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  • Writer's pictureLee Hancock

The Power and Importance of “Realistic Optimism” in Athletes

Most of us know that optimism is the hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something. It is generally accepted that being an optimistic person is good. For example, when an athlete faces a difficult moment (as they all do), the optimist will see an opportunity; whereas the pessimist will see a problem.

This optimistic attitude has propelled many an athlete into being better, winning a game or even winning a championship. So I will ask the question …is optimism (alone) ever a bad thing?


Let’s play this scenario out – you have an athlete who knows that he or she has made a number of errors in the game – and they’re an optimist. They have a “hopefulness and confidence” that it will get better as the match progresses – but it doesn’t. No problem though, as the person is an optimist and as a result, they…

  • Believe the result can be altered with effort

  • Are steadfast in their belief that it will get better.

BUT – they lost the game and this person played a role in the loss – their effort, attitude and belief remained fantastic but they didn’t make the necessary changes to ensure success.

Being an optimist doesn’t inherently also mean that the person is willing to change what he or she is doing – it just means that they have a fantastic attitude – which is a massive need, but it’s not the only ingredient needed to be great.

Is too much of a good thing a bad thing?

What if someone were always an optimist at the expense of perhaps some good ole-fashioned reality? Lets look at some examples…

Optimism with money – What if someone had invested in a stock and it wasn’t doing well? A pure optimist, or what some would call an extreme optimist, might stick with it. They may choose to ignore signs that they needed to change course. And, in the end, may lose a lot of money as a result of not heeding advice.

Optimism in health – What if you are an optimist and believed that you were healthy…despite your family history and early warning signs to the contrary? There is a lot of research on the impact and importance of optimism on your health and well-being. Yes, it’s true optimism is good for many things, including lower stress levels, lower anxiety and an increase in ones overall quality of life. But this kind of optimism may lead someone to ignore some really important warning signs relative to their health that, when looked at objectively, may lead to important life-saving changes.

Optimism in life – Ask a newly married couple about their chances of divorce and you will get an almost universally optimistic answer. But, the truth is that less that 50% of marriages are successful. What are these folks supposed to say – of course they will be optimistic when it comes to this aspect of life. Is this a bad thing? Clearly it isn’t a bad thing, but as with anything, marriage takes work. The optimist may think optimistically at the beginning of the marriage but as time goes on “optimism doesn’t pay the bills”…and perhaps they (the optimist) should also ensure that they are being realistic and working to change/improve things as they come up.


Basically “extreme” or “blind” optimists may have too much faith in the future and as a result don’t work as hard to create a safety net, or plan/implement possible adjustments should something not go well. In addition, some of these folks only look at the positive side of situations – oftentimes choosing (or conveniently ignoring) to deal with uncomfortable occurrences. Many times these people do this because they lack coping skills to deal with this reality and as a result it is easier to just look at the bright side and sweep other stuff under the rug.

This is not good for athletes. Athletes must be confident and optimistic but they must also be able (and willing) to adapt should things not be going well.

Easier said than done?

Optimism needs another ingredient

The bottom line is that optimism is better than pessimism and optimistic athletes are by FAR more successful than pessimistic athletes. In addition, pessimistic athletes are more anxious, are more likely to follow-up a bad performance with another one and are likely to have less motivation overall. But too often we look at extremes in things – as if people are either optimistic or pessimistic people.   What if someone were optimistic with a dose of something else?

Optimism is critical, but it is also important to take a realistic look at what needs changing in order to have a quality performance – at that moment! Success in sport is a matter of inches, seconds, and the tiniest of details. As a result, I would argue that one needs to be able to critically look at themself while still remaining hopeful and confident towards that which they are striving.

Building Realistic Optimism

My athletes know there is very little bull ^$%^ with me – I will usually tell it like it is. They know that we are after something and that something is their greatness. As a result, sometimes we have to have some very up front and real conversations.

I am a massive advocate of ensuring one is being optimistic when faced with adversity. I do think it is critical to stay positive in the moment and to look at all situations as manageable. But my definition of positive is different than most – and gets at the heart of my idea of realistic optimism.

I am a realist and as a result I advocate that athletes be positive – but positive in terms of moving forward to find a solution to what may be happening. Sport is never perfect, but of course the quest for perfection is what elite athletes are frequently in pursuit of. If this is the case, then athletes should understand that there will be moments where they may make a mistake, have a bad moment, or give up a goal/point/etc… As a result, I work with my athletes on maintaining optimism under pressure but also to be ready to adapt or change in order to meet the demands of the competition.

Also – I don’t believe that building realistic optimism is just for elite athletes. I think students, young athletes and people in business need to be able to “course correct” if something goes awry – as “things” have a way of happening even though we may not want them to happen.

Take a peek at these 5 simple steps to building “Realistic Optimism” (RO):

1. Maintain optimism. Critical to this “RO” approach is maintaining an optimistic outlook in the moment. If you told me I must choose between optimism and realism I would probably choose optimism, as ones attitude is HUGE when it comes to bouncing back for what is potentially next. In addition, in the moment, one must have a can-do attitude if one is to meet any challenge that may be coming their way in a competition.

Thankfully I don’t have to choose, but as I said, starting with this ingredient is critical to moving forward with RO.

2. Be self-aware. In order to develop RO one must be truly aware of what is going on. Sometimes, in the interest of self-preservation, we don’t deal with the fact that we are perhaps not having a good game/moment. Bad moments happen, and that is okay. But critical to having RO and dealing in reality is the ability to be aware that you do in fact need to course correct.

Get in your own head, see what’s going on, stay calm and make a change — be self aware but also keep telling yourself you can do it!

3. Manage and direct your self-talk. Mentioned above, and critical to this, is what you say to yourself. Everybody has a running dialogue with himself or herself. Many times in big moments this self-talk gets the better of an athlete. Critical to developing RO is ones ability to manage this self-talk and have it do what you want it to do.

A Realistic Optimist will ensure that: his or her self-talk is full of things like “keep after it,” “I can do it,” “you can get there,” etc.the self-talk also has to redirect ones efforts if certain things aren’t getting done. Working to solve problems in games is critical and sometimes it has to be the persons self-talk that is driving this bus – saying things like “okay, try it this way or that way” or just a little more top spin on that ball and we are good to go.” These are specific statements that are optimistic in nature but also positive in terms of what needs changing.

4. Accept constructive criticism – take what you like and toss the rest. Sometimes self-talk needs to be assisted by constructive criticism from others. IF you have trustworthy coaches or mentors, you will get this.

Listen to trusted people’s comments and take what you feel you need. Do not let the comments impact your confidence, hopefulness or optimism but do let them help you course correct (and positively impact your self-talk) if you need it.

5. Make adjustments to be great. Take ideas 1-4 above and make the necessary adjustments. Being a realistic optimist means that you are dealing in reality and sometimes that means you need to make some small adjustments in order to perform well – so do it with a can-do attitude.

Learning to be a Realistic Optimist takes time.   Again, critical to this approach is an optimistic attitude. Once you have this, it just takes a little confidence to try out some other things in order to reach your end goal…and if it doesn’t work, try something else until it does work. You are an optimist, it’ll eventually work out!


I’ll end with this sensational quote about optimism and realism from William Arthur Ward — “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

Expect the wind to change but be prepared to adjust your sails as needed!

– Dr. Lee Hancock

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