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Optimism, Explanatory Style, and Performance: Lessons from Athletes for the Workplace

Have you watched any sport on TV recently? Next time you do, pay attention to the interviews with winners and losers that followed the event. How did the athletes explain what happened? Could their words affect their performance, and can we learn something that we could apply outside of sport?

The 97th edition of the Tour de France started in Rotterdam with an 8.9 km individual time trial – a solo race against the clock. Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss rider nicknamed “Spartacus” and often celebrated for his mental strength, was victorious with a time of exactly 10 minutes. How important do you think his mental skills and self-talk were to this performance?

A 2015 study (1) found that cyclists using motivational self-talk with phrases 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 by 13-71 seconds over a 10km distance.

While it’s not a perfect comparison, a 13-second second slower performance for Spartacus would have moved him from the top step to the third step of the podium. Seventy-one seconds would have seen him languishing in 133rd place.

The words we use matter. Other studies have also illustrated this principle and explored what might be happening behind the scenes.

Psychologist Martin Seligman, often considered the founding father of positive psychology, conducted a study with high-level swimmers to explore the effects of athletes’ ‘explanatory style.’ (2) The researchers sought to determine if the way athletes explain their performance could predict poorer-than-expected athletic performance.

Seligman’s notion of ‘explanatory style’ suggests that we have a choice in responding to events with optimism or pessimism, potentially resulting in more effective responses and enhanced performance. 

The study examined 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, “I started my sprint too late this time” (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 just too slow” (internal and pessimistic) rather than “My team-mate was too slow in the change-over in the relay race” (external and optimistic).

The research found that athletes who employed a pessimistic explanatory style saw a deterioration in performance, while those with an optimistic style did not.

How can we put these findings into practice?

Optimistic explanatory styles also appear to improve resilience, enabling us to recover from setbacks more effectively. This concept applies to sports, our personal lives, and professional performance. There are several ways that we might be able to enhance our performance using the insights from Seligman’s research:

1. Permanence – Resilient and optimistic individuals often perceive the effects of bad events as temporary rather than permanent.

2. Pervasiveness – Resilient people don’t let setbacks in one area of their lives affect unrelated areas.

3. Personalization – Resilient individuals recognise that other factors may contribute to disappointing performance instead of solely blaming themselves (though it’s essential not to avoid responsibility altogether).

The words we use matter and can significantly impact our future performance. Next time you hear an athlete’s post-race interview or reflect on an experience in your own life or work, pay attention to your explanatory style and consider creating a new story to enhance your resilience and performance.


1. Barwood et al. (2015) improvement of 10-km time-trial cycling with motivational self-talk compared with neutral self-talk. Int j sports physiol perform. 10(2). P. 166-167

2. Seligman, m. E. P. Et. Al. (1990) “explanatory style as a mechanism of disappointing athletic performance.” Psychological science 1. P. 143–46.

3. Brooks AW. Get excited: reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Jun;143(3):1144-58

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