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The Xs and Os of positive thinking


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The college football season is here, and one of the most memorable moments to me was one that did not appear in the headlines. A punt returner made a snap decision to field a punt in a crowd of players. It was a risky decision that did not result in a gain. As the player trotted of the field, the coach approached the returner and clearly said good job. Good job! Good job?

It only takes turning on the news to see how focused people are on negative events, and there are times when it makes sense to pay attention to negative events. If you eat something that makes you sick it is important to remember the cause so you can avoid the same result in the future. It may be situations like this that are why humans have a tendency to pay more attention to negative events than positive events (Vaish, Grossman, & Woodward, 2008).

As an athlete does it make sense to be focused on the negative? What would have happened if the coach told the punt returner to “never do that”? Ironic effect is a phenomenon that states trying to avoid an outcome actually can result in that outcome occurring (Cox, 2007). A study with soccer players had the players take penalty kicks. Some of the players were instructed to not shoot at the goalie, while some were instructed to shoot towards the open space. The players that were instructed to shoot towards the open space were significantly more accurate than those instructed to not shoot at the goalie (Bakker, Oudejans, Binsch, & Kamp, 2006).

Thus, effective athletes are not focused on avoiding negative results; instead, they are focused on achieving positive results. As a player or coach, structure your feedback, instructions, and focus accordingly. Simply, focus on what you want to have happen.

Parker-Tims graduated from the University of Denver in 2014 with a M.A. in Sport and Performance Psychology. He played baseball and basketball and coached winter sports for 11 seasons—both in the U.S. at the national level and internationally.


Bakker, F. C., Oudejans, R. R., Binsch, O., & Kamp J. (2006). Penalty shooting and gaze behavior: unwanted effects of the wish not to miss. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 37(2), 265-280.

Cox, R. H. (2007). Sport psychology: Concepts and applications (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Vaish, A., Grossman, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions arecreated equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development.Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383-403.

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