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The negative side of positive thinking

Positive visualisation is an increasingly popular technique in football. But it’s not as simple as just imagining success.


This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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The problem with simple ideas is that they can be overly simplistic. In this case, positive thinking isn’t necessarily a miracle solution, but it could lead to a completely opposite result.

When John Terry was asked about Brendan Rodgers’ time at Chelsea, he only had positive words about the Northern Irish coach. In particular he referred to one particular incident where “he did a nice little video of me scoring goals, making tackles and had a 15 to 20 minute chat with me. At the time it was something nobody had ever done and it just goes to show his man-management and how well he’s doing and how well he’ll do in the future.”

That has been a constant in Rodgers’ career who has often turned to basic psychological tenets to encourage his players.  He seems to be a believer in establishing a positive frame of mind in his teams, a belief that occasionally bleeds into his interviews and which has earned him a reputation for using management speak.

Boosting positivity is what the video he relayed to Terry was meant to achieve; a way to get him to visualise doing well in the team so as to help him overcome a tough moment. This is now very much a common tactic in the increasingly popular area of positive visualization. In simple terms this means thinking about what one wants to achieve – score a goal for instance –imagining it in detail as if they had actually done it.

The aim of all of this is to get players comfortable with the thought so that when they need to carry off the particular skill they don’t find any mental blocks. For them it will be as if they are doing something they’re used to doing because they have gone over it so many times before.

Perhaps it is because of the idea’s simplicity or because intuitively it feels right but it has really caught on. From highlights, such as the ones that Rodgers prepared for Terry, to the simpler exercise of thinking about a successful outcome, most sports people today carry out some form of positive visualisation.

Many have come to feel that is an essential driver for their success.

The problem with simple ideas is that they can be overly simplistic. In this case, positive thinking isn’t necessarily a miracle solution, but it could lead to a completely opposite result. In 2002 social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer produced the results of a series of tests they had carried out with patients of hip replacement surgery when preparing a paper titled “Pleasure Now, Pain Later”. On the day before their surgery they asked each of the patients to think of and detail their expectations about how quickly they anticipated being able to recover from the operation.

They then followed up with the patients after their operation and during their recovery. What they found was that those who had harboured negative thoughts actually recovered faster than those who had been positive about it. Oettingen and Mayer carried out different versions of this test – for instance testing students coming out of school about their prospects of finding a job – in order to test their results so that they covered various age groups as well as varying periods of time.

The results led them to conclude that rather than boosting performance, being overly positive at the outset actually led to worse performance.

What happened, they determined, was that people don’t simply come up with the ideal outcome – scoring a goal in a tight match – but also the efforts needed in the lead up to it. Those who make positive projections typically do not think of the difficulties that they might come across and as a result are not ready to face them.

To bring up the footballing example, one might think of the feelings and movements needed to score a goal but what happens if their team goes a goal behind? What if it is a rainy day or the pitch isn’t a good one? Are they prepared to overcome such random difficulties that crop up?

In all likelihood, no. Which is where those who have a negative outlook have an advantage. Because it turns out that being pessimistic means that you think of all the various problems that might crop up along the way and prepare from them. You anticipate the setbacks and are better prepared to face the hard work needed to get where you want.

There are examples of this everywhere. One enrols in a gym and tells everyone about it whilst privately imagining the physique that they would like to achieve. Yet actually going through the process of getting a membership makes people feel as if they’ve achieved something and so they never really become invested in going to train on a regular basis.

This is something that is backed up by research. A team led by psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer published a paper which argued that when people publicly announce their goals they are less likely to go on to achieve them.

All of this does not mean that there is no merit to the positive thinking techniques that Rodgers, and countless other coaches, adopt. What it does mean is that they require more sophistication than most people think.

It was not wrong for those hip replacement patients to think positively of their eventual recovery. Yet they also needed to prepare themselves mentally for the pain of physical rehabilitation so that once they needed to make the effort they were ready for it rather than suffer a disconnect from their expected reality.

The same applies to football. There are obvious benefits for an injured player to focus on what it will feel like when he is back playing, as long as he also takes some time to think over the steps that are required to actually recover.

Positive visualisation helps but it works better with a serving of reality.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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