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Coaching You Toward Optimism

My son and his team of eager 3rd and 4th graders compete in a Saturday morning basketball game each week. I find it delightful to watch them hurl their bodies down the court, optimistically launching the ball toward the rim. I can usually spot the moment they override their instinct to duck as the ball flies toward them. Having little experience with the rules of the game, their learning curve is steep, but they always improve from week to week. As the assistant coach, I see my role as head nurturer, pointing out any positive effort, encouraging them to keep working hard, and reminding them that skipping might not be the best way to move quickly on the court.


Though initially hesitant to volunteer as an assistant coach, I was inspired by my older sister, a practicing surgeon, great mom, and all-around superstar, who had made a similar leap recently. I imagine many parents share my hesitation to sign up for this kind of role, especially as my son has some definite ambivalence about playing team sports.


I was nervous as the first game approached. I loved playing basketball, and still have occasional dreams that I’m back on the court. What if I was expecting too much from my son? Would he feel badly if he didn’t play well? What if he didn’t have fun? What if I was the obnoxious parent yelling from the sideline?


As the season progressed, I began to let go and just enjoy the experience, calling on my training in positive psychology to savor the moment. Developed by Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, positive psychology provides a counter-balance to psychology’s traditional focus on addressing illness and under-functioning. He explains it conceptually as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” He has identified five areas of focus to help us increase well-being, prevent depression and anxiety, and truly flourish in our lives. These include positive emotion, engagement or “flow”, strong relationships, meaning and accomplishment.


Dr. Seligman and his colleagues emphasize that each individual considering these five areas can create their own path to happiness. They encourage us to consider what role each plays in our life, and work to nurture it. For example, positive emotion may be increased by cultivating gratitude, savoring positive emotions, or reminding ourselves of hopeful future plans. Engagement may grow when we find activities that interest and challenge us in motivating ways, or lead to a “flow” state.


One of the positive psychology techniques I’ve applied in my personal as well as professional life is “The 3 Blessings Exercise.” It’s quite simple. As evening approaches, pull out a pen and piece of paper, and write down 3 things that went well that day. It doesn’t have to be life-changing. Just something that, upon reflection, was a positive moment in your day. For example: “The dinner I made was delicious.” Or maybe “I made my bed AND changed out of my pajamas today.” (That counts as 2—you’re almost there!) My family has incorporated this exercise into our dinnertime conversations, and I enjoy the silly, hopeful thoughts our children share. Typically they focus on the best snacks that day, or being allowed a little extra screen time, but sometimes their simple but lovely statements of gratitude lift my mood for the remainder of the evening.


Another concept from positive psychology I try to keep in mind in my work and life is maintaining a “growth mindset.” Fear of failure is a stifling experience for creativity and learning new skills. The more we can emphasize that life is about taking chances, falling down, and getting back up again, the more likely we are to move forward in our lives. Keep in mind that in life, you either succeed or you learn. The only way to fail is by giving up.


After our most recent game, my son and I returned home and joined my husband in the kitchen. When he asked, “How did it go?” I replied “We learned by 6 points.” My son, still smarting from the morning’s loss, expressed that this sounded ridiculous, but seemed to be considering the idea. If we can teach him to see the results of his effort as either success or an important lesson, he is more likely to take chances, challenge himself, and find his own way.


This has certainly been true in my debut attempt at coaching basketball, We have “learned” at most of our games this year, but had a blast doing it together. And next week is another chance to get on the court and try again.



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