This is the first of a two-part post series.
As a Sport and Performance Coach, I have found that working with clients from a position of strengths is a fundamental part of growth. This has been an underlying tenet of sport psychology for a long time. We take many of the innate cognitive and behavioral things people do and modify them with a “positive” twist.
Innate cognitive skills such as visualization, internal dialogue, and goal setting can be honed skills that lead to high levels of achievement. For example, the mental ability to visualize becomes guided imagery, internal dialogue becomes positive self-talk, even goal setting is broken into manageable scaffolding segments that help athletes and performers maintain focus and motivation as they measure progress. Dancers can be taught to use imagery to successfully incorporate new and difficult steps into their routines. Students can shift from self-defeating statements after receiving a disappointing grade to positive reflection about effort and improvement, and anticipating making more progress on the next assignment. Athletes can learn to overcome disappointing games by setting high performance goals of personal growth that encourage them to train hard for the next opportunity.
These skills enhance performance in all sorts of arenas from sport competition, to the arts, to academics. And the focus on growth and challenge is also why I often incorporate Character Strengths into my work with clients.
The VIA Character Strengths are noted aspects of personality within all of us. Focusing on their development and use in performance arenas is yet another way to help people use tools they already possess (Peterson, 2013).
Practicing the use of Character Strengths makes one more aware of the dangers of overuse and underuse so as to prevent unwanted outcomes. I have found that incorporating Character Strengths in my work with clients is beneficial for individuals and groups alike.
In both formats, the development of positive thinking is often times done through recognition of positive events that can be linked to the presence of specific strengths, and adaptation of Seligman’s (2011) “What went well” exercise. A focus on signature strengths is a common activity with individuals, while groups often focus on strengths the collective feels will help them achieve common goals. In the latter, public sharing and recognition has the added benefit of producing greater cohesion as all members begin to feel and share appreciation of their efforts.
In recent work with a collegiate soccer team, such character strengths training became an important factor in our work together. The team was graduating several key members and leaders from the team, leaving the coaches with concern of how to fill the void of leadership among the players. This became a perfect situation to implement Character Strengths training as a means of promoting a positive transition of leadership heading into the next season.
At the start of our work, each player completed the VIA Survey and were then asked to spend a week reflecting on moments when they were aware of their strengths being utilized during games and practices (an application of the “What Went Well” exercise).
Once individual players were familiar with their own strengths, the team incorporated a process of sharing and recognizing one another’s strengths. This began with players spending time sharing their personal reflections during team meetings. Players were also encouraged to share observations of their peers when they felt something was noteworthy.
This activity promoted a sense of confidence and cohesion among them that the use of strengths contributed to individual and team play, as well as built a common language about Character Strengths among them.
After several weeks, a team meeting was used to determine which Character Strengths were most important for the person(s) who filled the spot of team captain so as to help the team reach its goals for the next season. Before selecting their leaders, each member of the team was to spend a few weeks reflecting and observing one another during soccer and team activities, making note of effective use of the selected Character Strengths. By using a democratic process, open discussion of important qualities of character, and careful observation of one another, the team was able to select two individuals with a nearly unanimous vote. By collectively taking time to evaluate and discuss the use of Character Strengths within their team, the players became aware of the value of promoting specific use of certain strengths (avoiding underuse), and defining which strengths were most important for leaders to apply in serving their roles (avoidance of overuse).
To the coaches’ astonishment, the captains chosen by the players were the same two they (the coaches) were hoping for based on a combination of athletic skill and talent, as well as the ability to serve as role models to incoming recruits and returning players.