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Sport Psych Lessons from the World of Sports Marketing


What message is this shirt really sending?

I was recently browsing through a mall when I came upon a shirt with a curious logo. The shirt in question was produced by Under Armour, and it bore the phrase “I can’t I won’t Lose [sic].” In looking at that phrase, I was struck by several things. First, was how much of a departure this is from the usual language that is often found on such clothing. In the past, I have been used to the positive (if somewhat ambiguous) language of other companies. Nike’s “Just Do It” being the most famous and longstanding, but also Adidas’ “Live for Sport” and others have maintained the common thread. Second, punctuation (which this phrase lacked completely) matters. The phrase “I can’t, I won’t lose” is FAR different than “I can’t. I won’t. Lose.” The former implies a sense of determination, the latter, abject hopelessness.

Third, and most importantly from my own perspective, is that it got me thinking about the importance of positivity in language, specifically, that language we use with ourselves (aka: self-talk). One of the most misunderstood aspects of sport psychology is on the use of “Positivity.” When sport psychologists talk about being positive, we don’t mean it in a cheery, optimistic way (though that can sometimes help). Rather, we use the word “positive” to denote cueing yourself into actions that you want to perform, rather than cautioning against actions you want to avoid.

The classic contrast between “hit the ball” vs. “Don’t miss the ball” is a perfect example of this. Saying to yourself “hit the ball” clearly directs your attention towards an action that you want to perform (a positive action or cue, if you will), and that will help you achieve other goals (e.g., getting on base, scoring a run). The latter phrase does exactly the opposite – it cues your attention towards an action that you want to avoid (a negative action or cue). In effect, by saying to yourself “don’t miss” you’re directing your attention towards failure, rather than success.

This example can be extended to all manner of situations: Golf (Good swing, hit the green vs. don’t put it in the water/bunker/trees/parking lot), basketball (make the shot vs. don’t miss), diving (clean moves vs. don’t get messy), running (hit your split times vs. don’t go slow). Marketing agencies have started to take notice of this as well. Up until a few years ago, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) used the slogan “Arrive Alive, don’t Drink and Drive.” Catchy, but based on what I just discussed, this sends the wrong message. Recently, they seem to have clued in to this fact though, as I’ve now started seeing the same placards, but with slightly modified slogans that now read “Arrive Alive, Drive Sober.” The same message underlies both phrases, but the latter is much clearer, and directs one’s attention much more clearly towards a desired action.

Often times breaking yourself of this habit can be a tricky thing, but with a little effort, it can be done. Here’s a little thought experiment in positivity for you to try: If you catch yourself saying “don’t do [insert action here]” either to yourself or someone else, try to catch yourself and rephrase it in a way that directs attention towards a positive action. For example, if a child is approaching an object that you’d prefer they stayed away from, try asking them to “leave that alone” rather than saying “don’t touch that.” Better yet, giving them an action for them to perform instead (e.g., come here, please) is even better.

So how SHOULD that shirt read? You’ve probably figured it out by now: I can I will Win