Just think positive…. a pitfall for coaches and others as well.

I had a really interesting experience this week while working with my coach and his intern. It concerns the oft used phrase “Be Positive” or “Just think Positve”

There is a tendency these days to emphasize the positive.  Nobody likes a negative Nancy.  It’s also true that someone always has it worse than you. Coaches indeed often repeat a worn out “Think positive” phrase multiple times.   In appropriate context it can really really work.  In the wrong context it can ultimately sink what might otherwise be a winning combination of coach and coached. I’m going to write a bit here about use of this phrase and others and also reflect a bit on why it is so overused currently by coaches.

Lets look at the example of my current experience with our training center’s intern.

Thursday, we walked over to the infinity pool, and she said, “I can see that I’m going to have to get you to be more positive” after I said I wasn’t really “ready” for this pool workout and that I knew it was going to be difficult and new. (It was all of those things, and I still loved it.) I wasn’t sure exactly why I was expected to be jolly about something entirely unfamiliar and uncertain, especially considering I am in recovery currently, not just trying something new for fun. We weren’t going for an ice cream after all.

I decided she probably just failed to understand that I’m in a very early recovery phase from surgery. All activities that I am doing are pretty difficult, when they used to be quite easy.  It is frustrating and doesn’t really engender thoughts of ponies and rainbows.   So I tried to explain it to her. She reflected back a statement about herself. Stating, “Well I will never not be active for 6 months if this is what happens” She also commented that she wished she had seen me prior to the injury, kind of like she did not believe me. Not a whole lot of positivity there.  She mentioned that I should just smile and be happy that I was “working to adopt a healthy lifestyle”.

I got over it again, and then the final straw occurred.  I came in on Friday with a lot on my mind and was trying to focus in to start some small sets, and she looked at me and did this:


I really lost it.  Firstly, I’m working out.  Why on earth does anyone need to smile while doing wall balls.  I LOVE wall balls… but I don’t tend to smile a lot while doing them.  I admit, I was tired and frustrated and being told by someone that I needed to “smile” put me over the top.  I was never really able to refocus on the workout.  I did some stuff, kicked around, was very angry and also kind of mystified as to why was I so mad.

Lucky me, I had breakfast on the agenda this weekend with my friend who is a kid’s psychiatrist. He busted out laughing at how irritated I was, and explained to me why exactly I was so annoyed, then he pointed me to google “Why Just be positive is so annoying!”  And here I present to you reasons for coaches and others to avoid the “Just think positive” pit fall phrase

1. It invalidates the person’s experience. Look here if you are curious about exactly what that means.  The less positive person is told that their feelings aren’t accurate/acceptable and that what you are experiencing is actually something else.  This can be a bit overwhelming, and if that person, like most people, identifies pretty closely their feelings, they can feel a little bit like “if my feelings aren’t legitimate, then neither am I” When someone is going through something…best to let them suffer on through it, rather than to tell them that their suffering doesn’t really exist.  Because telling someone to be positive does not seem to make their experience of emotional distress disappear.  If one is trying to reframe experience it is best to validate their experience and then also mention some positives.

Sample Interaction:

Intern: are you ready for this?

MG: No! I don’t know what we are going got do and I think it’s going to be really difficult to do.

Good Response: It might be hard but I think you are up to it. (inspires confidence), it might even be fun.

Good Response: It’s great that you are able to do somethings now that will move you forward to more things that you used to do. (refocuses athlete on WHY they are doing this)

Good Response: Hopefully you’ll get something positive out of the session that will move you forward. (emphasizes positivity without invalidating concern that this might be difficult etc.)

If you are feeling super duper annoyed by Negative Nancy athlete try this for a response:

“I know it’s hard to feel as if you’re back at square one. You seem to be feeling negatively about it.  I’d like to help you have a more positive feeling about what we are doing now, so we’ll work on that today during your session.”

2. Telling someone to be positive, when they aren’t being that way can shut down communication. If you are a coach or a teacher or counselor…you want your athletes/students/clients to come to you with problems.  If that person believes the only appropriate response is some sort of “happy positive response” they are more likely to simply shut down communication and attempt to solve the problem on their own because it’s only ok to talk if you can say something positive.  If you do not know the person is having a problem it’s very hard to help them with it.  Over time in a coaching relationship…the coach gets frustrated because the athlete appears to be doing their own thing, and the athlete gets frustrated because they are often unable to fix certain performance problems without help but also are unable to ask for the help they need for fear of being told to “just be positive”…. The athlete is considered “uncoachable”  and is at the same time completely unsure of how to become coachable.

As an example

Intern tells MG to Smile and Be positive! MG starts to do some of the more difficult specific exercises on her plan and becomes frustrated saying, “I can’t do this”  Intern tells MG: remove that T! you can! You need to be more positive!

MG at this point walks away or slugs the intern.

BETTER: I think you can do that exercise, you are strong enough. Let’s try again.  This does not open communication, but it does express confidence and reinforces that the athlete can do “it”.

BEST: Is there a specific problem that is going on with the exercise?  Is it the breathing, the placement of your hands, or the initial movement? How can I help you succeed?

Also OK in certain circumstances:  “Suck it up, you can do it, do not be lazy” TOTALLY APPROPRIATE, for MG on occasion.

So… we all agree that thinking positively can affect an outcome for the good.  When is it appropriate to use this phrase?  Is it ever?

I think it is.

When discussing long term goals or prognosis, it is very acceptable to say something like this:

“I’m not sure Jimmy will make the national team this year, but if he continues to work with the team and attend all the practices, and have a positive outlook he will have a shot at it.”

When you are about to introduce something new and difficult – totally acceptable to say.

“Jimmy we are starting something new today and it might seem awkward or difficult.  I need you to maintain an open and positive outlook about this new thing as you learn it.

When things are very uncertain.  It is appropriate to acknowledge the uncertainty and mention the power of positivity.

“It looks as if you might be out for the season, but nothing is certain yet, please do your rehab exercises and think positively and perhaps you will return sooner.”

One last thought…Why has it become such a thing to tell others to be positive, think positive, have a positive mindset?  I submit it is for the tellers own comfort.    The emotions of an injured athlete are pretty raw and usually messy and sticky.  There is a whole soup of regret, fear, doubt, worry, mixed in with everything else.  It can be very difficult to be confronted by these emotions. They may even stir up similar emotions in the coach. We have been taught as a society to avoid pain at all costs  so when a person appears to be going through something painful, we often just want to ignore the person or somehow minimize or mitigate the situation.  It would be easier to go to work and encounter only people who smile and say things are great, but really how great can that person really be feeling after say a season ending bike wreck that left them with a fractured pelvis?  So what is a coach to do?  My actual coach, not the intern has been doing a pretty good job of maintaining a positive feeling for me.  He points out what I’m doing well at fairly regular intervals.  He asks for feedback, and he actually listens.  When I express my frustration or fears, he provides some good reassurance, and we move on.  I suspect he has experienced similar emotions, and I suspect he isn’t afraid of my emotions bringing him down.

What to do about the intern I do not know.  I don’t want to be the difficult client. I want her to learn a bit about interacting with people with different life experiences.  Mostly though I want her to finish her internship and go somewhere far away with her positivity.  What would you do?


4 thoughts on “Just think positive…. a pitfall for coaches and others as well.

  1. You are sonics more patient than I am…I would have told her to go annoy someone else and then I’d speak to the coach about no longer working with her. Ever. I cannot stand people telling me to smile, be happy, or just think positive thoughts. Of course most of my encounters with this are in social settings. I have a verify “serious” countenance and unless I feel like interacting with people, I’m usually perfectly fine sitting back and doing my own thing. It doesn’t mean I’m not happy!

    Now that I’m done ranting on your nicely written and presented post, my actual recommendation would be to speak with her. Let her know how much her constant need for “happy” distracts from your actual progress and enjoyment of your workouts and that as an intern she should use this as a great opportunity to learn how to work with various personalities in an effective manner (which won’t always involve insisting that they smile). Or, if it feels more appropriate, tell your coach (assuming she is his intern) since he should be the one teaching her the ins and outs of the coaching role.

    Mostly I’m just always so impressed with your patience with people. I try, but generally fail miserably. Especially when I’m in situations where the person is supposed to be providing me a service.

  2. Sonics more patient was FUN! I am not that patient. I was actually in shock. And admittedly on Friday it (combined with a particularly bad last 30 min at work) made me cry horribly.

  3. Update: I totally lost it tonight as she approached with her POSITIVE smile. My coach was extraordinarily professional. He did think I overreacted, but he also thought that she had been allowed to become “too personal” and think of me as a friend. I am certain I hurt her feelings a bit, but compared to how my feelings were…we are probably equal, and he really will shore her up completely tomorrow anyway.

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