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Category: Health & Fitness

The Power of Optimism

Published January 17, 2017

By Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed.

Matt is a mental performance coach who works with athletes on assessing their mental skills (i.e. confidence, motivation, focus, self-management, etc.) and developing their abilities in this often-neglected component of performance. His focus is on helping people better understand, and more importantly improve, the aspects of performance which so often fail to get the attention they deserve – building and maintaining confidence, the ability to perform well under pressure, developing mental resilience, staying in the moment, etc. Matt’s coaching is informed by a background as an athlete, coach, teacher and mentor, enabling him to work effectively with people from all backgrounds. He is passionate about the field of applied sport psychology and its value, both in the athletic arena and in everyday life. Matt is one of fewer than 400 Certified Consultants in the nation through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.


You know you are in deep trouble; so you face the brutal facts of the challenge you’re facing. But at the same time you feel deeply that you will prevail.

This quote comes from James Stockdale, a prisoner of war for over seven years in Vietnam. Stockdale's perspective on acknowledging the reality of your adversity while still holding to the belief that things will work out became known as the Stockdale Paradox, a central takeaway from research done by Dr. Dennis Charney. Dr. Charney studied a variety of people who had survived adversity in its most extreme forms and yet somehow came out of it without the depression, PTSD, and harmful emotional scar tissue one would expect. He compiled a list of characteristics that set these people apart, and the #1 characteristic was a simple yet misunderstood quality - optimism.

To understand optimism, let's begin with what it's not. Optimism is not a naive assumption that everything is always going to be fine - the Pollyanna who views the world constantly through rose-colored glasses and never worries a day in their life. 

Optimism is a mindset, characterized by maintaining positive expectations for important future outcomes. It is the stories you tell yourself, and the way you interpret the circumstances and events of your life. And optimism has some eye-opening benefits:

  • Optimism is the most powerful predictor of resilience (our ability to recover quickly from adversity)
  • Optimism, and the anticipation that comes with it, makes us happy!  Think about this - when surveyed about their favorite day of the week, people choose Saturday.  But second place goes to Friday (a work day), not Sunday.  We love the anticipation of what's to come.
  • Positive emotions can undo the effects of negative experiences.
  • Optimistic people, while experiencing the same levels of anxiety and frustration when faced with adversity, are able to more quickly let go of negativity, worry less, and shift their attention to what is positive.
  • Optimists tend to give more effort over a longer period of time.

If that list doesn't win you over, you may have a dangerously pessimistic style of thinking, which ultimately shapes your mindset - but not to worry, let's finish with some practical takeaways.

Here are 3 ways you can grow your optimism:

  1. Stop listening to yourself and talk to yourself.
    Our mindset is determined by the stories we tell ourselves.  And all too often, we settle into a bad habit of negative, pessimistic inner dialogue, using consistent and absolute language “things are always going to be this way, they will never change for the better”.  We develop an expectation for negative things in our lives, maybe without noticing, which can lead to helplessness and hopelessness. Stop listening to yourself, and start talking to yourself with intention and purpose.  Learn to take the lessons from difficult circumstances and push forward, expecting better things to come.  The best is yet to come...
  2. Interpretation is more important than preparation.
    This isn't to discount your planning and preparation in life - those things have plenty of value.  My point here is, when the inevitable adversity comes (the kind you weren't prepared for), an optimistic person will have a healthier and more beneficial interpretation of what happened and how to move forward.  This is what's known as your explanatory style. Adversity will come your way - grow your ability to lean into it, pull out the lessons that will help you grow, and push forward.
  3. BUT...bring an umbrella.
    We all have an optimism bias of which we must be aware.  There's a fine line between healthy optimism and naiveté (the person who ignores the weather report that calls for a rain storm and ventures out without an umbrella).  To paraphrase Stockdale, acknowledge the challenge ahead but believe deeply that you will prevail.

How would you rate yourself when it comes to dealing with adversity?  We all have a ton of growing still to do. 

But the best is yet to come.

Published in: Health & Fitness, Mental Skills Training, Mental Health

“The Ripples Are Big”: Storying the Impact of Doping in Sport Beyond the Sanctioned Athlete

Published August 9, 2016

Dr. Kelsey Erickson photo

By Dr. Kelsey Erickson
Leeds Beckett University

Kelsey Erickson recently completed her Ph.D. at Leeds Beckett University (UK), which was partially funded by the International Athletics Foundation. She has now commenced a two-year postdoctoral research position funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in cooperation with Leeds Beckett University. The project, an extension of her doctoral research, will involve designing, implementing and evaluating an intervention to promote Clean Sport within university student-athlete populations in the US, UK and Canada.

Recent doping allegations within track and field include systemic doping (e.g. Russian Athletics), corrupt administration (e.g. the International Association of Athletics Federation; IAAF), and leaked personal data.  No doubt, it is an issue currently affecting a number of individuals, organizations and nations.  While the sport scrambles to recover from the growing list of condemning allegations, the athletes are increasingly drawn into the conversation(s).  However, one group of athletes has been noticeably overlooked - the self-declared ‘clean athletes’ who have been personally impacted by others’ doping behaviors.  Meanwhile, their experiences and perspectives have the potential to shed important (and novel) light on the supposedly far-reaching and endemic nature of doping in track and field.

By collecting the stories of elite track and field athletes who have been personally affected by others’ use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), two stories were created depicting their unique lived experiences.  The first story, ‘Nobody saw it coming’, tells the story of the current competitive athletes: “I mean, I’m doing my sport for the same reasons I chose to do it when I was age seven – I always believed I could get to the top in my sport if I worked hard and did my best. I’ve just presumed everybody else was doing it for those reasons too. Well, I was wrong. Doping has affected me and my results. A lot… I could’ve been the best in the world but I was never told.’”

In the second story, ‘I’ve got scars’, the retired athletes relate their experiences: “You go through a period when you wonder ‘what’s the point?’… I think I was very angry and bitter that a guy cheated me out of my livelihood, cheated me out of places, cheated me out of maybe an opportunity to stand on the podium. Well actually, not just one athlete – a lot of athletes….. I do look back and wonder ‘what if?’”

The stories themselves offer unique insights into the widespread (and currently undocumented) impact of doping in sport.  In particular, they detail financial, emotional, and relational implications stemming from others’ use of PEDs.  Critically, the impact is not ephemeral; the retired athletes detailed the long-term implications of their experiences.  Meanwhile, the current competitive athletes suggest that given the current state of sport, they regularly have to defend their status as ‘clean athletes’.  Thus, the ripples of doping in sport appear to be far reaching and enduring.

The published paper is available to you for free by clicking here.

I invite you to read the paper, and then give yourself time to reflect on it.  The following is the reaction the stories triggered in me.  The process of creating these stories will certainly inform my research and practice going forward.  

What kind of reaction do the stories trigger for you?

“When an athlete breaks the rules by using PEDs, fellow athletes regularly miss out on prize and endorsement money, as well as losing opportunities for public recognition and glory”.

The quote above is a sentence that I originally wrote into the rationale for this research.  At the time, these seemed like really negative implications of PED use for fellow athletes. However, during the first interview I quickly realized how naïve I was.  I walked away from that experience with so many more concerns and questions.  Certainly the tangible losses (money, medals, glory, etc.) associated with being impacted by PED use must be devastating, but what does that actually feel like?  How long do the emotions last? What are the long-term implications of the losses?  Do you ever get over it? After just one interview I was acutely aware of how simplistic my understanding was regarding the potential implications of PED use in sport.  The emotional and long-term implications of being affected by PEDs are so much greater than I had ever considered.

Now months after conducting the interviews that shaped these stories, I still find myself reflecting on things my participants said.  I regularly make random comments to the people in my office, my friends, family; anyone who will listen really. The implications of doping for fellow athletes are severe.  The not knowing, always wondering; the ‘what ifs?’ and ‘if only’.  For the active athletes, they still have a chance to change things; their careers are not over.  Conversely, for the retired athletes there is nothing left for them to do but try and accept what has happened and be proud of what they managed to accomplish despite the circumstances.  That is tough.  I cannot imagine looking back on my career and wondering what could have and might have happened ‘if only’.  The worst part is, the ‘if only’ was (and is) out of their control. There is likely nothing they could have or would have done differently; rather, it’s something that the PED using athlete would/could have done different.  What would have happened then?  How different might their situation be now?  Chances are, they’ll never know.  I can’t imagine what that feels like.  However, I’m grateful that I’ve had a chance to offer these athletes (hopefully!) an opportunity to try and convey just that; what it feels like.  Also, I feel compelled to continue providing this opportunity.

Thank you to the International Athletics Foundation for helping fund the research.  Thank you as well to my participants for trusting me with your stories.  It is an honor.     

Kelsey Erickson, PhD
Research Fellow
Institute of Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure
Leeds Beckett University
United Kingdom
Twitter: @kelslee777

Published in: Athletes and Other Performers, Health & Fitness

Tips for Exercise Success

Published February 5, 2015

By Michele Kerulis

Struggling to stay on track with your exercise plan? Michele Kerulis offers three tips to help keep you active and reach your health and fitness goals.

Published in: Health & Fitness

Exercise Adherence Tips

Published August 14, 2014


As many as 80% of people who begin an exercise program do not stick with it. While initially, many people are motivated to begin an exercise program. It even can be fun. But what does it take to stay motivated? How can you increase the likelihood that you will continue exercising?

One of the best motivators is doing something because you enjoy it. Also, seeing progress and reaching your goals are very motivating. The following suggestions will help you have fun and reach your exercise goals:

Keep it fun

  • Work out with friends. Not only will you have company, but you can give each other social support and encouragement. Also, it’s more difficult to skip a workout when some one else is counting on you being there.
  • Choose an activity you like. If you know you do not like jogging, chances are you won’t stick with it.
  • Learn a new activity. Take up a martial art, snowshoeing, or conquer the climbing wall. The new challenge will keep you coming back to meet the next challenge.
  • Begin easy and slowly increase your effort. Trying too much too soon can result in sore muscles or injury. Pain is not fun – and it is not necessary. Be realistic with what you expect to accomplish and aim for small but regular improvements.
  • Cross-train. Rather than do the same thing everyday, do different activities. For example, take an aerobics class once a week and a spinning class another day. This type of training will work different parts of your body and will keep you from becoming bored with exercise.

Monitoring Progress

  • Set realistic, measurable goals. Setting goals in terms of distance, time, amount lifted allows you to clearly see changes. You also will know exactly what you are aiming to do (e.g., run 3 miles or swim for 30 minutes). Begin with a realistic short-term goal (e.g., run ¼ mile and then walk ¼ mile). You will easily see your progress toward your goal.
  • Keep an exercise journal. From the first time you exercise, keep track of how much weight you lifted, how far or for how long you walked, etc. You could make a weekly or monthly graph of your improvements. Seeing improved results will motivate you to work toward new goals.

Fit Exercise into Your Life

  • Convenience. Choose an activity that you can fit into your current schedule. For example, select a health club close to home or work. Find a time of day where you are most likely to avoid conflicts with other activities (e.g., early in the morning, lunch, or evening). The more convenient exercise, the more likely you’ll stick with it. Choosing a fitness facility with childcare may be helpful for some exercisers.
  • Establish a routine. Once you pick a place and time to exercise, keep doing it. Make it a part of your regular schedule. For example, block out the time in your planner for exercise. As you stick to your routine, exercise will become a habit.
  • Make exercise a priority. Schedule exercise before scheduling other meetings or activities. Make a commitment to your exercise program.
  • Combine family-time with exercise. Go for a walk, hike, or take a bike ride together. Make activity something everyone in the family can enjoy together. Be creative (e.g., hike to a picnic area).

Published in: Health & Fitness

Body Image and Physical Activity

Published August 14, 2014

By Christy Greenleaf
University of North Texas

What is Body Image?

  • Body image refers to the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions you have about your body appearance and shape.

How Does Body Image Influence Physical Activity?

  • How you feel about your body can influence your physical activity participation.
    • Individuals who feel better about their bodies (i.e., have positive body image) are more likely to engage in physical activity than those who have negative body image.
    • This is one reason it is important to focus on feeling good about being active (regardless of your shape or size) and feel proud that you are doing something good for yourself.
  • Body image can also impact the type of physical activity you feel comfortable participating in and your level of enjoyment.
    • Individuals who are self-conscious and anxious about their appearance tend to prefer to exercise alone and have lower levels of enjoyment.
    • Physical activity involvement is improved when people experience social support and find enjoyment in the activity.
    • Thus, seeking out supportive and welcoming physical activity environments in which you feel comfortable is important.

How Can You Improve Your Body Image?

  • Engage in positive body talk.
    • People frequently engage in negative body talk or “fat talk” – saying things like “I’m so fat,” “I really need to lose some weight,” and “I’m not wearing shorts until I tone up.”
    • Replace those negative statements with positive ones like “I am strong” and “I care for and nurture my body.”
    • Write out positive body statements and strategically place them in your home – for example on your bathroom mirror or on your phone. That way, the notes will remind you to engage in positive body talk.
  • Focus on what your body can do.
    • Be proactive… learn a new physical activity, go to the park with your family, train for a 5k, or get a pedometer and work your way up to walking 10,000 steps a day (the current recommendation for adults).
    • Appreciate what you are able to do with your body and enjoy being active.
  • Accept the idea that healthy and happy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
    • The dominant belief in our society is that the ‘ideal’ body (lean and toned) is the only type of body that can be happy and healthy.
    • Being thin will not automatically make your happy, solve all of your problems, or make life more exciting and interesting. Happiness comes from within.
    • Being thin does not necessarily equate to being healthy. Engaging in consistent physical activity helps improve health.

Published in: Health & Fitness, Mental Health