• Claire Higgins

Building Confidence & Optimism Through Sport

This blog entry is the third in a series on Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity for Mental Health and Wellbeing. If you missed the previous entries, you can find them below:

  1. Sport, Exercise & Physical Activity for Mental Health & Wellbeing

  2. Defining Key Terms in Mental Health & Wellbeing


Short on time? Not much of a reader? Here are the below research article's key points:

  1. Feeling helpless is linked to certain mental health challenges such as depression. But research shows that helplessness can be unlearned.

  2. An optimistic outlook can be learned by seeing positive experiences as permanent, pervasive, and personal. In other words, they will happen again and to us.

  3. Research shows that optimism can have a positive impact on mental and physical health. It is grounded in reality not wishful thinking.

  4. Confidence is about self-belief, standing up for yourself, and being able to regulate your emotions, particularly difficult ones.

  5. Both optimism and confidence are skills that can be acquired through training and practice. Sport offers an ideal training ground for both.

The Positive Impact of Optimism on Mental Health

When people are struggling with mental health challenges such as anxiety or depression, confidence and optimism can dissipate quickly. You may no longer feel like yourself let alone feel motivated to do anything about it. Or you may be stuck in a pattern of overthinking and second-guessing yourself. Will anything ever go right again?

In his work on learned helplessness, Seligman talks about the impact of failure or perceived failure on people's emotional states. Workplaces and schools tend to assume that when failure happens, it is due to the absence of talent or desire. They then focus their efforts on skills acquisition and motivation. These are important areas for staff and students yet failure can also happen when both talent and desire are present but a key component - optimism - is missing (Seligman, 2006:13).

Research shows that having an optimistic outlook on life can create positive changes in our overall mental and physical health, including the ability to adjust to life threatening and chronic illnesses (e.g. cancer, AIDS) and major life transitions (Aspinwall et al, 2001).

Contrary to what people may think, optimism isn't about being positive all of the time. Rather, as Armor and Taylor (1998) found in their research, it is about having optimistic beliefs that are bounded (i.e. grounded in reality), strategic (i.e. in service of a specific goal rather than applied in a blanket fashion), and responsive (i.e. the beliefs are modified to fit a situation). In other words, it isn't about being delusional but rather realistic and choosing to focus on what might go right instead of what could go wrong.

Given the potential benefits of being more optimistic, Seligman and his colleagues (2006) wanted to know if optimism, just like pessimism or helplessness as they termed it, could be learned. If helplessness was based on viewing negative events in life as permanent (e.g. bad things will always happen), pervasive (e.g. negativity is widespread across all areas of life), and personal (e.g. bad things always happen to me), could optimism be the opposite?

Their research found that it was the case. Optimistic people tend to view positive events as permanent, pervasive, and personal. When things go right they expect them to go right again. When something good happens they allow that goodness to seep into another area of their life. And when a positive situation arises they take it personally. Why wouldn't they be worthy of good and positive experiences?

An optimistic outlook is not one born of arrogance, which contains elements of fear and delusion. Rather, it is one that speaks of confidence. In psychology, confidence is often described as believing in oneself and one's ability to meet life's challenges, then following through on relevant actions.

At the Positive Psychology Network, we see confidence in relation to self-efficacy, which the psychologist Albert Bandura (who suggested the term) described as a personal judgment of "how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations." Confidence is also linked to self-advocacy - the ability to represent one's own views, interests, and needs, and the ability to regulate emotions and behaviours. Cultivating perspective and an objective mind cements the process.

All of these states - self-efficacy, self-advocacy, and perspective - require skills training, acquisition, and practice, and this is where sport comes in.

The Positive Impact of Sport on Mental Health

While sport can have a dark side, particularly for elite athletes who may push their bodies to the extremes, this is outweighed by the many positive benefits sport can have for mental and physical health. For the most part despite its competitive nature sport brings people together and provides a healthy distraction from the challenges of life. Whether we are participating or viewing sport, it has the potential to uplift and inspire us. It also has the potential to help us cope better with difficulties and obstacles.

From the perspective of confidence and self-regulation, sport offers a physical outlet for channelling different emotions. In a small-scale qualitative research study on female high performance curlers, which included semi-structured interviews and team meeting, practice, and game observation, Tamminen and Crocker (2013) found that self-regulation fell into two categories: emotional self-regulation and interpersonal self-regulation. This is potentially a game changer for explaining how sport contributes to greater optimism and better confidence overall.

In this study, emotional self-regulation was linked to body language and self-censorship while interpersonal self-regulation was linked to "providing positive and/or technical feedback, humour, cueing teammates about their emotions, prosocial actions and indirect actions." Other factors affecting emotional regulation were also identified, including "length of time together, team dynamics/cohesion, context, social norms and team roles, and seeking support outside the team" (Tamminen and Crocker, 2013).

In other words, what the researchers are suggesting is that a team sport such as curling could create an environment where people learn to manage emotions at a physiological and psychological level. It should be noted that the ability to control emotions is not the same as repressing difficult emotions that might need to be expressed in a safe setting, for example with a loved one or therapist. Rather, in the context of this blog, it is the ability to feel the emotions and choose whether to act on them or not.

Take for example a sticky situation in sport. You're playing tennis or football, or you're boxing or competing in a martial arts, and the referee calls you out for foul play. You disagree but his or her answer is clear. How do you deal emotionally with what could be seen as 'naming and shaming'? Do you accept it as part of the game and carry on or do you fight it until you're red in the face and ready to knock someone out?

What about losing? How do you cope with failure in both team and individual settings? Is failure in a team easier to cope with or do you find you blame yourself rather that the team - including yourself - may have done their best and today just wasn't your day?

It could be said that confidence and optimism are not purely cognitive states; rather, there are physiological dimensions to both. Confidence may be reflected in body language, particularly in a body focused activity such as sport, but it doesn't stop there. As emotions are felt in the body (Pert, 1997) and then processed and interpreted through thought, it makes sense to consider the role of physiology in confidence and its related state of optimism. In this way, both confidence and optimism are embodied states and what better way to practice embodiment than through sport?

The Potential of Sport to Balance Stress

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of sport for mental health is its potential to help us to mitigate unnecessary stress. In the Inner Athletics Stress Model, while some stress in life and work is seen as healthy, serving as a positive driver to move us forwards (e.g. enthusiasm, excitement), too much stress or the inability to regulate one's own emotions in relation to stress is not.

Without regulation, stress can easily turn negative or toxic, spilling into feelings of pressure, exhaustion, and destruction. Those states can affect not only our mental and physical wellbeing but also our relationships with others. When stress is not managed effectively, it can influence our actions and behaviours. Instead of building positive relationships, we may find ourselves running those relationships into the ground.

When key relationships in our life and work turn sour, this can have a detrimental effect on our social network and connections. For those struggling with mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression, the knee jerk reaction may be to withdraw rather than to reach out. Negative emotions of shame, anger, fear, and frustration may take over. Without the ability to regulate and transform these emotions, social isolation can set in.

Feeling and being isolated can limit a person's ability to get the help they need to recover from a mental illness and feel better. An isolated person who is typically wired (i.e. needs social connection and validation for personal wellbeing versus certain neurodiverse types who may not) may stop believing in and standing up for themselves. The longer this lack of self-efficacy, self-advocacy and self-regulation continues, the less likely this person is to get and stay well.

So, how can sport help a person in this state lift themselves up and get back in the game of life?

From emotional self-regulation through sport participation comes the ability to experience emotions in a more balanced way. The physical exercise components of sport, which can vary between different types of sport, aid cognitive functioning and observation skills. In other words, the physical effects of sport can help us to think more clearly, regain perspective, evaluate situations based on fact rather than an overly fictitious mind, and ultimately make better decisions in our life and work.

Socially speaking, sport can connect us with others. Be it a team sport or solo sport, we will usually be surrounded by a group. This group can include our coach or instructor and other sport participants. These participants may be on our side or in competition, both of which give us access to different experiences of belonging and competing for a limited resource (e.g. a gold medal).

Sport can also challenge us mentally, physically, and emotionally. The mental and physical aspects are fairly obvious; we will need to acquire relevant skills and a certain level of fitness, agility, strength, speed, power, flexibility, and endurance depending on what kind of fitness the sport requires. The emotional part is more nuanced. Sport teaches us how to get along with others and deal with difficult experiences such as failure. Winning is great but failure teaches us so much more.

In sport, we learn to get back up every time we fall. We learn how to persevere and show up, even when we're having a bad day. Gradually, we become more emotionally resilient as a result of these cognitive and physiological shifts. We learn new coping skills to process setbacks and disappointments. Over time, we might even realise that competition isn't about winning at all; rather, it is about becoming a better version of ourselves. When we realise this the need to participate formally in competitions might even decline. At this point, a deeper level of confidence sets in. We no longer need the social validation from others. Instead, we can focus on the fun aspects of the game.

We don't all have to aspire to elite or Olympian heights in sport. Sometimes just getting started on a new sport can help us to get out of a rut. For many of us, the last time we participated in sport may have been in our school or university years. As adults juggling different responsibilities - work, kids, elderly parents, partners, siblings, friends, ourselves - having a hobby such as sport can make all the difference to how we feel and how we process the more difficult emotions and experiences that are part of life.

Getting started might be the hardest step of all. If you are considering taking up or returning to a sport, take some time to reflect on what inspires you and what level of challenge you're looking for. Stories such as Tess who took up hockey may motivate you to explore a team sport. Or perhaps a solo sport such as martial arts might be more your thing and the video story of Olympic Taekwondo athlete, Jade Jones, may inspire you to reach out to martial arts teachers in your area and take action.

For those who might prefer less social interaction and more quiet time, solo sports such as running, biking, and swimming can offer positive outlets. While these can be combined for a potentially more social triathlon experience, like in the video below of an average Joe, there is also the possibility of hitting the road or pool alone for long stretches at a time. All you need is a pair of shoes, a bike, or a swimsuit and access to a pool and off you go.

When sport and competition is viewed and practiced in a positive light, they can fire up our inner drive to make positive changes. Sport and competition can propel us out of stagnant states where anxiety and depression dominate, and into more confident and optimistic states of mind and being where anything is possible, including getting well and feeling better again. The key is to find a sport that is accessible and really works for us.


Armor, D.A., Taylor, S.E. (1998). 'Situated optimism: specific outcome expectancies and self-regulation.' Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 30, pp. 309-379

Aspinwall, L.G., Richter, L., Hoffman, R.R. (2001). 'Understanding how optimism works: An examination of optimists' adaptive moderation of belief and behavior' in

Optimism and pessimism: Implications for theory, research, and practice, edited by Chang, E. APA: Washington D.C., USA.

Pert, C. (1997). Molecules of emotion: The science behind mind-body medicine. Scribner: New York, USA

Seligman, M. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage Books: New York, USA.

Tamminen, K.A., Crocker, P.R.E. (2013). '"I control my own emotions for the sake of the team”: Emotional self-regulation and interpersonal emotion regulation among female high-performance curlers.' Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14:5, pp. 737-747.

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Launch of the Inner Athletics Coaching Program!

I'm delighted to announce the launch of the Inner Athletics Coaching Program for Performance & Wellbeing! If you are looking for an educational approach to coaching that is grounded in Positive Psychology, this might be the program for you. It is designed for athletes, coaches, executives, and anyone who wants to enhance their capacity for performance and wellbeing.

The program is a flexible format that can be delivered over a 3, 6, or 12-month period. During this time, you will receive 6 lessons on Authenticity, Strengths, Flow, Resilience, Optimism, and Flourishing. You will also have 6 private online coaching sessions to support your needs and interests. The program is accredited by the Positive Psychology Guild. For more information, please click here.

Would you like to train people at work on Mental Health First Aid and Wellbeing?

For those of you who are working (or plan to work) in health, fitness, sport, coaching, training, or any other related domain, I invite you to check out an upcoming course I'll be leading throughout 2020 at the Positive Psychology Network on Train the Trainer (ToT) Mental Health First Aid and Wellbeing.

This course touches on the positive effects of exercise, physical activity and so much more. You'll learn how to identify mental health risks, create psychologically safe spaces at work, and teach others how to harness their personal strengths to create positive wellbeing strategies for themselves. For more information, please contact: claire@ppnetwork.org

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