Thanks to the unpredictable nature of pro sports, I’m often reminded of how little I know relative to what I should know given the work that I do and who I work with. A prime example is the story of what I thought I knew versus what I actually discovered with my MAPP capstone project.
Studying Grit and Optimism in Professional Athletes
I was drawn to positive psychology as a former professional athlete and then coach because I was convinced that positive emotion buffered performers at the elite level from the stress in their jobs. I thought that this was the secret ingredient that allowed them to transcend pressure and perform at the highest level. Remove bad feelings, then watch them fly, right?So it was with extreme optimism that I packed up my belongings in another country, moved to Philadelphia, and began my capstone using data I had already collected on professional football players in Australia (n=22) under the tutelage of my hero, Angela Duckworth. Specifically, I had first measured both grit and optimism in the players, then run a modified version of the Penn Resilience Training with them. We then tracked them through the next season, measuring their consistency levels and how well they performed compared to the previous year. We also checked for any changes in grit and optimism levels at the end of the season.
We were lucky enough to also have a control group in the same team (n=13) who didn’t receive any psych training at all, thus setting up a perfect experiment. I expected that the more optimistic players would perform better, and the more gritty players would be more consistent. I also had my fingers crossed that with some luck the modified resilience training would increase either consistency or performance or perhaps both.What Did We Find Out?
While all of those turned out to be correct according to the data, the most striking finding was something I hadn’t expected: combining grit and one element of optimism was a better predictor than any other single predictor alone. That optimism element was stability: the belief that bad events won’t last forever, but good events will recur.
Working under Angela’s guidance, I began pursuing this combined predictor, which I called the Performer’s Realistic Optimism score, or PRO Score. Also thanks to Angela, I discovered the work of Gabrielle Oettingen, who wrote the brilliantly counter-intuitive book, Rethinking Positive Thinking. Most importantly from a practical sense, this introduced me to her WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan) goal setting framework.
Putting PRO and WOOP in PracticeWith some degree of uncertainty, I tried it with a handful of National Football League players, and it amazingly worked. So I used it with college athletes, and it worked again. I now use it almost daily with Major League Baseball players, and the results continue to amaze me: when armed with these skills, players perform better, regardless of how many fans are watching, how much pressure they’re under, or how important the play is.
This discovery was a total epiphany for me. Both my data analysis and my newfound weapon in WOOP highlighted that positive psychology can help all of us with an inescapable reality: Bad situations happen. Those that can rise above it are able to perform not by getting rid of bad feelings, but by doing what they do in the presence of negative thoughts and feelings without letting them get in the way.
Editor’s note: Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen is giving a talk, Thinking about the Future and Behavior Change at noon Eastern time on April 30. The event is part of the Penn MAPP alumni webinar series and is open to the public for $25. Members of the public can also get an annual subscription to the MAPP webinars for $90. There are usually about 10 webinars per year, and subscribers have access to the 40 recorded webinars that have occurred since 2013.
Steinfort, P. J. (2015). Tough teammates: Training grit and optimism together improves performance in professional footballers. MAPP capstone, University of Pennsylvania.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner.
Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Current Hardcover.
Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Australian Football Goal posts courtesy of Dannow
American Football courtesy of Keith Allison
Major League Baseball in action courtesy of Jason Swaby