There is often a perceived trade off in sport between performance and wellbeing.

Want to be the best? Then prepare to sacrifice your happiness, relationships, and, possibly, your mental health.

Want to look after your wellbeing and be happy? Then give up on your dreams of performing at the highest level. This seems to have become a popular idea for a number of reasons:

Firstly, we hear many stories of professional athletes sacrificing their wellbeing for greater levels of performance. Athletes driven by a fear of failure, an intense and all-consuming perfectionism that keeps them awake at night. Secondly, we all mostly play sport in the first place because we find it enjoyable. But with higher levels of competition comes, potentially, greater pressure to perform. Before you know it, the sport you loved has become a sources of stress rather than pleasure. Thirdly, cricket itself has been described as a ‘sport based on failure’. Batsmen rarely make at least 50 in every innings, despite this often being the goal. With the advent of T20, bowlers must take greater and greater punishment from aggressively minded batsmen.

But does it have to be this way? 

Recent research from the University of Portsmouth has identified a psychological state called ‘thriving’ in some professional sportspeople. Thriving is where an individual experiences both a sustained high-level of performance and a high-level of wellbeing at the same time. So, what kind of the things do some athletes do ensure that they thrive, both on and off the pitch?

1. They have an active awareness of their areas for improvements on and off the pitch – Athletes who are thriving are not people who have ‘made it’. They are in fact always looking for areas to improve their game and themselves. By regularly setting achievable goals, they always maintain a sense of upward progression.

2. They possess and cultivate high quality motivation – Building on the previous point, athletes who are thriving aren’t just motivated, they are what sport psychologists call ‘intrinsically motivated’. In other words, rather than being motivated by external rewards such as silverware or approval from others, their motivation is based on their love and enjoyment of the game and self-improvement.

3. They are focussed and in control – Athletes who are thriving have an acute understanding of what they can control and what they cannot. This then allows them to allocate their time and energy appropriately. Rather than worry about things that they cannot ultimately control (team selection, the performance of opponents or team-mates), they focus on what they can control (effort, positivity, intent), allowing them to maintain focus.

4. They are optimistic – Now this doesn’t mean that thriving athletes believe the best will always happen. The key to optimism is not magical thinking. Instead, optimistic athletes are those who are aware of the best possible outcomes that could happen in a given situation. They hope for the best and focus on everything they need to do to make that outcome happen. But remembering the previous point, they do this while focussing on what they can control.

What these characteristics demonstrate is that, by working on these skills, athletes can both cultivate their well-being and enhance their performance at the same time. There doesn’t need to be this trade-off between performance and well-being in sport.

There are many other characteristics of thriving in sportspeople, and so I would highly recommend
reading more of the research by Dan Brown and colleagues at the University of Portsmouth.

​Dr Darren Britton is a chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist, working with several individual athletes and sports organisations in the south of England. This has included working with many cricketers at numerous levels, helping them cope more effectively with the psychological demands of the game and develop more adaptive performance mindsets. Darren is also a lecturer in Sport Psychology at Solent University in Southampton.