrace discomfort in the short-term. Every day and in every workout, there will be moments where you want to slow-down, take it easy, or quit. These daily “quit moments” (as i’ve written about before here) are what filter out the elite from the rest. Many wonder how the best of the best got to where they are. The answer is an accumulation of tiny differences repeated over and over again. (Great article here by James Clear on the value of tiny gains over time)

It takes mental toughness and grit to embrace that discomfort and pain on a daily basis. And it’s the view that something good is coming that allows athletes to embrace the discomfort for a moment longer.

They believe in the value of the training because they can envision the possibilities of positive growth. They know that a moment of discomfort now will bring positive outcomes in the future. This is optimism.

If optimism is at the core of mental toughness, what can we do about it? Are we doomed to accept our predisposition for optimism or pessimism? Fortunately, the answer is no. Optimism can be trained. And it’s not all that hard. 

Research by Martin Seligmann from the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated that optimism can be learned through a simple habit: At the end of each day, write down 3 good things that happened. That’s it.

In order to think of things to write down at the end of the day, you begin to start looking for them. This simple practice trains you to scan the world for what's good rather than letting our evolutionary minds constantly search for threats. 

If you’re skeptical, try it for a week and see how you feel. Research has shown significant benefits in just 7 days of this practice. But do it now. Training optimism is best done before you hit your struggles.

By front-loading the ability to search for the positives, you build the habit of optimism. The goal is to get to the point where when tough moments arise you default to an optimistic view of the world.

If you haven’t made optimism your default lens, it’s difficult to start when things around you look bleak. So give it a shot now. Prepare yourself for the inevitable struggles of a long journey by training yourself to view the world through the lens of what good can happen.