What The Clemson Football Program Can Teach Us About Positive Psychology
This blog is written by Kelly Broadwater, LPA, LPC, CEDS-S, a psychologist and Clemson alumnae…
Dabo Swinney, head coach of the National Champion Clemson Tiger football team may not know it, but he is an expert in Positive Psychology. I would venture to say that his motivational tactics are responsible for much of the success of the Clemson football program, a program that has played for three–and won two– National Championships in the past four years. He is the inspiration behind the team that achieved a perfect 15-0 season last year, culminating in the underrated Tigers (predicted to lose by 6 points) trouncing the Alabama Crimson Tide 44-16 in the title game.
So what exactly is positive psychology? Defined, it is “the scientific study of human flourishing, and an applied approach to optimal functioning. It has also been defined as the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities and organizations to thrive”.
The field of positive psychology is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. Sounds exactly like the philosophy that fuels the Tiger football team, who although adored by their fervent fans historically have lacked respect from commentators and the college football community at large. Despite that, thrive they have! Ever the underdogs, they prove time and time again that they have the biggest heart of any team in the nation. After the awe-inspiring win over Alabama for the 2018 National Championship, Coach Swinney had this to say, “When you get a young group of people that believe, are passionate, they love each other, they sacrifice, they’re committed to a single purpose, you better look out. Great things can happen and that’s what you saw tonight.”
Positive psychology researches concepts such as grit and resilience. More and more, researchers are proving that inborn talent doesn’t necessarily determine success. Instead, grit, a relatively new concept in psychology, is becoming the key factor in achievement. Positive psychology defines grit as “passion and perseverance in working toward significant long-term goals”. In 2000, Swinney was let go from his coaching position at Alabama when the entire staff was fired, and briefly went into real estate. He was hired at Clemson the following year and by 2009, was an unlikely choice for the head coach position (he’d never even been a coordinator). Unranked nationally by the end of his second season, Swinney’s Tigers started to climb each year to earn the #2 spot in the country by 2015 and to play for Clemson’s first national championship since 1981 the following year. His long-term goals, established when he took over as coach in ’09, were realized thanks to his passion and perseverance.
What researchers are discovering, and what Dabo Swinney already knew, is that what we accomplish often depends more on our passion, resilience, and commitment to our goals, rather than our innate talents. Take Hunter Renfrow as an example. Once mistaken for a water boy, this 5’10 walk on ended up earning a scholarship and making the heroic last second game winning reception during the 2016 National Championship; he is now an NFL player.
So how does one develop grit even if you’re not a Clemson football player? Positive psychology experts recommend the following:
- Develop a passion. A big component of grit is perseverance. Few people are willing to work tirelessly on something in which they’re completely uninterested. Research has shown that people have much greater work satisfaction and job performance when they do
something that fits with their personal interests. However, it’s unlikely that people try something and immediately know that it’s what they want to do for the rest of their life. An Interest has to be developed and deepened before it becomes a passion.
- Practice Deliberately. Practice doesn’t always lead to mastery. What is it that sets apart those who achieve extraordinary levels of mastery in their fields? They don’t just practice; they practice deliberately. Here’s how to do it:
- Set a stretch goal (a goal that exceeds your current level of skill)
- Practice with full concentration and effort
- Look for immediate and informative feedback
- Repeat with reflection and refinement
- Focus on Purpose. At the heart of purpose is the idea that what you do matters, not just to yourself but to others. Purpose has a pro-social focus. In any activity, there are bound to be setbacks and moments of boredom, doubt, anxiety, and disappointment. We’re more likely to push through the hard times if our efforts give us meaning and contribute to something larger than ourselves.
Researchers have found a correlation between grit and purpose. Grittier individuals were more motivated to seek meaning in their lives, and the contribution of their efforts to the lives of others revealed a powerful source of motivation. One way of focusing on your purpose is to seek out the pro-social benefits of whatever it is that you do. Doing so is linked to greater satisfaction at work and in life.
Swinney is known for giving impassioned speeches during post-game interviews, and coming up with catch phrases on the fly that turn into mantras- “Bring your Own Guts” and “All In” being a few that come to mind.
During the 2018 National Championship parade and celebration in Clemson after the Tigers returned home from California, Swinney said the following: “Why not little ole Clemson? Somebody’s going to be 15-0 one days, so why not Clemson?…I challenged these guys with this quote, ‘So what you can vividly imagine and ardently believe and enthusiastically act upon, will inevitably come to be. The 2018 team is the best ever… It’s not that we won- it’s how we won.’”
Challenge yourself to take a page from Swinney’s playbook, focus on what you can “vividly imagine, ardently believe, and enthusiastically act upon”. You may surprise yourself and others, the same way “little ole Clemson” has.
Kelly Broadwater, executive director of Chrysalis, is a second generation Clemson Alumni and die hard Tiger fan. She has been known to use sports analogies in her work with clients and believes Positive Psychology concepts create “wins” in and out of the therapy office.