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The importance of a positive mindset

Optimism. A sometimes maligned word, thanks to the fact that some folk endow it with overtones of naïveté and whispy scents of a goggle-eyed refusal to look hard facts in the face.

When properly understood in the context of the research of the world-renowned Positive Psychology Center (sic) of the University of Pennsylvania, however, it emerges as perhaps the central tenet of that oft-referred-to quality, ‘resilience’.  

In Monday’s assembly, I once again took the chance to take the boys back to a moment in my time at Pilgrims’ as a boy. (How long will they put up with this new Headmaster bloke indulging himself? he wonders…) This time, the moment was a first-ever 1st XI victory ‘Away’ over our toughest footballing opposition. I had even managed to find the match report in an old school magazine! The victory had come thanks to a couple of pretty audacious ‘wonder goals’ from our captain, Tristan. This took me to the theme of positive mindset and optimism, for I had already had a taste of the anticipation of defeat among some current boys when discussing certain opponents. 

Enter, the story of Max and Alex… Max was a pessimist who always approached his sports matches with a negative mindset and believed his team would lose. He’d often say things like, “We always lose to them,” or “We’re going to get crushed.” This negativity affected not only his performance but also the team’s morale. 

On the other hand, there was Alex, an optimist. He had a completely different attitude. He’d tell his teammates, “We have a chance to win this,” or “Let’s give it everything and you never know...” And lo, Alex’s optimism lifted the spirits of his team and they played with more determination, more endeavour and a sense of the possible. 

As you can guess, Alex’s team therefore often surprised everyone and won matches they were not expected to, while Max’s team struggled. All thanks to their mindset. And the remarkably refreshing truth is that this is more than just a nice sporting parable for the prep school ages. As I explained to the boys, optimism doesn’t mean you ignore the problems or pretend everything is perfect. Instead, it means you face challenges with courage and the belief you can overcome them. Actively engaging it as a quality has been proven to increase the likelihood of success in the goal being pursued. In the case of football, this can be taken literally. 

The research of the Positive Psychology Center has identified the following distinguishing factors between pessimism and optimism:  

  • Pessimism means finding the origins of bad events in factors that are about you, are unchangeable and are global (all around and inescapable); 

  • Optimism means finding the origins of bad events in factors that are not about you, are changeable, and are specific to the particular circumstances. 

With five excellent wins out of five fixtures on Wednesday, many boys have already proven their capacity to win, and win well. Tomorrow’s fixtures against Twyford will test the mettle. But it is not ultimate victory that will prove their qualities as Pilgrims. Victory, if it comes, will arise from factors that are changeable and specific to the particular match and players. It will rather be the boys playing with an undying sense of the positive, of the possible; with a mindset that will greatly increase the chance of success, not just against local rivals, but in Life. Making this a global, unchangeable factor; that’s what should distinguish the Pilgrim. Go to it, boys! 

Tim Butcher

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