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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes and Implications for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Performance

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Abstract

This chapter focuses on the potential benefits of gratitude cultivation and expression in the sport context, as it pertains to the positive mental health and well-being of individual athletes and teams. Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) that aim to cultivate grateful thoughts, feelings, and actions have demonstrated positive effects on mental and physical health among youth, college-age, and adult populations. Some of these benefits include increased life satisfaction, social connectedness, positive affect, resilience, altruism, better quality of sleep, and reduced psychological distress. Specifically, in the athletic population, recent research has shown that athletes who have higher levels of gratitude also report greater social support, life and sport satisfaction, team cohesion, and lower levels of burnout. Framed within the context of Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, the author will discuss how gratitude can broaden athletes’ perspectives by noticing the good, and build their resources by increasing the perception of available support. The literature on gratitude PPIs to date will be discussed, considering specific implications for athletic populations. Potential applications for sport psychologists and other practitioners working in a performance context will be provided. Finally, the author will provide caveats and considerations of implementing gratitude PPIs among sport and performance populations, including limitations of the current body of literature, contextual factors, and future directions. Overall, this chapter emphasizes that the utilization of positive psychology in sport may be advantageous for athletes, coaches, and teams, and calls for further empirical study and applied focus in this area.
Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology
for Athletes and Implications for Mental
Health, Well-Being, and Performance
Nicole T. Gabana
Abstract This chapter focuses on the potential benefits of gratitude cultivation and
expression in the sport context, as it pertains to the positive mental health and well-
being of individual athletes and teams. Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) that
aim to cultivate grateful thoughts, feelings, and actions have demonstrated positive
effects on mental and physical health among youth, college-age, and adult popula-
tions. Some of these benefits include increased life satisfaction, social connectedness,
positive affect, resilience, altruism, better quality of sleep, and reduced psycholog-
ical distress. Specifically, in the athletic population, recent research has shown that
athletes who have higher levels of gratitude also report greater social support, life
and sport satisfaction, team cohesion, and lower levels of burnout. Framed within
the context of Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, the
author will discuss how gratitude can broaden athletes’ perspectives by noticing the
good, and build their resources by increasing the perception of available support. The
literature on gratitude PPIs to date will be discussed, considering specific implica-
tions for athletic populations. Potential applications for sport psychologists and other
practitioners working in a performance context will be provided. Finally, the author
will provide caveats and considerations of implementing gratitude PPIs among sport
and performance populations, including limitations of the current body of literature,
contextual factors, and future directions. Overall, this chapter emphasizes that the
utilization of positive psychology in sport may be advantageous for athletes, coaches,
and teams, and calls for further empirical study and applied focus in this area.
Keywords Sport psychology ·Athlete ·Mental health ·Well-being ·Performance
N. T. Gabana (B)
Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
e-mail: ngabana@fsu.edu
This is a U.S. government work and not under copyright protection in the U.S.;
foreign copyright protection may apply 2019
L. E. Van Zyl and S. Rothmann Sr. (eds.), Theoretical Approaches
to Multi-Cultural Positive Psychological Interventions,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3- 030-20583- 6_15
345
ngabana@fsu.edu
346 N. T. Gabana
1 Introduction
Sport psychology, which has roots in the fields of psychology and sport science, is
similar to positive psychology in that it seeks to understand the mechanisms under-
lying optimal human performance, specifically in the kinesthetic realm. The broader
domain of performance psychology may additionally include musical performance,
military performance, or surgical performance, to name a few; however, for the pur-
poses of this chapter, the integration of positive psychology specifically as it relates
to the realm of sport domain will be discussed. Just as sport psychology is con-
cerned with studying what aspects lead to optimal mental and physical performance,
the science of positive psychology seeks to investigate what factors contribute to
optimal human functioning, societal flourishing, and subjective, psychological, and
social well-being. Since its origin, positive psychology has been primarily concerned
with studying human flourishing in order to move toward a deeper understanding of
human potential and well-being (Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2006). This
is in contrast to the longstanding psychopathology model which has focused much
energy on identifying, understanding, and treating disorders of the human mind and
symptom amelioration (Waterman, 2013).
The field of sport psychology has focused on understanding the characteristics
needed for optimal performance in sport, as well as enhancement of athlete mental
health and well-being (Aoyagi, Portenga, Poczwardowski, Cohen, & Statler, 2012).
Since positive psychology has focused on understanding psychological functioning
at its best (i.e., flourishing; Keyes, 2002), it shares a common interest with sport
psychology. Both domains can be used prescriptively (i.e., to address a problem),
preventatively (i.e., to prevent a problem), as well as for enhancement (i.e., to make
what is already good, better). For example, a person may seek a sport psychologist
to promote multicultural awareness among team members (preventative), to address
performance anxiety (treatment), or to achieve optimal attentional focus during a
game (enhancement). Similarly, positive psychology can be applied in all three con-
ditions as well, and offers a unique perspective to applied sport psychology given its
roots in the optimization of human strengths. Interventions associated with positive
psychology concepts such as gratitude, optimism, and hope have been related to
positive outcomes in a variety of clinical circumstances (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009).
Recently, sport psychology researchers and professionals have discovered that bor-
rowing concepts and techniques from the positive psychology literature may offer
valuable insight and intervention strategies for addressing sport and performance
concerns.
Similar to traditional psychopathology, sport often preaches an improvement men-
tality (i.e., how to fix what is going wrong). Directing attention to areas of improve-
ment is an integral part of sport, whether performing or coaching. Much can be
gained from addressing weaknesses or problem areas; however, spending time iden-
tifying strengths and successful experiences can be just as informative and effective
in the performance enhancement process (Wagstaff & Leach, 2015). Wagstaff and
Leach (2015) advocated for a strengths-based model among performers and acknowl-
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 347
edged that while focusing on minimizing, correcting, or eliminating weakness can
be conducive to high performance, the development of strengths is crucial to the
improvement process. Researchers advised that “positive psychological phenomena
need not be emphasized at the cost of exploring pathology” (p. 79), arguing for an
integration and alignment of both strengths- and pathological-based research in per-
formance arenas. Sport psychology practitioners have long encouraged a balanced
perspective; that is, for athletes and coaches to not only identify what can be better,
but to also examine what is going well in order to repeat successful behaviors in the
future. In this way, merging two fields both focused on optimizing human potential
(i.e., positive psychology and sport psychology) seems to be a natural and appropriate
fit.
Within the field of positive psychology, the concept of gratitude has most notably
drawn attention in the past two decades from researchers and practitioners alike. Inte-
grating the fields of positive psychology and sport psychology, this chapter focuses
on the relevance of gratitude to the sport context, specifically its relationship to athlete
mental health, well-being, and performance. To this aim, an overview of the litera-
ture on positive emotions, gratitude, and gratitude interventions will be provided to
present a theoretically-guided rationale for the relevance of gratitude in sport. Next,
the empirical literature on athlete gratitude will be reviewed to date, including the
potential applicability of gratitude interventions in sport. Practical implications for
the unique athlete population will be discussed, with particular attention to athlete
mental health, well-being, and performance. The chapter concludes with guidelines
for athletes, coaches, parents, and sport psychology practitioners, implications for
future research, and a conclusion of key points.
2 Review of Literature
In a meta-analysis of nearly 300 empirical studies on positive affect, researchers
found that positivity is not only related to success in life, but also predicts it
(Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Therefore, it is not enough to say that success-
ful people happen to experience more positive emotions, but rather that experiencing
positive emotions can, in fact, lead to greater success. Fredrickson (2001) reported
that positive emotions can have an “undoing” effect on negative emotions, even to the
point of improving physical health as well as psychological well-being. Researchers
found that when people experience positive emotion immediately following a high-
activation negative emotion (eliciting a physiological response), the cardiovascular
system tends to recover more quickly (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998; Fredrick-
son, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000). Athletes may experience an amalgam
of positive and negative thoughts and emotions within the context of performance.
Therefore, combatting negative self-talk with more positive, productive thoughts
may have an enhancing effect on performance and general athlete well-being.
According to Barbara Fredrickson, a prominent U.S. researcher, author, and pro-
fessor of positive psychology, experiencing positive emotions affects our cognition
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348 N. T. Gabana
in two major ways: (1) positive emotions broaden our conceptualization of a given
situation, expanding our ideas and potential actions; and (2) build our network of
resources by encouraging the development and utilization of strengths, abilities, and
reserves (Fredrickson, 2001,2004). The Broaden and Build Theory purports that
positive emotions facilitate problem-solving through enhanced creativity, since we
tend to view a greater range of possibilities (e.g., solutions) when experiencing posi-
tive emotions as compared to negative emotions. In contrast, negative emotions tend
to narrow our focus, which has served an adaptive evolutionary function to protect us
from potential threat or harm. For example, experiencing fear or anxiety after seeing
a bear on a hike would narrow attentional focus, allowing one to concentrate on the
best possible escape route. Negative emotions serve a purpose; however, in modern
society, negative emotion may impede our ability to consider a range of possibil-
ities and think creatively during problem-solving and decision-making processes,
especially in situations which are not dangerous or life-threatening. Wagstaff and
Leach (2015) proposed that cultivating positive emotions during stressful times may
actually enhance an individual’s ability to cope with adversity, and foster facilitative
cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses in the faceof challenge. Adversity is
inevitable in competitive sport; therefore, finding ways to cultivate positive emotion
in sport may be particularly conducive to optimal athletic performance, as well as
athlete mental health and well-being.
In addition to broadening one’s mindset, positive emotions can help build and
utilize valuable resources to achieve positive outcomes (Fredrickson, 2001). For
example, experiencing the emotion of hope during times of trial may inspire one to
draw upon one’s strengths during a difficult situation (Wagstaff & Leach, 2015). Con-
sider the challenge of acquiring a new skill in sport; maintaining a positive attitude or
bringing humor into the situation may increase “stick-with-it-ness” throughout the
challenging process (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2012). Additionally, finding ways to cultivate
positivity amongst athletes on a team may produce benefits for group dynamics, team
cohesion, and interpersonal functioning, since PPIs have been associated with bet-
ter relationships and higher levels of interpersonal connectedness (Fincham, 2000;
Fredrickson, 2009; Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010) and enhanced subjective and
psychological well-being (Bolier et al., 2013). In addition to potential psychological
and social benefits, PPIs may hold potential implications for performance as well. In
a meta-analysis of sport-specific interventions, researchers reported that psycholog-
ical and psychosocial interventions have been shown to enhance sport performance,
with larger effects for those which included an active social component (Brown &
Fletcher, 2017).
2.1 Gratitude
Of the number of positive psychology topics examined in recent years (e.g., resilience,
grit, mindfulness), gratitude remains relatively understudied in the context of sport.
Trait gratitude can be conceptualized as a “life orientation towards noticing and
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 349
appreciating the positive in life,” rather than merely feeling appreciation toward oth-
ers (Wood et al., 2010, p. 3). While this defines gratitude as a disposition, gratitude
can also be a state of feeling, or an act outwardly directed toward another (e.g.,
writing a gratitude letter, saying ‘thank you’) or expressed privately (e.g., gratitude
journaling). Other researchers define gratitude as the “sense of thankfulness that
arises in respond to receiving any kind of personal benefit (be it material or nonma-
terial) as a result of any transactional means (be it a personal encounter with another
person, with nature, with an object, or even with ideas)” (Furlong, You, Renshaw,
O’Malley, & Rebelez, 2013, p. 755). There is a general consensus in the positive
psychology literature that gratitude is a good indicator of subjective well-being (i.e.,
happiness) given its numerous associations with other positive social, physical, and
mental health indicators such as optimism, life satisfaction, social connectedness,
hope, forgiveness, prosocial behavior, sleep quality, and positive affect; in addition,
gratitude has been negatively correlated with measures of personal and social ill-
being such as depression, anxiety, negative affect, materialism, aggression, burnout,
envy, and psychological distress (Algoe, Gable, & Maisel, 2010; DeWall, Lambert,
Pole, Kashdan, & Finchman, 2012; Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008; Froh, Yurkewicz,
& Kashdan, 2009; Gabana, Steinfeldt, Wong, & Chung, 2017; Lanham, Rye, Rimsky,
& Weill, 2012; McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002; Wood et al., 2010).
More recently, gratitude has been connected to resilience, suggesting that gratitude
may serve as a protective factor and/or coping mechanism in the face of adversity. In a
study surveying U.S. college students 4-months after a campus shooting, researchers
found resilience to be a buffer (i.e., mediator) between trauma exposure and post-
traumatic stress. Similarly, gratitude positively mediated the relationship between
posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth, in that participants who reported
higher levels of trait gratitude indicated more positive growth following the trauma
(Vieselmeyer, Holguin, & Mezulis, 2017). In this way, resilience and gratitude may
work hand in hand, with the former preventing negative outcomes and the latter
promoting positive outcomes after a traumatic event (Vieselmeyer et al., 2017). In a
related study among undergraduate students in India, trait gratitude was found to be
a significant predictor of resilience (Gupta & Kumar, 2015). Results of a multiple
regression analysis revealed that predictors of gratitude, acceptance, and forgiveness
accounted for 66% of the variance in resilience scores, with gratitude emerging as the
largest predictor of resilience among the three. Given that resilience is recognized as
a highly valued and desired trait among athletes both on and off the field (Wagstaff
& Leach, 2015), further empirical investigation of the relationship between gratitude
and resilience in sport is warranted. Particularly, gratitude intervention researchers
should consider measuring resilience as an outcome variable in future studies, both
in general and sport-specific populations. In the next section, a summary of gratitude
intervention research will be provided, with consideration of implications for sport.
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350 N. T. Gabana
2.2 Gratitude Interventions
In some of the earliest research on gratitude interventions, Emmons (1999) found that
undergraduate students who wrote down five things they felt grateful for in the past
week were significantly more optimistic and felt better about their lives in general,
compared to students who wrote down either five general events or five stressors
that occurred during the week. Additionally, the gratitude group had lesser somatic
complaints, spent more time exercising, and reported making more progress toward
goals than the other two groups (Emmons, 1999). PPIs aimed at cultivating gratitude
have demonstrated a number of intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits, specifically
increased subjective well-being, lower depression, positive emotions, and stronger
interconnectedness with others (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005; Wood
et al., 2010). In a review of cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies
focused on gratitude, Wood et al. (2010) reported a number of psychological and
physical benefits correlated with gratitude; specifically, trait gratitude was associated
with better health outcomes (e.g., better quality of sleep), greater life satisfaction,
lower risk of mental illness, and better quality relationships. Additionally, numerous
studies have reported associations between gratitude and a range of variables such as
enhanced enthusiasm, alertness, energy, goal attainment, determination, emotional
closure, better psychotherapy outcomes, positive affect, perceived social support,
and altruism (Wood et al., 2010).
While interventions aimed at increasing gratitude (e.g., gratitude lists, grateful
contemplation, expressing gratitude behaviorally) have been linked to enhanced well-
being, it is unclear how their effectiveness compares to a control group or other types
of interventions (Wood et al., 2010). In a meta-analysis of gratitude interventions,
Davis et al. (2016) cautioned researchers from overemphasizing the potential effects
of gratitude on positive outcomes, as their analysis found gratitude interventions to
be “marginally better” than a matched-activity comparison group (p. 24) for improv-
ing psychological well-being. Furthermore, Davis et al. found that “gratitude inter-
ventions did not outperform psychologically active conditions” (p. 26). However,
Dickens (2017) pointed out that a major limitation of Davis et al. (2016) was that
researchers grouped positive, negative, and neutral conditions into one comparison
group, which distorted results. Dickens claimed that “valence of the comparison
group is likely to influence the magnitude of the effect sizes” (p. 195); therefore, she
conducted a meta-analysis to compare gratitude interventions with neutral, negative,
and positive comparison groups.
Using 56 meta-analyses, Dickens (2017) included 38 studies with 282 effect sizes,
finding mixed results for the effectiveness of gratitude interventions on various mark-
ers of well-being. Specifically, Dickens reported that when post-intervention scores
were compared to a neutral condition group, gratitude interventions had notably
higher effects on the variables of grateful mood, life satisfaction, positive affect, hap-
piness, optimism, quality of relationships, dispositional gratitude, and overall well-
being; the gratitude intervention group also demonstrated lower levels of depression
than neutral conditions. Contrary to previous reports, however, Dickens (2017)did
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 351
not find gratitude interventions to be more impactful on physical health, exercise, or
stress. She also examined these effects at a delayed follow-up time point, and found
that some positive effects of the gratitude intervention group (i.e., higher well-being
and happiness, lower depression) were sustained longer than the neutral comparison
group.
When compared to a negative intervention group at post-intervention, gratitude
interventions demonstrated similar effects for both positive and negative variables
above and beyond negative interventions, with small differences in physical health,
prosocial behavior, and sleep in favor of the gratitude intervention condition (Dick-
ens, 2017). Grateful mood was the only positive outcome that demonstrated a notable
difference at the delayed follow-up. When gratitude interventions were compared to
a positive intervention group, the gratitude intervention group showed a substantial
difference in enhanced well-being, but differences on outcomes of other variables
were not found (i.e., quality of relationships, life satisfaction, happiness, grateful
mood, positive and negative affect, depression, optimism, stress, self-esteem, phys-
ical health, and sleep). At a delayed follow-up, a small difference in well-being was
observed. Therefore, Dickens (2017) concluded that gratitude interventions do not
seem to demonstrate more effectiveness than other types of positive interventions,
such as strengths-based activities.
With these caveats and considerations in mind, it is still apparent that utilizing
gratitude PPIs within a sport context might be advantageous in providing athletes
with strategies and coping skills to target desired outcomes relevant to sport per-
formance. While many empirical studies have consisted of one-time interventions
such as making a gratitude list (e.g., Gabana, Steinfeldt, Wong, Chung, & Svetina,
2018), gratitude journaling (e.g., Lambert, Fincham, & Stillman 2012), writing grat-
itude letters (e.g., Wong et al., 2018), or writing down “three good things” (e.g.,
Seligman et al., 2005), researchers have suggested that multi-session gratitude pro-
grammes may be more likely to have lasting effects due to increased dosage (Davis
et al., 2016). For example, Rash, Matsuba, and Prkachin (2011) found that repeated
gratitude contemplation over the course of a 4-week intervention programme signif-
icantly increased self-esteem and life satisfaction in comparison to a control group.
In this study, participants in the gratitude group were asked to think about what they
were grateful for (e.g., people, items, events) and “to experience and maintain the
sincere heart-felt feelings of gratitude associated with that thought” (p. 358). After
this reflection, participants were asked to journal about their experiences of gratitude
for at least 5 min, twice a week for 4 weeks (Rash et al., 2011). Multi-session inter-
ventions involving repeated gratitude activities may be more effective at promoting
a grateful disposition because of their potential to produce a habit through repeated
practice.
State gratitude may serve as a buffer for stress because it has been found to
moderate the relationship between stress and variables such as self-esteem, worry,
adjustment, and negative affect (Nezlek, Krejtz, Rusanowska, & Holas, 2019). In this
study, Nezlek et al. had 131 psychologically healthy adults report their daily events,
how grateful they felt that day, and daily well-being over the course of 2 weeks.
Researchers found that on days when people reported higher levels of felt gratitude,
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352 N. T. Gabana
the relationship between daily stressful events and self-esteem and depressogenic
adjustment were weaker. This was also the case for correlations between stress and
worry and negative affect. Furthermore, the strength of the relationships between
gratitude and worry, negative affect, and depressogenic adjustment were stronger on
days when participants reported less positive events. This means that higher levels
of daily (state) gratitude can have a positive impact on the way people experience
negative events. Nezlek et al. purported that feelings of gratitude can compensate
for having a less positive day, congruent with previous findings (e.g., Lambert et al.,
2012).
Gratitude has also been studied in the youth population, specifically. A longi-
tudinal study on U.S. high school students found that higher levels of gratitude in
adolescents were associated with better adjustment, social relationships, and psy-
chological well-being (Bono, Froh, & Emmons, 2012). Researchers reported that
gratitude predicted higher levels of positive emotions, happiness, and life satisfac-
tion at the end of high school. Specifically, students who developed more gratitude
throughout high school, based on self-report data, demonstrated better behaviour in
school (e.g., not cheating), including behaviour toward peers (e.g., not teasing; Bono
et al., 2012). Other studies have linked gratitude to higher levels of optimism and
life satisfaction, and lesser physical complaints and negative affect in young adults
(Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Gratitude interventions have also produced posi-
tive effects in elementary school students, with a five-session gratitude curriculum
resulting in higher levels of positive affect, grateful thinking, and behavioural grat-
itude expression. Researchers emphasized that “education that facilitates cognitive
appraisals that produce gratitude should be encouraged as early in life as possi-
ble so that young persons have a head start toward becoming mature receivers and
providers of benevolent actions” (Froh et al., 2014, p. 148). Since trait gratitude can
be increased with intentional practice over time, developing a grateful mindset at an
early age may pay dividends for coping with adversity later in life.
Much of the data on correlates of gratitude and the effects of gratitude interven-
tions have been collected on college students in the U.S. Recently, researchers have
even investigated the neural correlates of gratitude, providing evidence that both the
experience and expression of gratitude ignite particular parts of the brain associated
with moral cognition and positive emotion, such as the anterior cingulate cortex and
the medial prefrontal cortex (Fox, Kaplan, Damasio, & Damasio, 2015; Kini, Wong,
McInnis, Gabana, & Brown, 2016). Kini et al. additionally found that participants in
a gratitude letter writing condition demonstrated increased behavioural expressions
of gratitude (operationalized by a “Pay it Forward” activity measuring the amount of
money participants decided to pass on to a third party, from what they received from
a benefactor) and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in compari-
son to a control group. This means that when participants were making the decision
about how much money to give, more neural activity was observed in the region of
the brain correlated with self-reported gratitude.
Gratitude interventions have also been found to result in improved mental health
outcomes for college students. Effects on both measures of well-being and ill-being
have been indicated, such as greater optimism, school connectedness, happiness, life
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 353
satisfaction; and lesser stress, depressive symptoms, and negative affect, respectively
(Renshaw & Hindman, 2017; Renshaw & Rock, 2018). Gratitude has also been linked
to lower levels of depression and anxiety among the general adult population (Petroc-
chi & Couyoumdjian, 2016). Interestingly, researchers suggested that gratitude may
be a protective factor against psychopathology because of its ability to foster a less
critical and more compassionate attitude, both toward oneself and others (Petrocchi
& Couyoumdjian, 2016). This aligns with mindfulness and acceptance-based thera-
peutic approaches which have demonstrated intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits
on mental health, well-being, and performance in both general and sport-specific
domains (e.g., Baltzell & Akhtar, 2014; Gardner & Moore, 2012;Neff,2003; Noetel,
Ciarrochi, Van Zanden, & Lonsdale, 2017). Of particular note, a recent multi-session
gratitude intervention entitled the “Gratitude Group Program” was tested among col-
lege students who attended a series of five 90-min sessions, conducted once per week
for 5 weeks (Wong, McKean Blackwell, Goodrich Mitts, Gabana, & Li, 2017). This
study was the first of its kind to focus on cultivating gratitude as its core goal, within
a group therapeutic model. Sessions included didactic, discussion-based, interper-
sonal, and experiential components, in addition to weekly homework assignments to
encourage gratitude practice between sessions (e.g., writing down three good things,
five times per week). Session topics included micro and macro gratitude, interper-
sonal gratitude, gratitude savouring, and redemptive gratitude. Results revealed that
after participating in the Gratitude Group Program, participants exhibited significant
improvements in state and trait gratitude, life satisfaction, and meaning in life, and
decreased levels of psychological distress post-intervention (Wong, McKean Black-
well et al., 2017). Similar multi-session programs may be designed and tailored to
the athlete population, by making content and practice relevant to the sport setting.
In addition to the general population, gratitude interventions have also demon-
strated improved outcomes for psychotherapy clients specifically. Wong et al. (2018)
found that individuals enrolled in psychotherapy for mental health issues who also
participated in a gratitude letter writing intervention reported significantly better
mental health outcomes than those in both control and expressive writing condi-
tions, while the latter two conditions did not differ significantly. One of the reasons
gratitude writing may produce positive effects on mental health for a range of popu-
lations (e.g., youth, college students, adults, psychotherapy clients) may be attributed
to cognitive reappraisal. Furthermore, in examining gratitude among prison inmates,
Wong, Gabana, Zounlome, Goodrich Mitts, and Lucas (2017) noted that positive
benefit appraisals (i.e., one’s attributions about the help received from others; Wood,
Joseph, & Maltby, 2008) and positive reframing (i.e., re-perceiving a negative expe-
rience in a more positive way; Lambert et al., 2012) played a role in the association
between higher state gratitude and lower levels of psychological distress. Intention-
ally paying attention to the good things in life, or what is going well, can amplify
positive emotions and experiences even further, thereby maximizing their effect on
mental health and well-being. Furthermore, cultivating and expressing gratitude may
produce positive effects because through its generation, whether as a thought, emo-
tion, or behaviour, it can help a person reframe a negative experience in a positive
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354 N. T. Gabana
light (Lambert et al., 2012). In this way, gratitude may be a valuable preventative,
treatment, or optimization tool.
Gratitude has a tendency to strengthen existing interpersonal relationships by
reinforcing social bonds and socially inclusive behaviours (Bartlett, Condon, Cruz,
Baumann, & Desteno, 2012). For this reason, social implications abound for the team
setting, particularly in the sport context. In a randomized controlled trial, O’Connell,
O’Shea, and Gallagher (2017a) found that gratitude journaling predicted higher life
satisfaction and improvements in friendship when compared to an active journaling
control group. Intentionally journaling from a grateful perspective about daily events
exhibited more positive outcomes due to the mediating effect of increased levels of
dispositional gratitude on perceived friendship quality (O’Connell et al., 2017a).
Furthermore, cultivating interpersonal gratitude (i.e., directed toward others) versus
self-focused gratitude (i.e., no social interaction) may heighten relationship satis-
faction even more (O’Connell, O’Shea, & Gallagher, 2016). In addition to gratitude
writing interventions, activities which encourage expression of felt gratitude toward
others are especially recommended for deriving positive social and interpersonal
outcomes (O’Connell, O’Shea, & Gallagher, 2017b). Gratitude has a tendency to
promote and encourage prosocial behaviour and foster prosocial personality charac-
teristics such as humility, reciprocity, forgiveness, interpersonal connectedness, and
motivation toward self-improvement (Algoe, 2012; Armenta, Fritz, & Lyubomirsky,
2017; Toussaint & Friedman, 2009).
These results highlight the wide range of benefits of expressing gratitude, not only
psychologically, but physically, neurologically, and behaviourally as well. While
gratitude is most often understood as a personality disposition, this cognitive, affec-
tive, and behavioural trait is thought to be relatively malleable (Renshaw & Rock,
2018), especially with practice over time. Individuals, such as athletes, may benefit
from gratitude interventions because their primary goal is to intentionally cultivate
gratitude. Viewing gratitude as a mental skill or life skill means that it can be effec-
tively practiced and grown over time, fostering a more grateful mindset which may
be advantageous to a range of populations including youth, college students, and
adults alike. Since gratitude is a virtue with a strong social and interpersonal focus
(Emmons & Mishra, 2011), interventions geared toward cultivating and expressing
gratitude may be well-suited for athletic populations, since psychosocial interven-
tions have been shown to be particularly effective in enhancing sport performance
(Brown & Fletcher, 2017). In the next section, an overview of the empirical research
on athlete gratitude is provided, followed by a discussion of gratitude interventions
in the context of sport.
2.3 Athlete Gratitude
To the author’s knowledge, the entirety of empirical research to date specifically
geared toward studying the concept of gratitude in athletes has been conducted in
the past decade. The first known study to examine athlete gratitude was conducted
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 355
by Chen and Kee (2008) in Taiwan. Researchers found that trait gratitude, as mea-
sured by the Gratitude Questionnaire—6 (GQ-6; McCullough et al., 2002), predicted
higher life and team satisfaction and lower levels of athlete burnout. Sport-domain
gratitude, measured using a sport-specific adaptation of the GQ-6, was strongly cor-
related with team satisfaction (Chen & Kee, 2008). This seminal study demonstrated
the value in studying the concept of gratitude in athletes, and suggested that exam-
ining domain-specific gratitude may lend further insight into its relevance to the
sport and performance setting. Researchers have continued to demonstrate that both
general trait gratitude and sport-domain gratitude can impact athletes’ experience in
life and sport. Sport-domain gratitude has even been shown to significantly predict
levels of athlete burnout and team satisfaction above and beyond general gratitude
(Chen & Chang, 2017); both general and sport-domain gratitude were linked to life
satisfaction, vitality, and self-esteem in both current and former athletes in the U.S.
and Taiwan.
A series of studies, mostly sampling Taiwanese adolescent athletes, continued to
illuminate the relationship between trait gratitude and a number of sport-related vari-
ables. In a sample of 291 Taiwanese high school athletes, gratitude was significantly
correlated with team satisfaction, support from coaches, and support from teammates
(Chen, 2013). Furthermore, gratitude was shown to predict both coach and team sup-
port, which in turn, resulted in higher levels of team satisfaction. It was noted that
coach and teammate support were distinct from one another, suggesting that both
the coach-athlete relationship, and one’s relationship with teammates, comprise two
unique avenues through which gratitude can affect team satisfaction. This supported
Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions, in that when athletes
were more grateful, they perceived more support available to them, thus broadening
their perspective and building upon social resources.
Chen (2013) was the first to make the case that the coach may play a major role
in how athletes experience and practice gratitude within the team context. Coaches
have been shown to have significant influence over shaping their athletes’ cognitions,
emotions, and behaviours, given their frequent interactions on a daily basis (Jowett &
Ntoumanis, 2004). Further empirical inquiries found additional connections regard-
ing the instrumental role of the coach in how gratitude functions for athletes. Chen
and Wu (2014) found that higher trait gratitude resulted in greater levels of self-
esteem, only when the athlete had higher trust in their coach. In a similar fashion,
gratitude negatively predicted experiential avoidance (i.e., an attempt to avoid or
escape unpleasant or uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, sensations, or experiences)
when perceived coach autonomy support is high, but not when coach support was low
(Chen & Wu, 2016). Autonomy support is defined as “the attitude and practices of a
person … that facilitate the target individual’s self-organization and self-regulation
of actions and experience” (Ryan & Deci, 2008, p. 188). While this interaction only
explained a small percentage of the variance, it acknowledges the breadth of factors
related to gratitude within the performance setting.
Researchers have done well to not only focus on the main effects of gratitude
on sport-related variables, but also examine the mediators and moderators of ath-
lete gratitude. Other sport-related variables that have been examined in the extant
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gratitude literature include athlete burnout, team cohesion, sport satisfaction, and
perceived social support. Higher levels of athlete gratitude have been significantly
correlated with lower levels of athlete burnout, albeit these associations were gen-
erally weak (Chen & Chang, 2014; Gabana et al., 2017). Chen and Chang (2014)
noted that gratitude as a personality trait does not seem to directly influence athlete
burnout, but that athletes who report more burnout may be less grateful. This is likely
due to the three core characteristics of athlete burnout: (1) reduced sense of accom-
plishment, (2) devaluation of the sport experience, and (3) emotional and physical
exhaustion (Raedeke & Smith, 2001). Based on a sample of 293 National Collegiate
Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes in the U.S., Gabana et al. (2017) found that
athletes with higher trait gratitude scored lower on the devaluation of sport expe-
rience dimension of burnout. This suggests that having a more grateful disposition
may preserve an athlete’s value for their sport, which holds implication for colle-
giate sport retention rates and an athlete’s qualitative experience in sport. Specifically,
boosting esteem support (e.g., self-esteem, sense of competence) may increase the
likelihood that gratitude will have a positive impact on how much an athlete values
their sport experience. Higher levels of gratitude, coupled with more informational
and esteem support, also appears to have a preventative effect on the reduced sense
of accomplishment component of athlete burnout (Gabana et al., 2017).
Furthermore, in this study, perceived available social support in sport was identi-
fied as a significant mediator in the relationship between an athlete’s gratitude, sport
satisfaction, and burnout. The higher an athlete scored on trait gratitude, the more
they tended to perceive support available to them; and in turn, they were more likely
to be satisfied with their sport and less likely to exhibit signs of burnout (Gabana
et al., 2017). By itself, athlete gratitude was most significantly related to emotional
support; however, results suggested that tangible support (i.e., concrete instrumental
assistance) was especially relevant to the impact of gratitude on sport satisfaction.
While one may question whether athletes who had more social support available
to them, in turn felt more grateful, researchers tested this reverse mediation model
and it was not found to be significant. This means that trait gratitude can actually
influence one’s perceptions of social support, which has positive implications for
athlete well-being.
Team cohesion is closely related to social support, in that it has been identified as
a valuable component of successful sport performance. Chen, Kee, and Chen (2015)
found that the social cohesion explained the positive relationship between trait grat-
itude and life satisfaction among 300 Taiwanese high school athletes. In another
study published the same year, gratitude was found to predict life satisfaction among
collegiate athletes in Taiwan, but this association was weaker when athletes exhib-
ited high ambivalence over emotional expression (Chen, Wu, & Chen, 2015). This
suggests that athletes who do not value emotional expression may be less impacted
by gratitude. However, even in college students who had a high ambivalence toward
emotional expression, gratitude was significantly related to lower levels of loneli-
ness and depression (Chen, Chen, & Tsai, 2012). It is possible that gratitude may
work more effectively to ameliorate negative symptoms (e.g., stress) than promoting
positive outcomes when ambivalence over emotional expression is high (Chen et al.,
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 357
2012). In any case, it is worth exploring for whom gratitude interventions may be
most effective.
Trait mindfulness may act as a moderator in the effect of gratitude on life satisfac-
tion. Chen, Wu, and Chang (2017) found that the interaction between trait gratitude
and trait mindfulness explained 2% of the variance in life satisfaction among 190
Taiwanese college athletes. In addition to performance-related variables, gratitude
may also hold benefits for athlete mental health and well-being, particularly among
adolescent and college-age sport populations. Since the general body of literature
on gratitude has repeatedly reported meaningful relationships between gratitude and
positive mental health and well-being, examining whether gratitude is related to bet-
ter mental health and well-being among athletes and student-athletes in particular
is worth investigating. College students in the U.S. are reporting increasingly more
mental health concerns than ever before, and collegiate athletes are at equal and
sometimes greater risk than the general college population, with one-third of college
athletes in the U.S. reporting depressive symptoms (Cox, Ross-Stewart, & Foltz,
2017). This data corroborated the NCAAs report in 2016 which found that 30%
of athletes reported being “intractably overwhelmed” in the past month (NCAA,
2016a). The organization recently released a best practices document for athletic
departments, coaches, administrators, mental health professionals, sport psychology
practitioners, and other relevant parties, emphasizing the importance of student-
athlete mental health (NCAA, 2016b). Recently, the field of sport psychology has
been charged with developing holistic, integrative, and innovative programming to
address the mental health needs of college student-athletes, alongside performance
enhancement goals and interventions.
2.4 Gratitude Interventions in Sport
While gratitude interventions have been widely studied in the positive psychology
literature, there is only one known study to date which has explored the implemen-
tation of a gratitude intervention with athletes. Gabana et al. (2018) examined the
impact of a one-time, 90-min Attitude of Gratitude workshop on 51 NCAA Division
I college student-athletes in the U.S. The sample consisted of 27 male wrestlers and
24 female swimmers. The intervention was comprised of three components aimed at
increasing athletes’ state gratitude pre- to post-intervention: (1) didactic (i.e., learning
about gratitude and its potential benefits in life and sport), (2) activity (i.e., gratitude
list), and (3) discussion/debrief. After independently making a list of things they
felt grateful for, athlete participants were prompted to reflect upon why they were
grateful for each of the items, and then shared their responses with a teammate. The
interventionist then facilitated a discussion among the larger group during which
athletes reflected on how they felt whilst making the list and general reactions to the
activity. Finally, athletes were debriefed on how to continue cultivating and practic-
ing gratitude in their daily lives. Surveys were administered at three time points: pre-
and post-intervention, and again at a 1-month follow-up.
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Results of the Gabana et al. (2018) study indicated significant improvements in
state gratitude, sport satisfaction, and perceived social support over time, supporting
previous correlational studies (Chen, 2013; Chen & Kee, 2008; Gabana et al., 2017).
Furthermore, significant decreases in athlete burnout and psychological distress were
observed post-intervention, similar to findings of Chen and Chang (2014) and Wong,
McKean Blackwell, et al. (2017). Given that this was the first study to test a gratitude
intervention with athletes, future empirical studies are needed to investigate positive
psychology interventions in sport. Findings are encouraging and hold promise for
mental skills and life skills programmes for athletes which incorporate gratitude.
Since significant time effects were observed on both measures of well-being and ill-
being, gratitude interventions may have the potential to not only impact an athlete’s
performance and sport experience (i.e., increased sport satisfaction, decreased athlete
burnout) but also their mental health and well-being (i.e., increased state gratitude and
perceived social support, decreased psychological distress). Gratitude interventions
may pose a creative and non-stigmatized tool for enhancing student-athlete well-
being and may open the door for addressing mental health needs among this unique
population.
3 Practical Implications for Multi-cultural Contexts
3.1 Athletes
Positive emotions have the potential to increase the closeness of interpersonal rela-
tionships (Fredrickson, 2009). Team sports, which rely highly on communication,
collaboration, and cohesion, may benefit from PPIs because of the ability of posi-
tive emotions to produce a bonding effect. The culture of sport often brings together
individuals from varying racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, socio-economic,
educational, and linguistic backgrounds. Positive emotions foster intergroup connect-
edness and allow one to identify more closely with others, transcending cross-cultural
boundaries (Fredrickson, 2009). The positive effects of gratitude go beyond one’s
circumstances (Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014); athletes of all ages and competition
levels may reap the benefits of practicing gratitude, not only within their athletic
experience, but in their daily lives as well. Furthermore, fostering a grateful mindset
outside of sport may have the potential to transfer over to the athletic context. Grat-
itude may assist athletes in more productive responses to negative events (Nezlek
et al., 2019), such as less-than-ideal performance outcomes, unexpected events (e.g.,
injury), and transition (e.g., into college, out of sport). Recent gratitude interventions
geared toward improving college students’ mental health have incorporated creative
methods such as instant communication technology (Renshaw & Hindman, 2017).
As technology, particularly social media, has become increasingly more prevalent
in athletes’ day-to-day lives, the use of technological methods to facilitate gratitude
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 359
practice should be a consideration for both practitioners and researchers aiming to
reinforce gratitude as a habit.
3.2 Coaches
Given that coaches have the potential to impact athlete gratitude which can further
impact numerous elements of an athlete’s sport experience, coaches should con-
sider fostering a team climate which values the virtue of gratitude by self-modelling
and emphasizing gratefulness in the sport context. Coaches are also encouraged to
practice positive encouragement and clear, constructive feedback, in order to reap
the benefits of gratitude in regard to enhancing sport satisfaction and decreasing
burnout among athletes. Research has shown that business teams which have higher
positivity ratios (i.e., more positive statements to every negative statement within
the boardroom) tend to perform better and be more flexible, creative, inquisitive,
adaptable, and resilient (Losada & Heaphy, 2004). Positivity ratios greater than 3 to
1 have been revealed to be a hallmark of both flourishing relationships and optimal
performance (Gottman & Silver, 2000; Fredrickson, 2009). The positivity ratio may
also be relevant to team dynamics in sport, such as the interactions among teammates
or between players and coaches. Modelling and encouraging a more positive team
environment may facilitate flexibility, creativity, adaptability, resilience, curiosity,
and performance. Expressing gratitude may be one way for coaches and athletes to
increase their positivity ratio within the team setting.
3.3 Parents
Parents are also encouraged to be mindful of their positivity ratios with their children.
Given the benefits of cultivating gratitude among youth, parents of young athletes
should consider practicing and emphasizing the virtue of gratitude at an early age,
so as to help youth foster positive emotions, learn prosocial behaviour, build cop-
ing resources, and develop cognitive reframing skills. Modelling the expression of
grateful feelings, thoughts, and actions is recommended.
3.4 Sport Psychology Practitioners
Sport psychology practitioners may consider devoting more time to cultivating grati-
tude as a type of mental skill in sport, for the purpose of developing coping strategies
and resilience, emphasizing social support, building team cohesion, and helping the
athlete reframe negative experiences or performance outcomes to facilitate a growth-
oriented mindset. Wong, McKean Blackwell et al. (2017) suggested incorporating
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360 N. T. Gabana
gratitude into cognitive-behavioural approaches which emphasize the impact of one’s
thoughts on emotions and behaviour. This approach is widely used among many sport
psychologists to help athletes gain awareness of how their thoughts affect their emo-
tions and actions in sport and beyond. Gratitude interventions could also be paired
with mindfulness training, which may further assist athletes in becoming more aware
of, accepting, or letting go of negative thoughts and emotions.
Practitioners should consider a number of factors when designing and imple-
menting PPIs such as age, culture, social support, motivation, and effort (see Layous
& Lyubomirsky, 2014). Person-activity fit is important when implementing PPIs,
specifically related to enjoyment, benefit, and ease. People are more likely to adhere
to activities they prefer, and experience greater increases in well-being when they
enjoy the activity, feel benefited by it, and when it is not too difficult to complete
(Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014). Similarly, participating in a “preferred” activity (i.e.,
the person has indicated a preference for that specific concept and/or activity) has
been shown to produce greater increases in well-being (Schueller, 2011). This has
important implications for sport psychology practitioners aiming to introduce and/or
continue administering PPIs to athletes and teams. Intra- and interpersonal factors
that may influence the enjoyment, and in turn, the adherence of athletes to particular
PPIs, should be considered. By gauging the particular dynamics of the group system
(e.g., team climate), practitioners may adapt their approach to the team’s unique cul-
ture. While person-activity fit is important, it is not the sole determinant of whether a
PPI will be effective for a given individual or group (Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014).
Choosing activities that are engaging, efficacious, and backed by empirical support
is paramount to PPI implementation.
Layous and Lyubomirsky (2014) noted that PPIs are not a “one-and-done” com-
modity meant to promise around-the-clock happiness: “Happiness-increasing strate-
gies are not designed with the end goal of eliminating negative emotions altogether.
The practice of positive activities can, however, serve as “daily emotional mainte-
nance” for much of the general population. That is, if feeling down or stressed, an
individual may be able to call upon a positive practice to mitigate or cope with her
negative emotions” (Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014, p. 28).
This more realistic approach of the utilization of PPIs calls upon active engage-
ment with positive constructs at appropriate times. For instance, if an athlete partic-
ipates in a gratitude intervention such as counting one’s blessings once a week for
one month, the athlete might later call upon this activity to increase positive emo-
tions when experiencing adversity, recalling the positive aspects of life that bring
happiness, hope, and appreciation. This is a way to build coping skills, and in turn,
may foster positive habits and characteristics such as emotion regulation, mental
toughness, and resilience.
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 361
4 Implications for Future Research
Although the fields of positive and sport psychology seem to be a natural fit, lit-
tle research has been conducted to formally integrate the two fields (see McCarthy,
2011 for an overview of theoretical models examining the impact of positive emo-
tions on sport performance and athlete psychological well-being). Researchers in
both positive psychology and sport psychology should continue to explore state and
trait gratitude among athletes, especially related to athlete mental health, well-being,
and performance. Given that all studies on athlete gratitude have been conducted
within the past decade, more research is needed on all fronts; that is, exploring the
relationships between gratitude and other variables, parsing out mediators and mod-
erators of these relationships, and testing the effectiveness of gratitude interventions
in the sport context. Randomized controlled studies and those using comparison
groups (e.g., gratitude intervention compared to a goal-setting intervention) are rec-
ommended, and researchers are encouraged to consider other potential variables
impacting (a) levels of gratitude, and (b) effects of gratitude on athlete well-being
and performance. These may include gender, sport type, team versus individual sport,
cultural background, coach, competition level, and personality. More studies on U.S.
athletes, athletes outside of the U.S. and Taiwan, and a wide range of developmental
and competitive levels (e.g., youth sport, high school, collegiate, professional) would
further add to the literature in this area, since current findings lack generalizability
to specific sport populations (e.g., professional athletes).
Given that the majority of research on athlete gratitude has been conducted in Tai-
wan, athlete gratitude in more individualistic cultures such as the U.S. and Europe
may look and function slightly differently. Chen and Kee (2008) found that among
Taiwanese adolescent athletes, trait gratitude had a small but significant correlation
with value traditionalism; specifically, athletes who had more respect for authority
reported higher levels of gratitude. This demonstrates the importance of examining
cultural factors that may influence one’s experience of gratitude, such as collectivism
and individualism. Culturally-adapted gratitude interventions may be a topic of fur-
ther study and future researchers are encouraged to collect larger and more diverse
samples.
A limitation of the first known study to explore a gratitude intervention with col-
lege athletes is that it utilized a one-time workshop, which may have minimal effects
on an athlete’s dispositional gratitude (Gabana et al., 2018). Athletes who continue
to cultivate, practice, and express gratitude often may become more enlightened to
the positive aspects of their life, and in turn, their athletic experience; therefore,
longitudinal data on multi-session gratitude programmes should be examined in
future research. Furthermore, this study did not utilize a control group, rendering it
unclear whether significant positive outcomes post-intervention could be attributed
to increased gratitude, directly. Future studies should compare gratitude interven-
tions with other positive, neutral, and negative control conditions to elucidate and
substantiate the potential effects of gratitude interventions in sport. In a similar vein,
much of research on athlete gratitude consists of cross-sectional data, where causa-
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362 N. T. Gabana
tion cannot be inferred (e.g., Chen & Kee, 2008; Chen & Wu, 2014; Kee, Tsai, &
Chen, 2008). While regression, mediation, and moderation analyses illuminate some
of these findings (e.g., Chen, 2013; Chen & Chang, 2014; Chen et al., 2017; Chen
&Wu,2016; Gabana et al., 2017), more longitudinal data collected at multiple time
points, especially when testing the effects of a gratitude intervention, is needed to give
credibility to claims that cultivating gratitude in athletes is a worthwhile endeavor.
All of the research on athlete gratitude thus far has relied on self-report data
which can be skewed by factors such as social desirability bias, demand characteris-
tics, and dishonest reporting. Since gratitude can be classified as a thought, feeling,
or behaviour, future studies may consider how to observe and record experiences
and expressions of gratitude more organically. For example, Kini et al. (2016) mea-
sured behavioural gratitude by the amount of money participants gave away to a
third party after receiving monetary support from a benefactor in a computer game.
While this approach has its limitations as well, it would be interesting to consider
how athletes might demonstrate gratitude cognitively, emotionally, or behaviourally
within the context of sport, providing insight into how gratitude can be measured
more objectively so as to reduce self-report bias. Researchers may consider utilizing
social media platforms to examine athletes’ public expressions of gratitude from a
more qualitative, content-related perspective. In the future, performance outcomes
might be examined alongside measures of gratitude to see if potential performance
benefits exist for athletes who feel, think, or act with a grateful mindset.
Sampling issues can also limit the validity and generalizability of results. In a
recent study by Chen and Chang (2017), participants aged 18 to 58 who self-identified
as either current or former Division I, II, or III NCAA athletes were recruited online
through Amazon Mechanical Turk software. Researchers have cautioned against
explicitly listing eligibility requirements to minimize imposter respondents, as recent
data have shown evidence to suggest that some participants falsify identification cri-
teria in order to receive compensation for participation (Siegel & Navarro, 2019).
Another limitation of Chen and Chang (2017) is that current and former athletes
were analyzed together, which muddies conclusions given that many participants
“had retired from their sports careers” (p. 655). This is especially problematic when
measuring variables such as athlete burnout and team satisfaction, which are most
accurately measured from a present or recent temporal standpoint. Reminiscing one’s
athletic career years later may not be representative of the athlete’s experience at
the time, since emotional memories may differ from non-emotional memories in
regard to the details retained (Kensinger, 2009), thereby influencing the credibility
and implications of results. Specifically, positive emotion has been associated with
greater memory distortion than negative emotion, in that people who view an event
as positive had less accurate memory for detail than those who interpreted an event
as negative (Kensinger, 2009). Similarly, it would be expected that a current athlete
would experience sport-specific gratitude differently than a former athlete who had
retired from their sport years ago. While every study has its limitations, researchers
and practitioners should examine all studies carefully, paying close attention to fac-
tors that could potentially compromise the validity and reliability of results.
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 363
Based on recent research demonstrating a connection between gratitude and
resilience in the general college student population (Gupta & Kumar, 2015;
Vieselmeyer et al., 2017), future studies should also explore whether gratitude is
related to resiliency among student-athletes. Furthermore, future investigations could
test whether gratitude interventions are efficacious in fostering resilience among ath-
letes in both sport and in life (e.g., helping them cope with stressors, bouncing back
from adversity, managing mental health concerns, or facilitating more positive out-
comes after setbacks such as injury). Gratitude programmes implemented at the
group level might be particularly well-suited for athletic environments. For example,
injured college athletes from various sports teams could participate in a multi-session
group program aimed toward cultivating gratitude during the process of rehabilita-
tion and return to sport (e.g., see the Gratitude Group Program designed by Wong,
McKean Blackwell et al., 2017). In addition to deriving potential benefits from grat-
itude cultivation and expression in a group setting, athletes might appreciate the
opportunity to relate to other athletes experiencing a similar challenge or difficult
time (e.g., injury, anxiety, depression, grief). Set within a gratitude framework, this
may validate and normalize athletes’ experiences, and lend itself to an even deeper
bonding at the interpersonal level. Inspired by findings of Nezlek et al. (2019), hav-
ing athletes keep track of daily events, perceived stress, state gratitude, and changes
in affect could provide valuable information about when athletes feel more grateful,
and whether this could serve as a buffer to negative events or daily stress.
Finally, it is worth reiterating that both Davis et al. (2016) and Dickens (2017)
advocated for a temperate view of the impact of gratitude PPIs, given that more inter-
vention studies are needed to demonstrate evidence for their efficacy. While empirical
study on gratitude is flourishing, more research is needed to substantiate preliminary
findings in the context of sport. That being said, research on athlete gratitude in the
past decade has shown promising results for the potential of gratitude interventions to
impact athlete mental health, well-being, and performance. A scientist-practitioner
approach is strongly encouraged to ensure that sport psychology practitioners are
operating from a place of empirically-supported treatment methods when design-
ing interventions for athletes. Likewise, researchers are charged with maintaining
an awareness of current issues in the field of applied sport psychology and athlete
mental health so as to design studies relevant to practitioners’ realities, thus lending
further empirical support to current practice.
5 Conclusion
At the heart of the integration of sport psychology and positive psychology lies a
holistic approach to athlete well-being. Researchers have found that athletes self-
report both sport- and non-sport-related factors as contributors to overall well-being
(Lundqvist & Sandin, 2014). An athlete’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that
are learned inside of the athletic arena have the ability to permeate other areas of the
athlete’s life. In a similar way, an athlete’s personal mental health and well-being
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364 N. T. Gabana
can significantly influence their performance in sport (Morgan, 1985). Just as the
development of physical skills takes time, effort, dedication, and repetition, so too
does the mental training aspect of performance. Knowing when and how to summon
positivity is essential to the successful application of positive psychology concepts to
the sport domain (see Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014). The more an athlete practices
cultivating positive emotions such as gratitude through constructive activities, the
more easily the athlete is able to draw upon these skills when needed during trying
times (Wagstaff & Leach, 2015).
There may be times where it is useful for an athlete to demonstrate negative
emotions such as anger and frustration. Experiencing negative emotions can foster
motivation to improve one’s athletic abilities. For example, feeling dissatisfied with
one’s performance can inspire an athlete to train harder both mentally and physi-
cally. Positive psychology acknowledges the utility of negative emotions, so long
as they do not impair one’s ability to function optimally. While negative emotions
can be facilitative to an athlete’s growth and development, cultivating positive emo-
tions such as gratitude and hope may aid athletes in performing both on and off the
field (Wagstaff & Leach, 2015). Incorporating positive constructs can also be used
to address a difficult or negative experience, which may facilitate the growth pro-
cess (e.g., expressing gratitude toward lessons learned, strategies employed, coping
mechanisms, and available support systems).
Based on a review of the extant literature, it can be concluded that the cultivation
and expression of gratitude within the sport context poses a range of potential benefits
for athlete mental health, well-being, and performance. In summary, the following
key points are highlighted:
1. The fields of positive psychology and sport psychology share a common interest
in optimal human functioning and can benefit from mutual sharing of guiding
theoretical underpinnings.
2. Experiencing positive emotions may actually facilitate successful outcomes,
rather than positive emotions merely being predicated on success.
3. Intentionally cultivating positive emotions such as gratitude in times of adversity
may enhance one’s coping skills, ultimately fostering resilience.
4. Gratitude interventions such as making a gratitude list, gratitude journaling, or
writing a letter of gratitude have been associated with positive mental health
and physical health outcomes. Recent meta-analyses on gratitude interventions
encourage a temperate interpretation of these findings and call for further empir-
ical study in this area.
5. Gratitude may serve as a protective factor against ill-being by way of mech-
anisms such as positive cognitive reframing; an attentional shift toward the
good things in life; awareness and acknowledgement of support networks;
enhanced interpersonal relationships and social connectedness; increased com-
passion toward oneself and others coupled with lower levels of criticism; and
the broaden and build effects of positive emotions.
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Gratitude in Sport: Positive Psychology for Athletes … 365
6. Gratitude interventions implemented at the team level may have the potential
to strengthen social bonds, positively impacting athlete, team, and coach rela-
tionships.
7. Coaches and parents play a key role in promoting a grateful mindset, as athletes’
thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are often shaped by those who are closest
to them. Modelling an attitude of gratitude at home and within the team setting
can empower athletes to cultivate and practice gratitude on a daily basis.
8. Athlete gratitude has been associated with a number of indicators of athlete
well-being such as higher life satisfaction, sport satisfaction, team satisfaction,
self-esteem, and team cohesion; better quality of relationships with teammates
and coaches as indicated by higher levels of perceived social support and trust
in one’s coach; and lower levels of athlete burnout and psychological distress.
9. Grateful thinking may help athletes respond more productively to negative
events, such as setbacks, perceived failures, unexpected events such as injury,
and transitions.
10. Given the association between athlete gratitude and positive indicators of well-
being, sport psychology practitioners (i.e., sport psychologists and mental per-
formance consultants) are in a unique position to use empirically supported
gratitude interventions to enhance athlete mental health and performance within
the context of psychological skills training and/or mental health counseling, at
both the team and individual levels.
11. Sport psychology practitioners should consider a number of factors when
designing and implementing gratitude interventions such as age, gender,
race/ethnicity, cultural background, social support, motivation, personal pref-
erence, group dynamics, and effort.
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Nicole T. Gabana (Ph.D., CMPC) is an Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology in the Depart-
ment of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at Florida State University, as well as
a Certified Mental Performance Consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology
(CMPC). Dr. Gabana’s research interests center on student-athlete mental health and the integra-
tion of positive psychology and sport, specifically the relationship between gratitude and student-
ngabana@fsu.edu
370 N. T. Gabana
athlete well-being. She has been published in academic journals and book chapters including
the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology (JASP), Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychol-
ogy (CSSEP), Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology (JCSP), and Psychotherapy Research. As an
Assistant Professor at FSU, Dr. Gabana teaches sport psychology and a seminar course on men-
tal health and performance. She also supervises graduate students completing their practicum in
applied sport psychology. Dr. Gabana received her B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and
her M.S. from Springfield College, where she worked as an athletic counselor for Division I-III
collegiate teams, high school, and youth sport. She obtained her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology
from Indiana University Bloomington, where she was an Associate Instructor of Sport Psychol-
ogy and Positive Psychology. She also served as a counselor and consultant to the IU Athletic
Department from 2013–2016. Prior to her arrival at FSU, Dr. Gabana completed her pre-doctoral
internship at The Ohio State University Counseling and Consultation Service, where she provided
counseling services to OSU students and served as a liaison to Ohio State Athletics.
ngabana@fsu.edu
... Of the existing literature conducted among young high performance athletes, mental wellbeing has been measured as a secondary outcome, such as in studies designed to promote mental health and optimize performance through family-based intervention activities (Donohue et al., 2015), mindfulness based interventions (Longshore and Sachs, 2015), and for young high performance athletes identified at risk for mental health problems (Tester et al., 1999). Other research has sought to examine aspects of mental wellbeing, or trialed standalone positive psychology interventions such as practicing gratitude (Gabana, 2019). In terms of models of wellbeing for young high-performance athletes, we identified one example in the published literature which proposed, through theoretical review, the appropriateness of PERMA among Finnish junior ice hockey players (Uusiautti et al., 2017). ...
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Elite athletes experience both universal and sport-related mental health risks. Young high-performance athletes on pathways to professional sport also face the additional challenges associated with the developmental period of adolescence and early adulthood, making prevention and mental health promotion critical in this population group. This community case study considers the wider youth mental wellbeing evidence base, alongside primary prevention in elite sport, and proposes a model of wellbeing for the specific implementation in youth high performance athletes in the Australian setting. The Mental Fitness Model is based on the PERMA theory of wellbeing, which comprises positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, and is tailored specifically to the unique needs of young high-performance athletes in Australia. The Model sits within a host of evidence-based, appropriately resourced, wellbeing science activities, coordinated by an overall strategy that allows monitoring and continuous improvement. As such, we propose this application of wellbeing science is highly novel for the youth high performance setting. Future work is needed to test the feasibility of this model in an applied context. Further work is also needed to integrate specifically cultural considerations for wellbeing, and to integrate the lived experiences of young people through participatory research. This model is proposed to hold unique promise to meet the mental wellbeing needs of young high-performance athletes, whilst promoting positive mental health that can track into adulthood.
... 절 장애 입원 환자 또는 우울증 척도 검사를 통해 판별된 우울 정도가 높은 대상 (Guo et al., 2017), 환자 (Louro et al., 2015)가 대표적이 다. 하지만 점차 연구 스펙트럼(spectrum)에 변화가 생기고 있다. 상 대적으로 스트레스와 우울감이 높은 상황에 놓여 있던 대상에서 군인 (Dolphin et al., 2015), 중년층 (Ho et al., 2014) (Park & Shin, 2017), 야구, 배드민턴, 펜싱 대학 선수 대상 긍정 심리 개입 프로그 램 개발과 적용을 통해 정서, 자아존중감, 행복감 효과를 규명한 연구 (Lee & Shin, 2017), 우수, 비우수 양궁 선수 강점 인식과 실제 경기 에서의 강점 활용을 분석한 연구 (Park et al., 2018), 감사하기 개입으 로 운동선수에 대한 긍정심리학 활용 가능성 연구 (Gabana, 높았다(Bolier et al., 2013;Chen, 2013;Donaldson et al., 2019;Gabana, 2019;Winslow et al., 2017 ...
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... Collins and Durand-Bush (2014) showed how coachguided self-reflection had a coach purposefully provide constructive feedback, praise, and positive reinforcement to his athletes to encourage positive affect, while also encouraging his athletes to be accountable for performance outcomes and to attribute errors to controllable elements of performance. Coaches can borrow on this precedent and exercises related to gratitude journaling (see Gabana, 2019); by inviting their MAs to inventory all the aspects they personally appreciate about their sport activity, they are addressing the notion that MAs sometimes become blind to their own fortunes. ...
... Collins and Durand-Bush (2014) showed how coachguided self-reflection had a coach purposefully provide constructive feedback, praise, and positive reinforcement to his athletes to encourage positive affect, while also encouraging his athletes to be accountable for performance outcomes and to attribute errors to controllable elements of performance. Coaches can borrow on this precedent and exercises related to gratitude journaling (see Gabana, 2019); by inviting their MAs to inventory all the aspects they personally appreciate about their sport activity, they are addressing the notion that MAs sometimes become blind to their own fortunes. ...
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