Nearly 10 years ago, I advanced the argument that positive psychology has a “natural home” in the military.[i] At the time, I had just finished a year as president of the Society for Military Psychology, Division 19 of the American Psychological Association, and had framed my presidency around the idea that positive psychology — with its emphasis on personal growth, and both individual and team achievement — had much to say to the military on how to develop and train its personnel. Moreover, positive psychology’s emphasis on character development and approaches to enhance life quality were also applicable to military families who face the challenges of frequent moves as well as the strain and anxiety of the soldier, airman, sailor, or marine being deployed to war zones. Traditional psychology, with its emphasis on treating pathology remains vital but supplementing a disease based model of psychology with a wellness and strengths based psychology could only serve to further improve the lives of military members and their families.

Shortly thereafter, along with Dr. Martin Seligman, I met with then Chief of Staff of the Army General George Casey to discuss how positive psychology principles could be integrated into a large effort aimed at improving the mental and emotional health of Army soldiers. From that meeting sprang the roots of an Army program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF).[ii] Based on positive psychology principles, an assessment tool was created to measure each soldier’s fitness in four domains — emotional, social, family, and spiritual. Training protocols were designed to allow soldiers to improve in these fitness domains. Thousands of Army noncommissioned officers were trained to be master resilience trainers, and then returned to their home units to provide in house training for soldiers aimed at enhancing their overall resilience. In an era of persistent warfare, CSF continues as a cornerstone of the Army’s strategy to strengthen the coping and resilience skills of its soldiers.

Earlier this year, in an article on Bloomberg.com entitled Moneyball for Mindfulness: Mets Try More Coaches for Stress Management,[iii] Ira Boudway described the emergence of a new focus on mental skills for the New York Mets. In the past, the Mets’ team psychologist had employed a traditional psychology approach toward helping players deal with anxiety, depression, and other adjustment problems. When he retired three years ago, his replacement, Jonathan Fader, emphasized a skills building approach that seems congruent with the positive psychology model. This notion was reinforced when, recently, I had the opportunity to spend a day with the New York Mets organization, meeting their senior leadership, and discussing a variety of issues related to managing and leading a professional sports franchise toward the goal of excellence on and off the field. In one session, the Mets’ mental skills trainer, Will Lenzner, gave an informative talk about his approach in helping players optimize their on-field performance. He mentioned that the Mets are one of only two major league baseball teams that employs a mental skills trainer, and once again, it was apparent that, while Mr. Lenzner was not using the language of positive psychology to describe his strategy, his approach nonetheless is conceptually consistent with positive psychology.

Max pixel, used with Creative Commons Zero - CC0 permission.
Source: Max pixel, used with Creative Commons Zero - CC0 permission.

As I thought more about this, I began seeing parallels between the military, with its inherent challenges and demands, and professional sports organizations.  While professional athletes, unlike soldiers, do not face mortal danger, the lives and expectations for soldiers and athletes are otherwise quite similar.  Soldiers and athletes must win — second place is clearly not good enough. There is tremendous organizational and social pressure to perform at the highest level and to do so consistently. Soldiers and athletes are members of close-knit teams, which may be cohesive or divisive. There is significant and persistent stress. Both athletes and soldiers spend considerable time away from their families. And professional athletes have the added pressure of constant media exposure, especially in a place like New York City. Hit a game-winning homerun and you are a hero — for a day.  Strike out with the bases loaded to end the game, and you are just as quickly vilified.  Both the military and professional sports offer the opportunity for great fulfillment and accomplishment but also the risk of failure and personal injury.

Today, as I reread my 2008 journal article on positive psychology and the military, I substituted the word “sports” wherever I saw the word “military.” The arguments I present in that article transfer seamlessly to major league baseball and other professional sports. Positive psychologists have much to offer sports teams through helping players, staff, and families identify and learn to use their personal character strengths to accomplish goals, design training to instill positive coping skills that enhance emotional and social wellbeing, and to strive to increase grit and hardiness. As I regularly point out, talent by itself is not sufficient to achieve and sustain high performance. Ask any athletic team’s general manager what differentiates the great player from the average player, and they will tell you that raw talent, while of course important, is not usually the difference maker.  Instead, it is character, grit, and a positive and growth oriented mindset — the very stuff that positive psychologists know how to inculcate and nourish, whether in soldiers or athletes. 

“Moneyball for the mind” thus may be the next revolution in sports psychology. Team ownership and players have the same goal — winning and doing so consistently. Given the pressure and stress inherent in professional sports, teams may do well to tailor a player development plan around positive psychology principles. Mentally and emotionally tough players are more resilient, less vulnerable, and more likely to sustain performance over the long day-to-day grind that is the reality of professional sports.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

[i] Matthews, M. D. (2008). Toward a positive military psychology, Military Psychology, 20, 289–298.

[ii] Cornum, R., Matthews, M. D., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2011).  Comprehensive soldier fitness: Building resilience in a challenging institutional context.  American Psychologist, 66, 4–9.

[iii] Boudway, I. “Moneyball for Mindfulness,” Bloomburg.com, July 21, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-21/moneyball-for-mindful...

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