Optimism is a characteristic consistently identified by researchers when studying the attributes of world-class performers. However, optimism is not only useful for success in sports, but also for success in life. Whether navigating a career transition, or aiming for a specific performance goal, staying optimistic can help you ride out the hard times and stay focused on the longer term benefits of your hard work.
Misconceptions Regarding Optimism
Don’t mistake optimism for unrealistic expectations or a distortion of true abilities. Optimists don’t make unsupported statements of their greatness. Instead, they set longer-term goals and stay motivated to chip away at them overtime. They understand that the path to success is difficult and are realistic about their goals, but they choose to embrace the bumps along the way to the top and stay focused on continuing to climb, even when the wind is in their face.
Let’s look at a tennis example: When you enter a match against the World #1, they will likely serve aces and hit shots that are so good that they are out of your control to return. These forced errors will happen regardless of your optimism—it is unrealistic to think you can control the level of play of your opponent. However, you can control your unforced errors, such as double faulting, during your serve. Unforced errors are often the product of negative thoughts and an unfocused mindset. Staying optimistic can help you focus on what aspects of the game are in your control, maximizing the points you score against this higher ranked opponent. Optimism helps limit your unforced errors and narrows your focus onto your strengths.
Starting a new gym training regiment or training for your first 5k is hard. The soreness, tiredness, discomfort, and small improvements mixed in with bad days can make it challenging to stay positive and focused on the longer-term goal that you have set for yourself. I state this because the real benefits of optimism are seen when people are realistic about what they are attempting to achieve. Keeping positive thoughts and staying optimistic is the key to getting over the hump to seeing the big improvements that you’ve been anxiously waiting for. It’s a bit like kicking at a door, over and over again, waiting for it to swing open. People may walk by and say, “she’s not getting anywhere, why does she keep kicking?” And sometimes, you may agree with the walkers by and question your sanity in pursuing your goal. Then, one day, the door blows open, light shines through, and everything feels right in the world. At this moment, you are so thankful for that tiny optimistic voice in your head that kept telling you to push on and override your desire to quit.
A Personal Story: How Optimism Helped Me
Last year, I opened up my indoor season with a 9:36 flat 3k. Now, that time is not great for an elite athlete. A lot of college runners can run that time. It is also by no means an indicator of running a 9:40 3k Steeplechase (which I did later that season). My long-term goal was to get the World Qualifying standard in the 3k Steeplechase, which means I was looking to run 3k, jump over 35 barriers, 7 of those into a pit of water, and run under 9:45. When I ran 9:36 for a flat 3k, I was realistic regarding how far I was from running in the 9:40s in the steeplechase. However, I remained optimistic and kept a positive long-term perspective. Although the individual race performance was bad, I was showing improvements in training and there were indicators that I would continue to make strides if I stayed healthy and trained consistently. Having high expectations made the journey more fun to me. Working out and racing with big goals helped me stay focused throughout the season. I never lost faith in the process and smashed my steeplechase personal best during the outdoor season, running 9:40! It felt so good to blow that door open.
Ways to check-in with your optimism.
1) Are you putting too much thought into one race, one workout, or one session at the gym? It’s a normal part of the process to have bad days. It is more important to focus on your overall trajectory of improvement overtime. Embrace the hard times and keep your eyes looking forward.
2) Are you celebrating the small successes along the way? Embrace the journey. Highlight and enjoy the process of improvement.
3) How are you picturing your future? You have a choice: You can look to the future and see a positive outcome, or you can look to the future and picture a negative outcome. Make the right choice!