Running free: what Usain Bolt teaches us about Positive Psychology

16th August 2016

Photo credit: Cameron Spencer

By Rory Darkins 

Yesterday, the world watched in anticipation as Usain Bolt attempted to become the first athlete in history to win 3 Olympic gold medals in the 100m sprint. As the cameras scanned the line-up, we saw close-ups of the seven athletes seeking to deny Bolt this final glory. Their faces fiercely focused, as you would expect in the lead up to the moment they had dedicated their lives to for the past four years, or more.

And then, the camera panned to Bolt. His beaming smile bringing mighty cheers from the Rio crowd. The cheers grew louder still as Bolt proceeded to pull faces to the camera and jiggle with rhythm befitting of his Jamaican DNA. In this all-important moment, with the expectation and pressure of the world upon his shoulders, Bolt stood out from his rivals. Instead on narrowing his focus, he broadened it. Instead of looking anxious, Bolt looked...well...happy. 

The race began and, as is often the case, Bolt was last out of the blocks. His main rival Justin Gatlin of the USA took a clear lead. By the half way mark, Gatlin appeared to draw further ahead. The world held its breath and the thought of a beaten Bolt became a real possibility. Then, with about 40-metres between him and his legacy, Bolt unwound. As we have come to expect from this great champion, he found another gear, striding through the field, leaving Gatlin and co fighting for silver and bronze. In characteristic Bolt fashion, there was no final dip at the line for a better time. Instead, the celebrations started early as he seamlessly strode through the line and into his victory lap! He proceeded to pose with mascots, lean in for selfies with spectators and leave his shoes with a young fan.

It is difficult not to love watching Usain Bolt. His energy is infectious and the pre and post race antics entertaining to say the least. However, the spectacle that is Usain Bolt teaches athletes an important lesson. A lesson backed up by rigourous research in the field of Positive Psychology.

So, whats the lesson?

In short: positive emotion improves performance. In a world where the prevailing formula is ‘success brings happiness’, such a claim may be quickly dismissed. However, this formula is broken. It is around the wrong way. Research from the field of positive psychology is showing us that in most contexts, happiness actually brings success. See, Bolt wasn’t just smiling, in a good mood and feeling alive after he crossed the line. He was equally as positive when taking his place in the start blocks (I encourage you to go back and watch a replay and compare Bolt to the other athletes on the line).

But how does this make Bolt (or you) run faster?

There are numerous reasons why positive emotion can fuel performance, but essentially the research boils down to the fact that feeling positive broadens the thoughts and actions available to us in each moment (see Fredrickson’s ‘Broaden and Build theory'). To see this in action, think of a time when you felt negative or stressed, what were you thinking? Chances are you couldn’t see past the problem. Now think of a time when you felt really good, what were you thinking then? Chances are you felt optimistic and could see countless possibilities and solutions. This is because positive emotion floods the body with dopamine and serotonin, which dial the brain's creative and learning centers up to higher levels. And when you feel positive and excited about challenges, more blood actually flows to the working muscles, increasing physical performance. 

A recent study from the German Sport University measured the influence of anxiety and happiness of sprint performance. The researchers found that athletes who were induced into a happy state prior to sprinting ran significantly faster than when they were induced into an anxious OR neutral emotional state. Back to the 60-meter mark of the Olympic final, had Bolt been in an anxious state, fearing he may be beaten, he likely would have. It was here, however, that his pre-race positivity appeared to keep him relaxed and in the moment, enabling him to stride into top gear. In the end, eight milliseconds was the difference between Bolt claiming his legacy and an Olympic upset. 

The mini-moments matter, and so does your mood. 

Rory Darkins is a Psychology researcher and coach at Jock Athletic. His research focuses on performance and well-being in elite athletes. Rory has presented at the Canadian Positive Psychology conference and will be speaking at the upcoming Australian Positive Psychology and Resilience conference in Adelaide.
Instagram: @rorydarks