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Category: Mental Health

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

Burnout or Depression? Understanding the Unique Mental Health Needs of Athletes

Published September 20, 2016

By Marina Galante
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Athletes as a Special Population

Mental illness affects approximately 61.5 million Americans each year; despite this, mental health continues to carry negative stigma that interferes with proper treatment and effective care (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2013). This is especially true for athlete populations. Athletic culture and a self-help mentality lead athletes to seek treatment less often and reject treatments at higher rates than non-athletes (Watson, 2005). Oftentimes, mental illness in athletes goes underdiagnosed. Thus, athletes should be considered a special population with needs unique from non-athlete counterparts (Beauchemin, 2014; Etzel & Watson, 2007).

Burnout VS. Depression

Depression in athletes is specifically underdiagnosed. Part of this issue stems from the similarities between Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Burnout. Major Depressive Disorder involves either depressed mood or loss of interest/pleasure in nearly all activities for a period of at least 2 weeks; this also involves other symptoms like changes in sleep, appetite, energy, and concentration (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Overtraining or burnout in athletes can involve almost identical symptoms. These similarities provide difficulties for practitioners working with athletes; awareness of these similarities is vital for appropriate referrals, care, and competence in treatment. 

Common Symptoms of BOTH Depression and Burnout

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of motivation/energy
  • Irritability
  • Feeling discouraged
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty maintaining responsibilities
  • Denial or avoidance to seek treatment
  • Inadequate or reduced coping skills

Differences in Depression and Burnout

  • Role Dysfunction: Inability to fulfill designated roles in work, school, or sport
    • Burnout involves role dysfunction in athletic performance
    • Depression involves role dysfunction of social, cognitive, and work settings
    • For athletes, role dysfunction may occur in all domains
  • Duration
    • Burnout: Anywhere from 1 week onward
      • Typically resolved with rest
    • MDD: Minimum of 2 weeks
      • Not resolved with rest


Awareness and insight into this issue among professionals is crucial to ensure comprehensive and ethical care of athletes. AASP Certified Consultants are encouraged to develop a vast and comprehensive referral network, including physicians, psychologists, athletic trainers, and coaches. Further, programs that adapt interventions to consider athlete culture are essential to meet the current needs of athletes regarding both mental health and performance programming. These discussions are vitally important to the promotion of athlete health and well-being.


National Institute of Mental Health
American Psychological Association Division 12; Find therapists in your area
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V)

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.   
Beauchemin, J. (2014). College student-athlete wellness: An integrative outreach model. College Student Journal, 48(2), 268-280.
Etzel, E., & Watson, J. C. (2007). Ethical challenges for psychological consultations in intercollegiate athletics. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1, 304-317.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2013). Mental illness facts and numbers. Retrieved from
Reardon, C. L., & Factor, R. M. (2010). Sport psychiatry: A systematic review of diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illness in athletes. Sports Medicine, 40(11), 961-980.
Schwenk, T. L. (2000). The stigmatization and denial of mental illness in athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(1), 4-5.
Watson, J. C. (2005). College student-athletes’ attitudes toward help-seeking behavior and expectations of counseling services. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 442-449.

Published in: Athletes and Other Performers, Mental Health

Disordered Eating in Athletes

Published February 5, 2015

By Dana Voelker

Dana Voelker discusses what parents, coaches, and certified consultants can do to prevent and manage eating disorders in athletes.

Published in: Mental Health, Coaches, Parents, Consulting

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

When Building Muscle Turns into Muscle Dysmorphia

Published August 14, 2014

By Jennifer J. Waldron
University Of Northern Iowa

In today’s world, action figures, men’s magazines, television shows, and movies often portray the ideal body for men. The ideal body for men is “V-shaped” with muscular arms, a broad chest, and a narrow waist. This has resulted in many men, similar to women, being worried about and unhappy with their bodies. In order to obtain the “V-shaped” body, many men engage in weight training. Lifting weight leads to many health benefits and may bring men closer to the “V-shaped” body. Unfortunately, some men who lift weights also suffer from severe body dissatisfaction. These men see themselves as smaller and weaker than they actually are, are preoccupied with their muscles, and become consumed with weight training. These men may suffer from a body image disorder called muscle dysmorphia.

Muscle Dysmorphia
Muscle dysmorphia typically occurs in boys and men, who have a well-defined muscular build. People with this disorder believe and spend a great deal of time thinking that their muscular build is undersized and underdeveloped and desire bigger muscles.

Behaviors of People with Muscle Dysmorphia
People who have muscle dysmorphia display a number of similar behaviors. Here is a list of typical behaviors of someone who is experiencing muscle dysmorphia.

  • Extreme exercise, especially resistance and weight training
  • Many hours lifting weights
  • Constant mirror-checking
  • Avoiding social situations where they may appear muscularly small Compare their muscular build to others
  • Extreme attention to diet
  • Lifting while being injured
  • Anxiety when missing a workout
  • Neglecting family, friends, and job in order to exercise
  • Use of anabolic steroids to enhance muscle mass

Why does Muscle Dysmorphia occur?
Muscle dysmorphia is caused by an interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. Based on their genetics, some men are more liable to experiencing muscle dysmorphia. One psychological factor that has been studied is self-esteem. Men with low self-esteem are more likely to have muscle dysmorphia than those men with high self-esteem. Finally, society (e.g., media, sports) is placing greater pressures on men to have an ideal body. The interaction of these factors leads some men, similar to women’s desire to be thin, to become obsessed with having the ideal body.

What can Health and Exercise Practitioners do to help?

  • Have pamphlets about muscle dysmorphia at the health and exercise facility
  • Do not connect the worth of people to their body size and musculature
  • Do not allow others to tease or make fun of someone’s body or muscle size
  • Continue to learn about muscle dysmorphia
  • Many people with muscle dysmorphia do not realize they have a problem and do not seek treatment; practitioners should be aware of clients who display the signs of muscle dysmorphia and encourage them to find help
  • Be supportive of someone with this body image disorder

Published in: Health & Fitness, Mental Health