Positive Psychology for Peak Performance

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As a Positive Psychologist with a background in, and passion for, sport and exercise, I often get asked about the link between the areas, and where the disciplines of Positive Psychology, and Sport Psychology fit together.

Positive Psychology may be defined as, ‘the science of how to make individuals, businesses, and communities thrive’, with physical activity having been recently identified as the most important factor in reaching optimal functioning.  Physical activity is any bodily movement that expends energy, and as such incorporates not only sport, exercise, and active pursuits, but so too activity carried out within daily life, such as choosing to walk more and sit less. Increased activity levels have been linked with improved cognitive functioning, better mood, lower incidence of mental illness, and also increased life span. Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar also actually suggests that not exercising is the equivalent to taking depressants.

So why Positive Psychology in sport, specifically?

Peak performance is a topic that overlaps within both positive psychology and sport psychology, associated not only with physical aspects of performance, but with mental performance as well. For athletes already in peak physical condition, gaining an edge may be more about improving what happens within the mind. Athletes are able to differentiate themselves from their competition, based upon the psychological skills they hold, develop, and are able to apply effectively. Athletes must strive for performance excellence, and personal excellence as well, with a positive mindset identified as making a vital 1% difference to performance.

There are certain areas of sport psychology that may be matched with constructs from positive psychology, to illustrate the benefits of drawing upon both disciplines for a fuller picture. Using a performance pyramid allows for a visual representation of linked constructs as they move up through the levels. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and consider the model in a similar way, where lower order constructs sit at the bottom of the pyramid, with higher order skills to the top. The skills within the pyramid in black are recognised as traditional sport psychology performance skills, and the skills detailed in red are relevant skills linked from positive psychology.

Peak Performance Pyramid

General skills

Attitude and motivation within sport may be linked with the areas of mindsets and optimism from positive psychology. These are skills that are thought to be key to put into practice early, to provide a base from which to further develop. Adopting a growth mindset allows for a greater awareness of learning opportunities, and emphasizes the process of development and encourages challenge. Conversely a fixed mindset views qualities as carved in stone and is associated with the view that peak performance is as a result of talent and giftedness rather than practice and effort. It is thought to take 10,000 hours of practice to make an expert, and so adopting a growth mindset is likely the most favourable option when looking to progress within sport. Choosing a winning mindset, and one that is also optimistic can be fundamental in developing, enhancing, and maintaining performance, and more optimistic athletes often realise greater success. Optimism is associated with more positive and authentic relationships, better physical health, and a longer lifespan, although it must be managed to avoid risky behaviour, and ensure that goals set are sufficiently challenging, yet realistic at the same time.

Middle order skills

Moving up through the performance pyramid, middle order skills, are linked with positive psychology concepts of self-awareness, strengths, and positive emotions. Building self-awareness is essential when looking to perform, and maximise potential. It is the ability of an athlete to know themselves, to connect with their values, to realise what drives them, and reflect, in order to progress. Taking time out to reflect may be of benefit to athletes when looking to develop self-awareness, considering values, habits and beliefs that may impact upon how relationships, practice, or performance are approached. Identifying areas of strength can be of benefit not only to athletes themselves, but also to coaches when looking to manage and develop teams. Strengths may be considered with regards to sport in the same way they apply to personal life and also business, with the view that it is easier to promote a strength than it is to develop a weakness. It is not expected that all athletes hold strengths in similar areas, but rather that complimentary areas of strength are married together in order to minimise presentation of weaknesses, and push forwards with a heightened collective or self-efficacy. Effective use of strengths can help to provide a sense of direction, build resilience, increase positive emotions, and help to achieve goals.

When considering positive emotions, both the positive and the negative must be taken into account. This comes contrary to popular belief that positive psychology recognises only positive aspects and fails to acknowledge the value of negatives within the psychological profile. Positive emotions are associated with broadened cognition, enhanced awareness and the ability to solve problems more effectively. Positive emotions also build resilience and help to develop skills and resources. Whilst each of these benefits of positive emotions can be identified as being of value within sport, it is often negative emotions that can prove to be crucial when it comes to competition. Negative emotions are associated with a narrowing of cognition, offering a greater attention to detail and are recognised as beneficial where focus and concentration are required. Developing the ability to close down cognition and narrow focus and attention can enhance control and concentration to allow an athlete to perform. As such it is accepted that both positive and negative emotions can be constructively utilised within sport.

Peak performance skills

Higher order skills associated with the management of emotions may be related to the positive psychology concepts of resilience and emotional intelligence. Resilience is defined as the positive capacity to be able to deal with stress and adversity, and is developed through a combination of lower order constructs of optimism and self-awareness, and positive emotions. Resilience is characterised by the ability to adapt to changing situations, to learn from adversity, rise above it, and perform even better. Self-awareness is also important when looking to develop emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a skill, rather than being fixed, and as such can benefit from the adoption of a growth mindset, as discussed previously. Emotional intelligence encompasses the ability of an athlete to recognise his or her own emotional state, to be able to sense emotion in others, to recognise how to motivate themselves to create peak performance, and to be able to build productive relationships. In sport, developing emotional intelligence can enhance an athlete’s ability to control emotional impulses that may lead to poor performances, create emotions that lead to good performances, and afford athletes with the discipline to know when to do each.

Whilst skills are categorized within the performance pyramid, it remains possible for athletes to develop any of the included skills independently, outside of the hierarchical framework. For example, self-awareness is identified as a key component of both resilience and emotional intelligence and may be highlighted as a key skill to develop for some athletes, where others may be proficient already. Presenting areas of overlap between the fields of sport psychology and positive psychology, in the context of the performance pyramid, provides a brief insight into the extent to which sport psychology might benefit from being more closely engaged with positive psychology. There is certainly scope for sport psychology to steer focus from the traditional anxiety, stress, and burnout and develop a positive sport psychology that focuses more upon mindset, strengths, and resilience. This could do for sport psychology what positive psychology has done for ‘psychology as usual’, and redress the imbalance in the field which historically has focused more upon what is wrong than upon what is right.