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by Charlie Dragon

March 9, 2009

"If I could pass only one thing on to my kids it would be to be optimistic about everything in life"

-- Michael Jordan

When Michael Jordan tells me optimism is the most important thing he can teach his children, I listen. We can view swimming just as something we do to stay fit, no more significant than grocery shopping or going to the bank. Or we can look at this activity as an opportunity to improve ourselves, learn the important facts of life, and experience some of the greatness that comes through athletic performance. This article is about getting our thinking into a state which will aid us in reaching those goals. The best way to do that is to follow Jordan's advice: learn to be optimistic.

The power of optimism is becoming clear as psychologists have done studies of salesmen, military recruits, athletes and people suffering from depression. Optimists tend to do better than pessimists in work, sports and life by often more than 2 to 1. Optimism may be more important than any other mental skill. Michael Jordan certainly thinks so.

Optimism tends to come naturally to some people, while for others pessimism seems ingrained in their nature. There are tests you can take to determine your level of optimism or pessimism, but you can figure out your own tendency by paying attention to what you say to yourself after something bad happens. Optimism is not about waking up smiling everyday, or thinking everything is for the best. Optimism is about internal reaction to disappointment and adversity.

Do you blame yourself every time something goes wrong in your life? Do you think bad things will always keep happening and good things never will? Do you believe you lack qualities which other people have? If you tend to answer ‘yes' you may lean pessimistic. When something goes wrong, do you point to specific things as the causes? Do you think bad events are temporary and bound to change? Do you believe you are good at many things? If you tend to answer ‘yes' to those questions you may lean optimistic. So the first step is to pay attention to how you think and feel when you meet adversity on any level. It could be major adversity or just the little problems you deal with all day long. What matters is what you say to yourself when things go wrong. Optimists and pessimists will both feel upset right after a bad event. The difference is that pessimists continue to beat themselves up about it while the optimists determine specific, temporary causes for the problem and then move on.


And that's the key to optimism, how you react to what is often called "failure," or, more accurately, not achieving what you set out to do. Whether it is a slow swim in practice, or in the final meet of the year, it's how you react to that event which affects the outcome of your next challenge. Back to Jordan:

"Michael Jordan was not a very gifted basketball player. That may seem an outrageous (even stupid) thing to say, but it is true - at least by many objective measures. Grab your record book and follow along. Jordan ranked ninth in field goals made, eighteenth in total points, sixth in field goal attempts per forty-eight minutes. Jordan does not rank first in any major NBA statistic. Even in his prime, Jordan was not the fastest or most accurate shooter; he certainly was not a rebounder or brilliant at defense . . . Michael Jordan does hold one record: He has missed more shots than any other player in basketball history. And, as Jordan knows full well, it is because of that statistic that he is the greatest . . . Jordan never reacted to his mistakes as if they were a problem. He would make a foolish play, and as soon as it was over, there he was with the ball again, his tongue hanging out, winking at somebody, looking to make a move toward the basket." - Overachievement - The New Model of Exceptional Performance by John Eliot

Amazing isn't it? Most missed shots, blows my mind. Imagine if after each time he missed a shot Jordan got upset, embarrassed, mad at himself, thought he was a bad player, and felt like sitting down on the bench. Next time a practice doesn't go well, or you swim a slow time, or lose a close race, remember how Jordan reacted to a missed shot (which he did more than anybody); he wanted the ball and he wanted to shoot again. Another example like this is Brett Favre. He has the record for most interceptions, yet he is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

Here are three keys to the optimism/pessimism divide, and I'll do my best to not be too confusing (these ideas all come from Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, a book which I highly recommend). Pessimists explain bad events to themselves as being permanent ("I always swim slowly at big meets"), pervasive or general ("Nothing ever works out for me"), and personal ("I'm just not any good").

So the first key contrast between optimists and pessimists is permanence. Pessimists believe a problem is static, either never going away or always coming back. The optimists feel the opposite, that a problem is temporary, that it will eventually pass.

The second key is that the pessimist believes that a problem is pervasive or general, one more example of a broader issue: "The cause of my slow race was that I choke in any kind of competition." In contrast, the optimist believes a problem is local, or due to specific issues related to the circumstance in question. A bad race would be due to not enough sleep last night, hard workouts all week, stress of some sort, a bad turn, a technique flaw, etc.

The third key is pessimists believe the cause of a problem relates to a personal failing: "I'm just not any good at this sort of thing." In contrast, the optimist typically attributes non-personal reasons for a problem. To the optimist, the slow race would be due to external, not internal factors.

The common theme running through these three keys to the optimism/pessimism divide is that the pessimist feels helpless to change the problem. By definition, helplessness is one of the strongest disempowering emotions we can feel, and it is very difficult to improve in any pursuit when you feel helpless to make advancement. The optimist is so much more successful in sports and in life because he feels the power to fix the problem.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the same 3 key differences between optimists and pessimists are in found how they interpret good events; it's simply reversed. Pessimists are dismissive of their achievements. They attribute success to temporary, specific, non-personal reasons ("I did a best time because I just got lucky with my heat and lane, and didn't die at the end like I usually do"). This way of thinking puts the power to achieve positive results out of their hands, as though it's up to fortune. The optimist reacts to good events as permanent, pervasive and personal ("I did a best time because I always race well at big meets. I'm a good swimmer").

Learning to be optimistic may be hard for some of you, but I can't think of another skill that will help you find success and happiness in life and swimming more than optimism. Look for temporary, specific, non-personal causes to your problems, and then find solutions. Do not be dismissive of your achievements; believe they are indicators of permanent, pervasive, personal qualities.

Swimming is a great tool for understanding how our thinking changes when we are challenged, be it going to a Masters practice for the first time and feeling out of place, or standing on the blocks at Nationals. We love sports, both as participants and spectators, often because, for an instant, they strip away the noise of life and put us face to face with ourselves. A true victory is a victory over oneself. Move optimistically toward your goals.

About Charlie Dragon
Charlie is currently an assistant coach with SwimMAC Carolina in Charlotte N.C. He has a Master's Degree in Philosophy from the City University of New York Graduate Center. Charlie has had 4 articles published in both the American Swim Coaches Association Newsletter and American Swimming Magazine. He is also an invited speaker at the 2009 American Swim Coaches Association World Clinic.