Champion or defeated?

Sports constantly presents challenges and adversity, exposing athletes with enough grit and gratitude to overcome adversity and those who will crumble under the pressure.

But what distinguishes the champions from the defeated? What can we do to cultivate grit and resilience to optimize performance in sports and all other areas of life?

The science

Positive Psychology often references the Broaden and Build Theory, which suggests that a positivity can actually increase brain functioning.  It suggests that a positive attitude broadens ideas and actions and builds resources by developing new skills and relationships.

One way to increase positive emotion, and therefore broaden our abilities, is through gratitude. This involves realizing the value of a person or situation, whether positive or negative.

Generally, inherent gratitude is related to higher optimism, life satisfaction, well-being, prosocial behavior, and social support. It is also related to lower negative feelings, (Gabana, Steinfeldt, Wong, Chung, Svetina, 2018).

But, specifically in the world of sports and performance, this prosocial behavior that dispositional gratefulness fosters is related to improved team cohesion and life satisfaction in elite athletes, (Chen, Kee, & Chen, 2015). Appreciation can even reduce athletes’ tendency to want to avoid uncomfortable situations during high levels of competition. These uncomfortable situations could include negative thoughts like, “I’m not good enough”. Athletes might also want to avoid unwanted emotions like failure, or negative physical feelings like injury.

This experiential avoidance often gets in the way of athletes reaching their goals and full potential. But, athletes high in gratitude avoid uncomfortable situations less if they also feel they have more support from their coaches. In other words, gratitude combined with coaching support can help athletes see adverse experiences in a positive way, and face challenges head on rather than avoid them, (Chen & Wu, 2016).

Can gratitude be learned?

But, if we don’t already have dispositional gratitude, can we develop and practice it to improve well being and performance?

A study recently published in the Journal for Applied Sports Psychology explored this idea. Researchers used a Positive Psychology Intervention (PPI) that included a 90 minute Gratitude Workshop to college athletes. The researchers measured gratitude, life and sport satisfaction, perceived social support, psychological distress, and athlete burnout before, immediately after, and four weeks after the PPI. They found that gratitude was related to increases in well-being measures like state gratitude, sport satisfaction, and social support.  It was also related to decreases in ill-being like psychological distress, athlete burnout after the intervention (Gabana et al., 2018).

So, if athletes and coaches can find more ways to incorporate appreciation and social support, or help develop gratitude beginning in youth sports, athletes may be able to overcome injury, defeat, burnout, and other challenges that come with elite performance. The more we are able to find the positive in difficult situations, the more we will be able to rise above adversity.

ReferencesShow all

Chen, L. H., & Wu, C. (2016, 03). When Does Dispositional Gratitude Help Athletes Move Away From Experiential Avoidance? The Moderating Role of Perceived Autonomy Support From Coaches. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 28(3), 338-349. doi:10.1080/10413200.2016.1162221

Chen, L. H., Kee, Y. H., & Chen, M. (2014, 10). Why Grateful Adolescent Athletes are More Satisfied with their Life: The Mediating Role of Perceived Team Cohesion. Social Indicators Research, 124(2), 463-476. doi:10.1007/s11205-014-0798-0

Gabana, N. T., Steinfeldt, J., Wong, Y. J., Chung, Y. B., & Svetina, D. (2018, 09). Attitude of Gratitude: Exploring the Implementation of a Gratitude Intervention with College Athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 1-12. doi:10.1080/10413200.2018.1498956