Athletes in the Olympic Games have invested considerable time not just in physical but also in mental training. We'll see them listening to their iPods, huffing, glowering, and meditating before their events. Mentally overriding physical distress and refusing to entertain the possibility of failure is called "championship thinking," and it has paid off for countless athletes. Studies and everyday experience suggest that athletes who convince themselves that they have the potential to reach their goals are much more likely to.

"We believe we are invincible," remarks an unnamed track Olympian in a recording at New York's National Track and Field Hall of Fame. "Because if we go in there with any other thought, there's no chance of us accomplishing our goal."

Such optimism is an amalgam of selective awareness and hope. Psychologists Joanna Starek and Caroline Keating studied how competitive swimmers filter out unpleasant truths—such as the first signs of an injury or the possibility of failure—before they're aware of them. Their conscious minds never come into contact with certain discouraging facts, or if they do, they are able to dismiss those facts quickly.

Those who are better at that kind of filtering tend to be more successful in life—and happier, according to Columbia psychology professor Harold Sackeim. Without a healthy sense of optimism—which seems to depend on passing reality through a sieve—we perish.

The apostle Paul was apparently as fond of athletic competition as we are, and he often used it to impart spiritual lessons: "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training" (1 Cor. 9:25-27). "If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.