Promoting positive thinking is something every coach has done at least once. The purpose of doing so is simple. We think that if a player can just envision him or herself making the big play; if only we can picture ourselves being successful, then we can make the big play under the stress of the game. The practice is meant to motivate a player into playing harder and/or better because they’ll want to make what they envisioned become reality.

It’s a simple concept, right? Athletes are not the only ones that use it, too. Students in academic competitions do it as well. Coaches of all types encourage students to “think positively!” The self-help community has even gotten into it, saying if you just think positively about your future, good things will happen. Positive thinking has become the idea du-jour in many competitive arenas.

Unfortunately, as with everything, positive thinking is a little more complicated than this.


Past-Positive versus Fictional Future.

In theory, the practice of positive thinking sounds like a great idea, but there’s another layer of subtlety to it that is critically important in determining whether it helps us or actually hinders our potential for success. There are two ways in which we can “think positively.” We can think of fictional future performance, or real past successes. Looking into a speculative future and imagining yourself doing well on a challenge is the wrong way to do it. This can actually harm your performance by setting expectations that you may not meet. However, when we conduct positive thinking exercises where we look at past successes and remember what it felt like in those situations, it helps us remember what it took to accomplish the tasks and train our mind and bodies to work in a similar manner. “Remember how great it was when you won last year’s science fair?” “Remember how hard you worked to get that trip to the regional competition!?” Positive, real-past talk can motivate future performance. Future speculation can harm your chances at good performance.

According to Gabrielle Oettingen, a professor at New York University, by envisioning yourself winning, “You can seduce yourself into thinking that you’ve already achieved your dream, and that can prevent you from doing what you actually need to attain it.”

If you just envision the future where you’re making the winning shot or answering the final quizbowl problem, you do not think as much about past performances or practice, but this is important and is actually the critical factor in learning from these past mistakes. Anticipating errors and learning from your past errors can help you be more critical of what you're trying to do and correct mistakes before they happen.

But if you just imagine how awesome you look standing at the podium accepting your trophy you risk not engaging your mind completely during the task. Failure to do so will likely lead to someone else standing at the podium and receiving the trophy you thought was yours. If you just envision yourself winning in a fictional future, you are not getting the benefit of positive thinking in terms of correcting your mistakes. However, if you engage in “past positive” thinking, you have a higher chance of correcting those errors and making it to the winners circle.

Believing you can do something is great, but in doing so, you risk not seeing where you went wrong before or what you can do better. You risk devaluing the importance of critical thinking. But it is also important to approach how you engage in critical thinking.


Subtractive versus Additive Counterfactuals.

There is one more layer to positive thinking that all coaches, students, and anyone going into a competitive situation should be aware of. This is the difference between subtractive and additive counterfactuals. We know that fictional future thinking does nothing good for us, but now we have to consider two different types of looking at our past performance.

Inevitably, when we start thinking about our past successes, we're also going to think about our failures. And actually, that's okay, so long as we look at them in the right light. Don’t focus on what you did wrong before, what you shouldn’t have done, or what could still go wrong. This type of thought is referred to as subtractive counterfactual thinking. Instead, try to look at your past performances by focusing on what you could have done to perform better - additive counterfactuals.

Dr. Laura Kray at the University of California, Berkeley and her colleagues have studied counterfactuals and determined that people who look back on their performance with subtractive counterfactuals perform worse than those with additive counterfactuals in future tasks. The key is to think through what else you could do in order to perform better. This helps work through potential scenarios that might happen again rather than ruminating on poor performance you want to avoid.

A quick way to understand and implement having a past-positive view is to avoid thinking things that start with “if only this hadn’t happened,” and focus on things like “if only I had also done this…” That will help keep you and your team in the right mindset to actually benefit from thinking about how to get to the winner's circle!

But with all of this focus on the past, shouldn’t we still believe in ourselves and be able to picture winning?

Absolutely—but not to the extent that we become delusional and fail to see the tasks ahead for what they are, challenges that need careful consideration and preparation. So, next time you hit the robotics competition floor or approach a stage to take part in the next quizbowl competition, don’t just think about winning. Think about what you did to prepare, and in situations where you did lose, what else you could have done to beat the other team? Focus on past-positive thinking!