Positive Psychology in Sports: The Surprising History of the Paralympics

Positive Psychology in Sports: The Surprising History of the Paralympics

This article appears on PositivePsychologyNews and can be found here.

The 2012 Olympic Games gifted the host nation with the feel-good factor and now that they’re over many of us have been experiencing withdrawal symptoms or POD – post-Olympic depression as it’s been called.  Even if we are suffering from an optimism bias in the midst of a deep recession there is no doubt that the Olympics has been a force for good and already left a positive legacy.  We now have athletes appearing in the media as role models, who show what can be achieved with effort, tenacity and grit, rare qualities in an era that favours instant gratification and fame based on personality rather than talent or achievement. Double gold medallist Mo Farah, speaking after his win in the 5000 metres, attributed his triumph to ‘hard work and grafting’.  This was no overnight success on a reality TV show.  Fortunately the Paralympics start this week and there is a strong sense that they are coming of age in the year that they return to their land of birth.

In many ways the story of the Paralympics captures the essence of positive psychology as the practical science which encourages us to focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses, our abilities rather than our disabilities.  In 1939 the Jewish neurologist Dr Ludwig Guttmann fled Nazi Germany arriving in the UK where he went on to set up the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Most of his patients were servicemen paralysed during World War Two. There was little available in the way of treatment for them. Life expectancy was around 2 years and patient care consisted mainly of dealing with bed sores and trying to make the war wounded comfortable. Guttmann identified himself with the patients he was treating.  He had had to rebuild his life after the trauma of fleeing his homeland and saw his patients as facing a similar challenge. Guttman regarded sports as a valuable therapy, giving his patients a motivation to build up their physical strength and self-esteem.  Rather than focusing on their injured parts, sport was used to strengthen their unaffected limbs. Guttman was operating in the health model by directing his patients’ attention towards their abilities rather than their disabilities, making him an early practitioner of positive psychology.  Sport was a way to help people play to their strengths as well as building resilience and facilitating the possibility of post-traumatic growth.

Many of the 2012 Paralympian athletes have spoken of the way that sport has given them a new sense of meaning in life Competitive: Wright lost both legs on 7/7 but is set to compete for Great Britainenabling them, in some cases, to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of their shattered life.  In 2005 Martine Wright was working in marketing in London when she got on the tube and became one of the victims of the 7/7 terrorism attacks. Martine lost both her legs above the knee.  Seven years on life has changed beyond all recognition.  She got married, had a child, gained her pilot’s licence and went to Stoke Mandeville hospital to learn to play sitting volleyball, the sport she’s now competing in for Team GB.   “I’m in a very different place now than when I last spoke to you,”  Martine told a journalist on The Observer whom she first met seven years ago. “I feel lucky to be in this place. I have had so many opportunities and life is good.” (Photo of Martine Wright, AP)

The first games were held with just 14 paraplegic competitors taking part in the sports of archery, javelin and table tennis. It had the jolly atmosphere of a garden fete, according to Guttmann’s daughter Eva Loeffler, who is the Mayor of the 2012 Paralympic Athletes’ Village. Having a competition to work towards gave the participants a sense of purpose with all the psychological benefits of having a goal. The games went from strength to strength with Guttmann’s vision being to create a ‘parallel Olympics’, an international competition for elite disabled athletes.

According to his daughter Eva,  Guttmann nurtured one last dream  – that a disabled athlete would take part in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes.  It didn’t happen in his own lifetime but it has finally come true this year in the shape of Oscar ‘blade runner’ Pistorius, the sprinter competing in both the Olympics and Paralympics. “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have” says Oscar, the double amputee who is already inspiring a generation by breaking down pre-conceptions about what is possible. (Photo of Oscar Pistorius, Reuters).

From Strength to Strength
If there is one fact to remember from the psychology of strengths it is this. You get a greater return on your  time and effort from developing your strengths/talents/gifts than you do from trying to fix your weaknesses. And the reason why goes something like this. When you focus on developing your weaknesses there’s a limit to what you can achieve because it’s not something that you have a natural aptitude for. The best you can hope for is mediocrity, being able to manage around your area of weakness. But when you focus on developing your strengths there are no such limits and you’re creating the conditions that will help you excel with ease.  Yet most of the time we pour our efforts into fixing our weaknesses. There are many psychological benefits that come from investing in your strengths. It:-

– Develops confidence
– Generates optimism
– Encourages insight
– Produces positive emotions
– Provides a sense of direction
– Builds resilience
– Protects against mental illness
– Helps you achieve your goals

Seeking out new ways of using your strengths leads to a long-term increase in well-being and a reduction in depressive symptoms.  Dr Guttmann may not have known it but he was an early pioneer of positive psychology, the science of strengths and resilience. He instinctively understood the significant benefits of helping people to focus on what they can do rather than on what they can’t do.

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