What's Cool In Road Cycling
Herentals - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Peter SAGAN (Slowakia / Team Bora - hansgrohe) as ’discjockey» pictured during Boretti after Tour-criterium van Herentals - JH/PN/photo Cor Vos © 2018

Toolbox: How Optimism Influences Performance

Think back to your last experience of competition. Perhaps it was a race, or simply a sprint for a local town sign. How did you perform? More importantly, how did you explain your performance? An optimistic attitude can have positive influence on cycling performance.

In an earlier feature, I shared a study which described how cyclists could improve time-trial performance by using motivational self-talk techniques. Statements such as “I can manage my energy until the end” used in response to thoughts such as “I’ve worked too hard” improved their performance over the 10km distance by between 13-71 seconds.

World champion Peter Sagan can ‘talk the talk and walk the walk’

The Words We Use are Important
The words we use are important and can have a powerful impact on our performance, but it seems that the effect of this phenomenon extends beyond the duration of the effort.

The psychologist Martin Seligman, sometimes said to be the founding father of positive psychology, conducted an interesting study amongst a group of high-level swimmers. The purpose of the study was to explore the effects of the athlete’s ‘explanatory style’ during competition. Specifically, the researchers explored whether it was possible to predict poorer than expected athletic performance if the athletes explained previous performance with a pessimistic style.

Can Our Explanations Enhance Performance?
Explanatory style is a useful concept. In contrast to the belief that optimism is a broad personality trait i.e. we are predisposed to assume that more good things will happen than bad, explanatory style suggests that we have a choice about whether we respond to events with optimism or pessimism and that this can result in more effective responses and, potentially, enhanced performance.

In Seligman’s study, the researchers analyzed three explanatory styles:

1) Stable vs. unstable
Did the athletes perceive the effects of setbacks as temporary or permanent? For example, did they say: “The last race didn’t go well” (unstable and optimistic) or “I never do well in races like this” (stable and pessimistic).

2) Specific vs. global
Did they perceive the setbacks as affecting other unrelated areas of their lives. For instance, did they say “My sprint simply wasn’t fast enough” (specific and optimistic) or “I just don’t try hard enough” (global and pessimistic).

3) Internal vs. external
To what degree did they blame themselves, relative to other people, circumstances and factors? For instance, they might say “I’m too weak” (internal and pessimistic) rather than “I was boxed-in and had to take the long way around, which ruined my sprint” (external and optimistic).

The results of the study revealed that performance deteriorated for athletes who used a pessimistic explanatory style. In contrast, the performance of the athletes with an optimistic style did not. An optimistic style appears to improve our resilience; our capacity to recover from setbacks.

Put it Into Practice
You could describe the three styles using three words: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. The researchers made the following observations, which we may be able to use to enhance our own performance.

Permanence – People who are optimistic and resilient often perceive the effects of bad events as temporary, rather than permanent.

Pervasiveness – Resilient people don’t perceive setbacks or bad events as affecting other unrelated areas of their lives.

Personalization – Resilient people accept that other factors may contribute to their disappointing performance, rather than blaming themselves entirely.

The words we use matter and can have a significant impact on subsequent performance. Next time you’re listening to a post-race interview with a cycling superstar, or your riding buddy complaining about the result in their last criterium race, or perhaps even your own story of the town-sign sprint, pay attention to explanatory style and experiment with creating a new story.

Sagan never has a problem expressing himself


Seligman, M. E. P. et. Al. (1990) “Explanatory Style as a Mechanism of Disappointing Athletic Performance.” Psychological Science 1:143–6.

About James
James Hewitt is Sports Scientist and Performance Coach with HINTSA Performance based in Geneva, Switzerland. In a previous life he was an Elite racer but now focusses on avoiding caffeine overdose and helping other people achieve their goals. You can contact James through twitter @jamesphewitt and find out more at his website www.jameshewitt.net

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