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Unfortunately, toxic positivity in sport is pretty rife, especially in the age of social media. You may think that there can be no such thing as too much positivity, that we should be all smiles, unwaveringly supportive and glossing over the bad days to ensure we experience #onlygoodvibes. However, this is not a successful strategy for long term development of both the athlete and the person. Let’s dive in.

What is toxic positivity?

I am definitely an optimist, however I also believe you can have too much of a good thing. Toxic positivity is the term used to explain a trait where an individual chooses only to see the good in every situation and refuses to acknowledge the emotions of others. Phrases such as “you’re overtaking everyone on the couch!” shouted to someone walking it in with a limp and a grimace, or telling someone who is clearly having a very bad day by their standards “you’re doing so well!”, or glossing over some of the less palatable truths of the sport when asked are what I would consider to be examples of toxic positivity. They always come from a well meaning place, and may help those very new to sport or exercise in general, but they’re also very hollow, and aside from a brief pick me up, don’t really help athletes develop as individuals. Toxic positivity can come from coaches, training partners, clubmates, friends or random spectators at events.

Why toxic positivity?

If you watch any film or TV show with a sports episode/theme, there will often be a coach figure. They will usually have a baseball cap, clipboard, whistle round their neck and be very hard to impress. This is the other end of the spectrum, what we’ll call the grumpy coach for the purposes of this article. While grumpy coaches do exist in the wild, I’ve yet to meet a grumpy triathlon coach, and what we see in the media is definitely an over exaggeration. Still, some people will see coaches as distant figures who hold their athletes to unattainable standards, and think “that’s awful”. So what they do to avoid becoming that figure, is they swing to the other side of the spectrum, which can be just as harmful in the long run.

Rather than be the grumpy coach who drops athletes for missing sessions, they’re going to encourage athletes to take all the time they need. Instead of being critical of someone’s performance, they’re only going to heap praise on them. Instead of sitting at the sidelines looking sullen and unimpressed, they’re going to be up close and personal with their athletes, making sure they realise they’re getting attention.

The problems with toxic positivity

Image copyright Carole Hanaff

These habits always comes from a place of love, but can have the opposite effect. If someone hasn’t turned up for a month, maybe they’d like to know they’re missed, or are going through a rough patch and would appreciate someone reaching out to them. If someone’s performance is going downhill, they’re probably very aware of this, and praise for praise’s sake may just make them feel worse. And while it is always nice to know you’re being looked after by a coach, having someone stop you 5-6 times a session to tell you how well you’re doing is going to cause an element of frustration after a while for most.

We should absolutely heap praise upon our friends when they achieve the extraordinary or really put in a great training session, but if we heap too much praise, it starts to become meaningless.

Learning to trust athletes

If a club member says they’re thinking about signing up for an triathlon which you have knowledge of, you should of course encourage them, but equally you should not be afraid to fill them in with some less desirable details they won’t find on the website. If the bike is prone to crosswinds, the swim has a habit of being choppy, or the run is off road and slippery, these are probably things they should know so they can reach an informed decision and prepare accordingly. If they are very new to road cycling and nervous on a bike, they should probably know about strong crosswinds which might blow them about. If they don’t, they run the risk of pulling out of the event if the wind is gusting, crashing, or at the least coming away from the event with a negative mindset. That they didn’t feel safe out there they may never want to do a triathlon again.

Think back to the story of the young Buddha, how his father tried to shield him from all suffering in the world. His father went to great lengths to create a bubble to make his son happy, but it was only when The Buddha left the walls of the palace and spent time integrating himself into the wider world that he achieved enlightenment. Think also of the modern day parent raising their child. They could keep the stabilisers on their bike, make difficult choices in life for them and shower them with gifts in an effort to protect them and preserve their innocence, but will that person thrive in the workplace when they finally fledge the nest and need to provide for themselves?

How toxic positivity stunts growth

In a small number of sports clubs, the toxic positivity becomes stifling to the point that athletes stop improving. If every session is a fantastic session, every athlete is an absolute warrior, and every race is a huge success, we lose one of the most important tools for personal growth. Self reflection.

If I am leading a session and an athlete has a really bad swim, I’m not going to tell them they just had a stinker, but I’m going to make sure they know I’m here for them. This may be something as simple as a comment like “Don’t worry, it happens to us all sometimes” at the end of a session. If they just nod/shrug as they walk past me I know it’s not something I should push. If they start to engage in conversation with me, I can start to help them understand why today was a bad session. I can ask them how much sleep they got, what they ate before the session, what else they had going on today, or they may offer up additional information themselves, maybe they had to put their dog down last night and don’t want someone trying to lift them up? If they skipped breakfast, I can help them understand the implications that has on their swim, which can help them avoid making the same mistake again. If they tell me they only got four hours sleep, I can commend them for the commitment to turn up, but emphasise the importance of recovery, and suggest that in future they may be better off sleeping in next time to give their body a chance to recover and adapt to their training. These are all learning opportunities which could be lost if I had simply told them they did a great job as they shuffle past me with head down and shoulder dropped.

Helping develop trust

All romantic relationships, friendships and professional relationships are based on trust. How can you believe what someone is saying if you’re never sure if it’s true or not? Toxic positivity erodes trust over time, and there are healthier habits we can develop to rebuild it.

The first is to be honest with the athlete at all times. If someone has an absolute stinker of a session and you tell them they smashed it, you’re lying to them. That may seem like a very cut-throat thing to say and I can hear some of you sucking your teeth from here, but it’s true. It may work the first couple of times, but most are going to realise after a while they you’re not being entirely honest with. them, which in turn will make them question all further comments from you. Some people will need some form of praise after every session, but you need to be careful how you word it. Instead of telling them they did really well when they had a bad session, you can praise them for giving it their all, highlight a technical element they’re improving at, or simply an interval they nailed. Language is incredibly important when giving someone feedback, and you need to choose each word carefully. If you are on a ride with someone and they’re clearly fading towards the end, it’s worth spending some time rehearsing exactly what you’ll say to them when you finish the ride in your head, as those words will stick with them for the rest of the day.

The second way to develop trust is to show vulnerability yourself. Whether we realise it or not, we are admired by less experienced athletes, and we need to set an example. By sharing our vulnerabilities, less glamorous experiences and mistakes, we can comfortably move away from being all sunshine and smiles, to helping athletes learn from our mistakes. Joking about being slow won’t cut it, I’m talking about the times you overtrained and were out of action for a month, the time you forgot an important piece of kit at a race, or the time you were sprinting from portaloo to portaloo after one too many gels. As a professional coach it’s in my interest to maintain a certain persona of success, but if I am trying to persuade an athlete to buy into a training method they’re resistant to, I’ll explain the times I neglected it and ended up injured or failing to achieve my goals.

Conclusion

While being relentlessly positive may be necessary when working with athletes who are very new to the sport or who require a specialist approach, toxic positivity in sport will likely stunt their development in the long term. Remember that in sport we are not simply developing someone’s ability to get faster or stronger, we’re trying to develop humans. Trying to make them happier, more resilient, more confident and more productive. Pretending everything is great all of the time may provide them with some short term comfort, but we want to empower them with the skills to take on challenges when we’re not there to protect them.

All good coaches should aim to ultimately make themselves redundant, and the same should go for the athletes we’re mentoring as friends.

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