Carrigan Files: The Power of Positivity

It’s a lot easier to win than to lose. A winner doesn’t have to self-analyze in the same way that a loser does. There are no real questions that a winner has to ask themselves after the game has ended.

Every athlete has to deal with losing at some point. The football team had to deal with it six times this season, and I’d be lying if I said that it ever got easier. It sucks everytime, without fail. But one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is something that my dad said to me when I was younger. After losing a hockey game by a large margin (I can’t remember the score), he told me over cheeseburgers at a local diner, “You learn more from having your ass kicked than you do from winning.” This is a motto I’ve tried to carry with me throughout my life.

Looking at failures as potentially positive experiences doesn’t always make a loss less painful in the moment, but it can change your outlook going forward.

Martin Seligman is a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, which is aimed at creating personal growth through scientific knowledge. While some psychologists may aim to find out what is wrong with an individual, positive psychologists are interested in focusing on what is right with an individual, and how to make them more successful. It’s an idea I’m really fascinated with right now. There’s a lot of great stuff out there on it, but what I want to do here is apply Seligman’s ideas to the world of sports.

In 1990, Seligman and his colleagues did a study of elite collegiate athletes, focusing on the University of California-Berkeley swim team. After giving the team a personality survey, they found that the team could be divided almost evenly between those who qualified through the survey as “optimists” and those who qualified as “pessimists.” Next, the swimmers were asked to swim their best events, for which they would be timed. After the events, however, Seligman’s team gave the swimmers times that were slower than the ones they had actually swam. The swimmers took a half hour break, then swam the same event again. On the second trial, the pessimists almost universally recorded significantly slower times. The optimists? They recorded times that were as good, if not even better, than the real times they got on the first test.

This is a great example of how attitude can be so important when it comes to setbacks and defeats. Some people let a loss define them and drag them down, while others see it as a challenge. Perhaps the best part is that attitude is totally self-controlled. No one is born an optimist or a pessimist. Our mindset is in our own hands, and if optimists are scientifically proven to be better competitors than pessimists, which would you choose to be?

Of course, this is easier said than done. Any positive attitude will be tested by stressful times and circumstances. If it was easy, then everyone would do it. Obviously, a positive attitude is not required for success; there were “negative” people on the UC Berkeley swim team, after all. Still, people who let failure tear them down will rarely reach their full potential. Everyone fails at some point, but those who are stopped and overly discouraged by their failures could stop developing, while those who can accept and even be motivated by failure will often reach ever greater heights.

A quick shout-out to Professor Ostrove, who introduced me to positive psychology and is an awesome teacher in general. Have any questions, comments, suggestions or things that you’d like to see discussed? Email me! And, as always, have a great week, and stay positive!