Whether it’s a tennis player battling back from match point against to win a tough 5-set match, or a golfer recovering from a subpar front nine1 to win a championship, part of what makes watching sports fun, is the drama of seeing an athlete experience both the highs and lows of competition right in front of us, in real time.
Of course, for every instance of a player hitting the game-winner in double overtime, there are plenty more occasions when a player misses the shot, turns the ball over, or calls a timeout when they have none left.
Anytime we’re faced with such setbacks, it’s typical to be discouraged and experience some heavy doubts. But while some find themselves spiraling to the bad place, others seem to bounce right back and raise the level of their performance.
What separates these resilient performers, from those who crash, burn, and throw in the towel? Are they just built differently, or is it a quality we can all develop?
It’s been said that we are all natural storytellers. And we do spend a lot of time weaving the events of our lives into a story about ourselves.
Hurt your shoulder at CrossFit class? As you drive home, your thoughts probably center around your injury, which start to coalesce into a larger story about you and what it all means. Your thoughts might turn into a story about your fragility – like “Dang, why am I so injury-prone.” Or, it might go in a totally different direction – like “Dang, maybe this is a sign I need to work on my flexibility and mobility.”
This is an indication of your “explanatory style,” which researchers have identified as a key factor in our ability to get back up when we’ve been knocked down.
If you tend to attribute bad things to causes that are stable (e.g. “I started playing the oboe too late”), and global (e.g. “I’ve never had much self-discipline”), and believe it’s all because of something inside of you (e.g. “I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly, but there’s something wrong/lacking with me.”), you may have a pessimistic explanatory style.
If on the other hand you tend to go the opposite direction, towards attributing failures to temporary, situational factors that you have some ability to change, you might have a more optimistic explanatory style.
A dribbling challenge
To see how all this storytelling plays out in the context of sport performance, a group of French researchers recruited 62 adolescents who had spent at least one year playing basketball in school.
They were assigned to one of three groups (optimistic group, pessimistic group, neutral group), based on their scores on an assessment of explanatory style.
Then, they were given 15 minutes to practice a dribbling exercise, which involved maneuvering through an obstacle course while dribbling a basketball.
Next, they completed their first timed attempt at the obstacle course, after which they received some “failure” feedback about their performance. No matter how well or poorly they did, they were told “you have not produced a very good time compared to the other pupils who have performed. But once you have rested, you will have the possibility to train and test a second time.”
And after a short break, they completed their second timed attempt.
How would they respond to failure?
The researchers were curious about how participants would respond to the negative feedback in three areas:
- Performance: Would they get discouraged and perform worse? Or would they redouble their efforts and do even better?
- Expectations of success: Would the feedback affect their confidence?
- Anxiety: Would they start doubting themselves and feel more pressure and anxiety?
The optimistic group demonstrated a significant improvement in performance from the first test to the second, improving from 134.75 seconds to 129.21 seconds (faster time = better performance).
The neutral group appeared to improve a tiny bit too.
The pessimistic group, on the other hand, did not improve. Their performance stayed almost exactly the same (139.75s vs. 139.35s).
Expectation of success
The negative feedback had a marked impact on the pessimistic group’s expectations for success. In response to the question “What are your chances in 100 of performing a good time?”, their scores went from 51.20 before their first attempt to 26.90 before their second attempt.
The neutral group’s expectation scores also dropped, but not by as much (56.32 to 42.22).
And while the optimistic group’s scores dropped a smidge, it wasn’t a statistically significant margin (55.70 to 50.76 ). So their optimistic explanatory style appeared to buffer them from any significant change in expectations, despite the negative feedback about their performance.
We don’t know what exactly the participants said to themselves about their performance, but perhaps, the optimistic folks’ stories centered around needing to try harder, focus more intently, or tweak their strategy/technique slightly in order to improve their time.
The pessimistic folks, may have instead told themselves a story about how they aren’t good at basketball, how the course is difficult or unfair, or began creating a narrative about what others might be thinking about them after seeing their poor performance on the course.
And lastly, with regards to anxiety and pressure, the pessimistic group seemed to get much more stressed out about the second test than the optimistic and neutral groups. Their heart rate2 averaged 145.10bpm, while the optimistic group averaged 132.40bpm, and the neutral group was at 135.90.
One of my enduring memories from childhood is of struggling to open a bag of crackers. I was pretty frustrated, but I think my mom was even more frustrated just watching me. Because at some point she scolded me and told me to look more carefully at the bag. And indeed, there was a little notch already pre-cut on the side. Which made opening the bag much easier.
She told me that there’s always an easier or better way to do something, but it’s not always going to be obvious. And that I have to look harder, instead of making “try harder” my default solution for every problem.
I learned that failure was not the fault of my tiny, weak, uncoordinated fingers. That the most useful response to setbacks is not to look for what’s wrong with who we are, but assume instead that there’s something about what we did that needs tweaking.
As I heard someone once say – blame your strategy not yourself.
When you experience the inevitable snafu this week, whether it’s in the practice room, a situation at work, or a new cookie recipe that went horribly wrong, take a moment to ask yourself why it happened.
Not like “why do I suck at baking?”, but more like “What did I miss? What changes could I make next time? And am I absolutely positive the white stuff in that glass jar was sugar, not salt?”
This article came about because I was reading about a neuroscientist who discovered that his brain scan resembled that of a psychopath. It’s an interesting (and entertaining) interview, with the key relevant takeaway in the last paragraph:
I’m not sure why I got sucked down this particular rabbit hole quite so far, but here’s more:
The Scientist and the Psychopath (interview) @NPR