Monday, 11 August 2014

Relentless Positivity

The new football season is almost upon us. Optimism is rife. In fact, it's never higher among football fans than when their team isn't actually playing and before they are confronted with reality! All they see during the close season is the stuff that doesn't actually contribute to the final table: the players bought or the friendlies against teams they're not going to play during the season. For many of them, the optimism finishes somewhere between kick-off and full time of the first match, to be replaced by a terrible depression as their new players belly-flop instead of hit the ground running.
Optimism waxes and wanes as a sports fan and it only takes one defeat to render a recent winning run as meaningless. If the negativity after one defeat is so widespread, what happens when the team goes on a losing streak? How on earth do players and managers cope with a run of losses which are seemingly never-ending?

 Wigan Athletic fans had a taste of that in the 2011/2012 season when from the 27th August they lost every single game until the 19th November. While a large number of fans were already predicting relegation and no team had ever gone on such a losing run and stayed in the Premier League, there was one cool head amongst it all - the Latics manager and adopted son of the town, Roberto Martinez. After the seventh match in that series, this is what he had to say: "I'm not disappointed with the performance... It is not time to feel sorry for ourselves. It's time to try to improve ourselves, try to change the negative dynamic that's affecting us at the moment. Once we get our first positive result, everything will change." Roberto's legendary positivity took hold and the Latics finished the season with seven wins out of nine games, including victories against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle, and they stayed in the Premier League.
His positivity became almost a caricature in his time at the DW Stadium, as he dared to suggest that his team would emerge stronger from the horrendous injury problems which cursed their 2012/2013 season (they went on to win the FA Cup) and find positives in the most horrendous of defeats in other seasons.
Of course, he's not doing anything new by being relentlessly positive in the face of adversity. Cognitive Behavioural Science has shown us that our thoughts influence our actions very strongly. Negative automatic thoughts (NATs) in our response to situations normally lead to unhelpful behaviour and actions. If we change the NATs to PATs (guess what the P stands for), then we get helpful behaviour and actions. Roberto continues to focus on the positives now he's at Everton and results continue to go his way.

What can we learn from Roberto Martinez and from cognitive behavioural science to help us survive and thrive in adversity? Relentless positivity is hard to maintain especially when you're confronted with a harsh reality day after day. I've tried to show my children the benefits of being positive, especially my younger daughter as she copes with her own adverse circumstances and to do that, I'm conscious of being a role model. It's not easy though. A few months ago, I started an unfinished post for this blog which went like this:
I have to confess to having not felt particularly positive recently. Not necessarily negative but a lot of positive thoughts which I would normally expect to experience have been missing. There's been a simple reason for it on the whole – tiredness.”

When you're very stressed, you lose sleep. The tension makes you further tired. Your concentration goes and before you know it you're having trouble stringing any kind of thoughts together never mind positive ones. You know though you need to keep your spirits up and so ways need to be found of being relentlessly positive. Some people find a gratitude diary works for them (and there is evidence to back that up*) while others like me count ten positive things from their day before going to sleep. I always say that if I can count ten things then I've had a good day. (I've not had a bad day yet.)

It's possible to take positivity in the smallest of things such as a really nice cup of tea, the smallest gesture of love, a conversation with someone, a blooming flower in the garden or an interesting thought going through your mind. It's not about suppressing negative thoughts at that moment (because you'll spend enough time having those), it's just about giving time to be positive. Sometimes I need to back that up with the long-view. How far have I come with my illness over twelve months? What progress have we made with making the house or garden the way we want it? What have I got to be proud of in my life? Give time for these thoughts and no matter what adversity you're going through you will find it helps, especially as one positive thought spawns another. Roberto was doing no different when he looked for the smallest of improvements in his team and he emphasised the merest suggestion of progress.

As my dad lay dying in the hospice, the cancer very nearly having won its battle, the priest entered his room with a solemn look on his face. “Look, Father.” said Dad. “Look at this beautiful sunset over the pond outside.” With those positive thoughts my dad coped with his disease in a dignified and inspiring way. The least I can do is pass that inspiration on.

* Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389 

 photo credit: <a href="">JTeale</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

 photo credit: <a href="">illarterate</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

 photo credit: <a href="">Neil. Moralee</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>


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