Sport involves a combination of success and failure – winning and losing on the scoreboard or the performance of an individual relative to their peers.  The challenge of athletic activity is how each competition is different and success over the long-term is as much related to how an athlete attributes the outcome as their physical abilities.


  • The outcome of a competition can be explained according to the following explanatory styles:
    • Internality (Internal/External): The athlete believes that they are responsible for their situation or that it is out of their hands.
    • Stability (Variable/Fixed): The athlete perceives that the result can be altered with effort or that it is permanent.
    • Universality (Specific/Global): The athlete feels that the outcome only affects a small part of their lives or that it will carry over into other areas.
    • Control (Internal/External): The athlete thinks that they or their teammates can control what happens.
    • Intentionality (Intentional/Unintentional): The athlete understands that there is a predictable reason why events unfolded as they did.
  • Attributions categorized as Internal, Variable and Specific are Optimistic because the athlete believes that they have the power to change their outcome.
  • Attributions that are External, Fixed and Global are Pessimistic and could persuade athletes to adopt an attitude of “Learned Helplessness” and give up when facing adversity.


  • Optimists have a higher success rate than pessimists according to Mastery-oriented and Performance-oriented scales.
  • Over the long run, when two athletes are close in talent and ability, the one with the more optimistic outlook will perform better.
  • When an athlete adopts a “Growth Mindset,” they acknowledge their lack of success and make adjustments in practice and training in order to do better at the next competition.
  • Positive relationships exist between optimism and success in employment, academic and athletic situations.

Optimism and Sport

  • Explanatory style predicts how athletes and team will achieve relative to their skill level and how they will perform under pressure.
  • Optimists display a more consistent effort throughout individual games and the season as a whole.
    • Optimistic players will perform better than those with pessimistic mindsets.
    • When pessimistic athletes perform worse than expected, they are likely to perform poorly during the next competition (tournament game, race at a track meet).
  • Pessimistic athletes may have a reduced level of motivation after a loss or substandard performance.
    • Some pessimistic athletes hold an attitude of “defensive pessimism” which inspires them to work harder to avoid failure.

Attribution Style for Different Groups

  • Males are more likely to attribute success to internal outcomes than females.
  • Adolescents are especially likely to believe that they cannot control their situation and that the outcome and its effects are permanent.
  • Many elite athletes at the post-secondary and professional levels have learned to become consistent in their optimistic outlook after a negative event.
    • However, they still possess higher levels of dejection, anger and excitement immediately after the negative result.

Creating Optimism

  • Pessimists can be trained to become optimists by explaining their thought processes and how they can adopt a more positive perspective.
  • Resilience training is a long-term process.
    • The first step is attributing success and failure to effort, instead of ability.
    • Athletes must be aware that neither success nor failure are final.
    • Acknowledge that the actions of young athletes can make a difference.
    • Coaches can help athletes develop their persistence throughout the year.

Building a Team Culture

  • Teams and individual have measurable explanatory styles
    • Talk to athletes to clarify not only What happened on the court but How and Why.
  • Define the problem and develop specific steps to correct it.
    • Use statistics and video to provide evidence of progress, even if the outcome is still the same.
  • Empower all team members so they believe that they are capable of changing their own lives and the lives of those around them.
  • Use realistic optimism based on a pragmatic and honest evaluation of the situation.
    • When the cost of failure is high (for example returning to play too early after an injury), unbridled optimism is not appropriate.


  • Gordon, R. A. (2008). Attributional style and athletic performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise , 9 (3), 336-350.
  • Seligman, M. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York City: Vintage Books.

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