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Thank you for writing this. It’s the veteran coaches who all know that relentless positive thinking can actually hurt people.
—Julie Stewart, coach

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The Problem of Positive Thinking

I originally wrote this in October 2012, so the examples are dated, but the point remains. Positive thinking is not enough in high performance environments.

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One of the biggest myths of high performance is that positive thinking is a positive thing.

While it might get you to mediocrity, positive thinking often gets in the way of high performers.

Last week the Texans lost their best defensive player, Brian Cushing, to injury, out for the season—just like that. Not only was he the most productive defense player, he was the emotional leader of the team. You won’t be surprised to learn the Texans lost the very next game. They had won 5 games in a row, undefeated, and then got their helmets handed to them by the Green Bay Packers. It wasn’t even close. Green Bay may have been the better team but not 42–24 better. So what happened? I am no football analyst but I do know a mental breakdown when I see one. What caused this one? Positive thinking. You see, in high performance environments, if your best mental game strategy is positive thinking that is a big limitation.

One of the biggest myths of high performance is that positive thinking is a positive thing.

What happens when things don’t go well? People who rely on positive thinking don’t have a tool to deal with a negative situation. They haven’t prepared for it. They just haven’t worked out a mental game strategy to deal with a negative situation because they were blinded by positive thinking. Let’s face it when you are going for big things, bad stuff can happen. Do the athletes have a way to overcome adversity mentally? Clearly the Texans did not. I can just hear the dialog in the Texans locker-room in the week after Cushing’s injury. It probably sounded something like this:

  1. We’ll all just have to work harder to make up for his loss.
  2. Dobbins will do a great job replacing him.
  3. One guy does not make a team great, we can still do this.
  4. The 11 of you are still great ball players.
  5. Let’s just keep our heads up and win.

The problem with all of this positive thinking? While these things might be true, no one actually believes them. If they did, they would have been more focused and played better. They still might not have won the game, but it would have been competitive. They hear it, they say it, but deep down they don’t believe it. So that leaves the athletes to wrestle with the uncertainty of playing without their star player and the effort it takes to overcome their doubt. Positive thinking will only take you so far and, let’s face it; there will be breakdowns, injuries and setbacks in life, business and sports. Only a few athletes have the mental agility, curiosity and the tools to overcome these setbacks. But you can’t wait for a breakdown in a critical time to implement them. They have to be worked on before the breakdown, before the big game, before the biggest speech of your life. I totally reject that you should not prepare for failure. Why? If you are pushing the limits in your chosen arena, there will be failures. If you have not prepared a mental game strategy for both positive and negative outcomes, and something negative happens there will be no overcoming it.

People are afraid to talk about failure because they think it will cause failure. That is a mediocre strategy at best. Another clear example of this was during the summer Olympics. The US men’s gymnastics team was favored to win the team event. During the team event Sam Mikulak, who was really close to a perfect floor routine, fell. The entire team was shocked, but all they could do was say positive things to each other like good job, its okay, we’ll be OK, most of which the team didn’t actually believe. Next up was Danella Leyva, he fell off the pommel horse, and finally, the normally unflappable John Orozco fell off the pommel horse. Everyone on the team underperformed. Once Sam fell they had no way to overcome it. They tried plenty of positive thinking; you could hear them doing it. But every one of the athletes crashed and burned. Their positive thinking let them down. I could see that they had not even considered this scenario, and the uncertainty spread through the team like wildfire. No one, not the athletes or the coaches, had a clue how to deal with it. They had not prepared a mental game strategy to overcome breakdowns. John Orozco one of the best athletes on the team said, “It just didn’t go as planned; I don’t really know what happened.”

The most tragic part of this story is every Olympic team has a sports psychologist working with them. This is not a breakdown Olympic athletes should have. When their sports psychologist talked about this breakdown in a local paper he made an excuse. “I had no access to the athletes at the Olympics.” So basically he is saying he couldn’t talk to them to help them in the moment. ”When I go to Rio [in 2016], I’ll make sure I have access to the athletes and work with them at the Olympics.” This is BS. Why not prepare them ahead of time for any scenario, any possibility? They should have all the tools in their tool box to navigate controversy and disappointment without the psychologist having to be there with them. That is what a good coach does, prepares their clients to deal with whatever happens, without being dependent on the coach’s presence. My frustration is there is such an easy fix for this. Positive thinking is so limiting. Sure you can get to mediocrity with it, but to get to the biggest stage and win you need a tool box full of powerful tools.

If your entire mental game strategy is positive thinking, you positively have a problem.

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5 comments to The Problem of Positive Thinking

  • First, the Texans should give you a call. Second, I would like to place a suggestion in the box… Many people could benefit from your DAILY musings. Why not make this a daily blog? Move over Seth! 🙂

  • Mattison – Thank you for writing this. It’s the veteran coaches who all know that relentless positive thinking can actually hurt people. Whether we’ve figured it out via our own and our clients’ experiences, or noticed the fallacies in LOA Nazis’ rhetoric, or read the research, we’ve gotten over the unicorns and rainbows perspective. Plenty of research has been done on positivity and the ideal ratio in experiments is 75% positive vs. 25% negative or neutral thoughts. Nobody needs to police their thoughts, though. Common sense tells us not everything will go as we like. And if we let them, those negative thoughts become our opportunities.

  • Mattison

    Robyn,
    Thanks for the suggestion! I am glad you find the posts useful. It takes me a lot of time and energy to write this stuff, so I am going to stick with coaching daily…..it’s actually easier.

  • Mattison

    Julia,
    Agreed, we have to ready for anything, but we can’t be ready for everything. That is why clients need tools in their tool box that allow for them to respond to any situation. Positive thinking is not one of those.

  • Denise

    Hello Mattison,

    I love this article and came across it on someone FB page. I suspect there was a follow-up with some more details on those powerful tools you hinted about at the end of the article.

    Do tell, where I might find that article please?

    Thanks

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