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Coaching optimism: Tips from the St. Louis Cardinals’ mental trainer

3 min read


It’s often said that optimistic people are born with the tendency to see the glass as half-full. That may be true. But there’s another truth that’s more important: Optimism isn’t just an innate temperament trait — it’s also a skill that can be learned.

As the director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals during their 2006 season, the year they won their first World Series championship in 20 years, as well as in 2011, when they did it again, I can attest to the power of coaching optimism.

Here are four easy-to-learn and highly effective skills to learn and to teach your people.

  1. Coach them to develop a relentless solution focus (RSF). Within 60 seconds of having a problem-focused thought, replace it with solution-focused thinking. This is the first step to learning optimism. It takes practice, but once one gets into the habit of adopting an RSF, it makes success inevitable. The link between optimism and success comes down to expectancy theory, which says: Whatever you focus on expands. Expectancy theory has proved over and over again that when people focus on problems, their problems actually grow and reproduce. Focusing on solutions generates more solutions.
  2. Teach them to find one improvement to the situation. Learning to be solution-focused is easier than being relentless and consistent about it. Here’s a tool for becoming relentless: Anytime you catch yourself focusing on a problem, negativity or self-doubt, ask yourself this question: What’s the one thing I can do differently that could make this situation better? This technique is known as “replacement thinking.” Replacement thinking is a way of seizing control of one’s mind — in this case, negative, problem-centric thinking — and erasing those thoughts.
  3. Train them to acknowledge any improvement in the current situation. Most people want a solution that produces complete resolution. That’s like trying to climb a mountain in one step. The way to help people embrace optimism, positive thinking and success orientation is to get them to see any improvement in the situation as a solution. When your people become accustomed to looking for improvement, it trains their minds to focus away from the problem and toward the solution.
  4. Encourage them to recognize “done wells.” Get your people in the habit of recognizing their “done wells.” Ask them to take a few seconds per day to ask the question, “What have I done well today?” This simple gesture reinforces optimism on a daily basis. The answers inevitably add up to help them develop self-confidence, which, in turn, is extremely important for high-level performance.

Coaching your people to master these four simple techniques will make an enormous difference in their performance, workplace attitudes and happiness. Drill them frequently to find out how well they’re incorporating optimism skills into their daily work habits.

When someone brings up a problem, have them rephrase it as a search for possible solutions. Ask them, “What’s the one thing we could be doing better?” Ask about improvements to the current situation, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. And, finally, get them to acknowledge small achievements and successes on a daily basis.

This is how you coach optimism.

Jason Selk, Ed.D., trains companies and organizations — including the world’s finest athletes, coaches and business leaders — on how to achieve optimal performance. He’s the best-selling author of “10-Minute Toughness” (McGraw-Hill, 2008) and “Executive Toughness” (McGraw-Hill, 2011). He’s a regular television and radio contributor to ABC, CBS, ESPN and NBC and has appeared widely in print. Learn more at