Positivity Doesn't Work for Elite Performers. So What Does?

optimism positivity Jan 28, 2020



At this point, you’re thinking that this article is clickbait. I hate clickbait titles that don’t deliver in the paragraphs below. I wouldn’t do that to you.

Now you’re looking for my disclaimer. There isn’t one.

You’ve watched the news. You’ve read the articles. You’ve glanced at the Instagram pic with a cute note about positivity. Positivity is overrated no matter what “science” you’ve been reading from psychology blogs or “experts”. The truth is that when you read about the “science” of positivity, it needs so many qualifiers that it is no longer “scientific”. It can only be anecdotal.



I recently bought a suit at my local suit shop. The retailer was a physical human specimen. We got to chatting about why I was there and the environments I’d be wearing this new suit. As we got to know one another a bit, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a mental trainer. His eyes lit up and said, “That’s awesome. I’m into that kinda stuff.  I went to a Tony Robbins Conference and spent over $10K because I bought into believing that if I could change my mindset to be more positive, then I’d be more successful.” He had a painful look on his face, so I quenched my curious appetite and asked him, “Well, how did it work out?” “Awful”, he responded. “It made things 10x worse! Positivity hurt me”.

“Why?” I asked?

“I couldn’t be positive all day long. All week long. All month long. All year long. It’s just not for me. I'm not wired that way. So, I gave up on lots of things and in hindsight, I just wasted $10K”.

“Well, I coulda told you that for free” I served back over the net.

“What? Really?” he said with raised eyebrows. 

“Ya, positivity doesn’t work,” I said confidently. He seemed strangely genuinely relieved.



Positivity involves telling yourself things that are untrue. If positivity involves telling yourself that you’re better than you are, then you’ll overestimate your ability. No big deal right? Until you stand at the top of a black diamond hill. You can think as many positive thoughts before you attempt to go down, however, you’ll probably spend the rest of the day at the emergency room with a paperclipped knee. Admittedly this is an extreme example, but is it?  Most people are not skillfully wired for what they want to be positive for. They lack the training, skill, aptitude, and talent to do what they want to be positive about. Positivity without the skill to match it can be dangerous because you can convince yourself you can do something that you can’t.



Positivity is unstable because we can’t always remember to be positive. While having a positive outlook can help from time to time for short moments, it's not a great strategy if you constantly have to remember or choose to be positive. Even so, it can be dangerous and unstable because of the precursors necessary to be positive.



I was in my gym’s sauna talking to a guy who wrestled at the college level. He mentioned that he saw his opponent and decided to lie to himself because the other guy looked intimidating. The lie he told himself was that he was bigger, better, and stronger than his opponent. He was neither. Who taught him this strategy? A sports psychologist.

We call the propensity to think overly positive “Positivity Bias”. Positive thinking can deceive our minds into thinking that no further action is necessary to improve a situation.  We tell ourselves that we just have to “remain positive”! 



While positive thinking can be dangerous, unstable, and dishonest, negative thinking, we know--really works! It’s observably, measurably, and repeatably consistent…for the negative! If you don’t think you can, you most likely won’t. Confidence will subside. Performance will decrease. Thinking will contract. Problem-solving will be a problem. We know positivity doesn’t work for high performers. But negative thinking definitely works!


Negativity is a multiplier. Critical self-talk plays a major role in a lack of performance for a player and a team. Verbalizing that negativity to yourself multiplies its power. Telling others your negative thoughts to friends, teammates, or coaches multiplies its power yet again. Negativity has a multiplying effect, and it starts with you and your mental discipline.



Now, here’s my qualifier: positive thinking can help from time-to-time. It sounds sexy. It kinda makes sense. But the devil is in the details. It can help the average person who struggles with their thoughts. It can be helpful when we remember to be positive. It can be helpful for those who have a positive demeanor. It can help people who have a growth mindset. It can help kids and teenagers who are just in the beginning stages of their mental, emotional, and physical journeys.


It can help…sometimes. So, if positive thinking helps you at some moment, go for it if you want. But for high-performance athletes and high achievers who can’t afford “bad games” or “bad moments” and who need to consistently be good, positivity is not the staple mental food. Positivity is not a good long-term strategy at the highest levels of performance.



There’s another option: Optimism.

I work with high performing teams, athletes, individuals, and businesses all the time. Sure, anyone can be positive for a moment just like anyone can eat one healthy meal. But, a time-tested, long-term strategy of optimism is far more observable, measurable, consistent, and dependable. In short, it’s a better strategy for high performers.


Here’s the key concept: Optimism always requires a reason (proof) to be optimistic. It involves the two most important parts in your body: your head and your heart. You MUST connect the electrical arch between your head (clarity) and your heart (conviction). Optimism does this in all situations. 

Here’s why:

  1. Optimism is more of an outlook than a feeling. Positivity is more of a feeling. Feelings can bypass our minds. But instead of trying to remember to be positive, work on the reasons why you are optimistic. Working on the reasons and showing progress will naturally build your confidence, and confident players normally perform much better than unconfident ones. So, work on the reasons. A good example would be a player who sleeps well, eats well, gets up early to go to the gym, watches film and studies their playbook and assignments well has given themselves several reasons to be confidently optimistic about the game that night.
  2. Optimism is a result, not a cause. The result of working on the reasons to be optimistic is controllable. We can put in the work necessary to be elite. It’s a choice. The cause of positivity is much more difficult to nail down, unpredictable, and mysterious. If you’re a high performer, you can’t afford to not know how to be confident and successful. You can control the factors necessary to build confidence and be optimistic—spend your time working on those.
  3. Confidence is the fuel of optimism. Work on you, your craft, and your mindset. You’ll gain confidence knowing you’ve put in the work, the result of putting in the work is optimism. I'd rather see an athlete be optimistic and confident than simply positive. 





  1. We don’t rise to our goals; we fall to the level of our habits. When you’re not “feeling it”, you’ll fall back and depend on your training, habits, and hard work you put into your craft. Even a bad day at the gym for a high achiever is better than 99% of the rest of the people. Even on your worst days, you’ll be better than most. On your best days when all your gears are in sync, you’ll be tough to beat. Either way, you’ll have a significant competitive edge.

In conclusion, don't try to be more positive. Simply give yourself logical reasons to be optimistic because of the hard work your habits bring you.

In a future post, I’ll break down how to skyrocket your confidence in your training so you can be the best you can be. Stay tuned...

Gary Chupik


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