“Defensive pessimism” and athletic performance


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


When I first started competing in running races, I used to look around at the other runners while I was warming up and think, “Oh man, that guy looks fast… and that guy too… and that guy…” Gina Kolata has an article in yesterday’s New York Times about this kind of thinking as she and her husband tried their first ever bike race:

The way we started thinking when we saw the other cyclists is a strategy called defensive pessimism, said John S. Raglin, a sports psychologist at Indiana University. He explained that it consisted of “downplaying your ability and expectations.” That way, if you do poorly you are not crushed, and if you do better than you expected, “you get this payoff,” Dr. Raglin said.

He has done studies of track-and-field college athletes who employ the defensive pessimism strategy, comparing them with optimists who think they’ll do well. The pessimists performed just as well as the optimists.

I’d like to read more about this, because it’s a tactic I’ve made heavy use of (to the point that teammates sometimes didn’t like being around me before big competitions because I was such a downer!). On the other hand, recent research by people like Samuele Marcora emphasizes the role of the brain in determining how far you can push yourself, so you’d think positive thinking would be pretty important.

As Kolata points out, these kinds of thoughts aren’t relevant only in competitive settings:

On the other hand, the type of anxiety we felt when we saw the other riders is also a reason many people steer clear of competitive sports altogether — even a reason many avoid walking into gyms, said Ralph A. Vernacchia, director of the Center for Performance Excellence at Western Washington University.

“What you are looking at is a social comparison,” he said.

Like just about anything, I suspect there’s an optimal level of “defensive pessimism” beyond which it becomes truly counterproductive. These days, when I’m feeling nervous before a race, I try to turn these pessimistic thoughts into a joke to minimize their power — or at least, I say them out loud so that it’s obvious how silly they sound. “That guy looks really fast… and so does that little girl… and so does that old guy pushing his grandchildren in the jogging stroller…”

(I realize, of course, that there are many little girls and old guys pushing their grandchildren in strollers who really are very fast. My point is just that it’s silly to judge and get scared based on appearances alone. And the true peace of mind, especially in a recreational setting, comes when you understand that it’s okay if the little girl does beat you — the point is to go as fast as you can, and not worry about what others are doing. But that’s sometimes easier said than done.)