Optimism in Sport

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Abraham Lincoln once described an a optimist as someone who “finds opportunity in every difficulty” whilst a pessimist to be someone who ‘finds difficulty in every opportunity”.

Another way to look at optimism is in terms of explanatory style. Explanatory style examines the way an individual explains their experiences, successes and failures (Scheier & Carver, 1985 In. Martin-Krumm et al, 2003). Looking at how people explain certain events, or the reason behind the athletes success or failure, we can see if they are optimistic or not. We can also use people’s explanatory style to predict biases, and future outcomes because of their expectations of success or failures (Seligman, 1991).

What is an Optimistic Explanatory Style? (Peterson, 2000)

●Positive events: internal (within persons control) stable (this reason will always be the there) and global (effects everything) causes e.g. we won the game because I am talented.

●Negative event: external (outwith person’s control), unstable (the reason is only temporary) and specific (only effects that certain situation) factors e.g. We lost the game because the other team scored a lucky goal.

So why is it good for athletes to be optimistic?

The main advantages of having an optimistic explanatory style is that you are more likely to be persistent and committed during the action phase of working towards a goal and are more likely to be able to tolerate uncontrollable suffereing (Espahbodi, Dugar & Tehranian, 1991). When someone has an optimistic explanatory style, the belief that one will have a successful performance is within their control, and the reason is stable e.g. I am a good player. Whilst they view unsuccessful performances as temporary setbacks, and the cause to be something out with their control e.g. Bad weather. Therefore, their self esteem is not effected because they believe that they are in control of the good and not of the negative.

By believing that you are had a good performance because you are talented (internal, stable, global) and not because you play in a good team, or you were lucky (external, temporary) will allow you to believe you are capable of future positive performances. Performers who have an optimistic explanatory style are more likely to believe they will succeed in the future.

There have been various studies that show the benefits of being optimistic such as:

●Better performance and less variability (football; Gordan & Kane, 2001);
●Overcome adversities, motivation, and persistence. (Carver, Blaney & Scheier, 1979 In. Kavussanu & McAuley, 1995).
●More wins (basketball, baseball: Rettew & Reivich, 1995 In Bonniwell, 2006).
●Little variability (Swimming: Seligman et al., 1990).
●Less likely to burn out (Tsai, Chen & Kee, 2007 In. Seligman, 2006)).

Research in Seligman’s book (2006) shows that people who have a pessimistic explanatory style are:

● More susceptible to depression when things go wrong
● More likely to underachieve
●Prone to feel helpless when face a stressful situation
●Liable to under perofrm in sport when faced with stressful game or defeat

Therefore, to sustain or promote positive self esteem, we could try to make athletes more optimistic. In 2010, I completed a study “the effectiveness of a positive psychology intervention on optimism levels of female soccer players” where I carried out 8 sessions of positive psychology sessions with 15 semi professional female soccer players in the ‘Hampton Roads Piranhas’ from Virginia Beach, Virginia.

What is Positive Psychology?

Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) reported that positive psychology, “has many distinguished ancestors, and we make no claim of originality” (p. 13). It is the scientific study of optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions which promotes positive aspects of life such as happiness, well-being, satisfaction, hope and optimism (Joseph & Linley, 2007). I created an intervention to use with the footballers based on this theory using both Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism” (2006) and “Group Psychotherapy Psychology Manual” (PPT; Park & Seligman, 2007). The intervention was devised to increase awareness of explanatory style; and to encourage player’s to look at positive aspects of self and their strengths.

The results of the study showed that scores of optimistic explanatory style increased from pre-test to post-test and there was significant difference on internality and globality but not stability (two out of the three indicators of optimistic explanatory style). For example, the explanation of ability being the cause of a positive event almost doubled on post-test whilst the number of negative events attributed to ability decreased by 50%. Additionally, the number of unstable references to performance decreased.

The players evaluated the program and indicated that afterwards, they had more awareness of explanatory styles; a positive effect on player’s thought processes e.g. made me think more positively; and think differently about discouraging situations; and were more aware of effect football has on them e.g. ‘I learned that soccer influences my every day life and attitude”.


In conclusion, by increasing and building optimism, we are less likely to have our self esteem hurt when we are faced with negative events, and our self esteem will continue to grow when we are faced with positive events. We can do this by using different activities geared towards promoting understanding about explanatory style as well as building g on strengths and positive aspects of character. Feel free to contact me about any of the activities used within the positive psychology intervention.

Thank you



Sharing for educational purpose only


Boniwell, I. (2006). Positive psychology in a nutshell. London: Personal Well-Being Centre.

Gordon, R.A., & Kane, J.M, (2002). Explanatory style on the soccer field; Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Joseph, S., & Linley, P.A. (2007). Person-centered psychopathology: a positive psychology of mental health (Eds.).

Kavussanu, M., & McAuley, E. (1995). Exercise and optimism: are highly active individuals more optimistic? Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 17, 246-258.

Martin-Krumm, C.P., Sarrazin, P.G., Peterson, C., & Famose, J.P. (2003). Explanatory style and resilience after sports failure. Personality and Individual Differences, 35, 1685-1695.

Peterson, C., Semmel, A., von Baeyer, C., Abramson, L. T., Metalsky, G. I., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1982). The Attributional Style Questionnaire. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 6, 287-300.

Peterson, P. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55(1), 44-55.

Selgiman, M.E.P., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Thorton, N., & Moe Thorton, K. (1990). Explanatory style as a mechanism of disappointing athletic performance. Psychological Science, 143-146.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life (2nd ed.). New York: Pocket Books.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Learned optimism: how to change your mind and your life. New York: Random House

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