George Washington: Sports Psychologist?

Saying George Washington’s resumé is impressive is a colossal understatement. He was the General of The Continental Army, the first President of the United States, and he may have the most durable legacy of any single American. But did you know he was also a Sports Psychologist?

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As a history teacher, avid follower of Sports Psychology, and borderline nerd, I am always looking for ways to combine or draw connections between the two fields. I came across this Psychological Study conducted by Professors at NYU and UCLA that did just that. It details the positive effect decision making can have on our confidence levels. Before making important decisions a person’s self-esteem is low, their confidence drops simply because of the uncertainty. However, once they commit to their decision, it alleviates that stress and anxiety. Optimism goes up, confidence goes up, self-esteem goes up, and worries about uncontrollable risks quickly dissipates. For example, the decision to book travel and hotel accommodations for a vacation led to people showing noticeably higher self-esteem and optimism (having something positive to look forward to), while also feeling less vulnerable to completely uncontrollable situations that could occur on their vacations, like hurricanes or earthquakes (“I’m on vacation, I’m on island time brah!”).  

So, what does this have to do with the Father of our Country? I’m glad you asked!

As I was reading this study, I was reminded of a very interesting strategy George Washington employed during some particularly bleak points of the Revolutionary War. It was the middle of winter and the weather was bone-chillingly cold. George Washington was leading an outnumbered and out-skilled group of young soldiers up against the most powerful military in the world. The morale of Washington’s men was as low as their rations. In addition, the Continental Army was so low on funds at this time, that they couldn’t afford to buy shoes for their soldiers! The conditions and outlook were weighing heavily on the men, but not their leader, who in addition to leading these men, he would be hanged for treason if caught. 

While in his tent at night, General Washington would shift his focus from the frontlines to the homefront. He oversaw the renovation project of his home at Mount Vernon, by writing letters to his wife Martha. In these letters, he detailed specific instructions for the renovation, from pattern on the rug in the living room, to the door handles for each room, to the color of the curtains in the master bedroom. By shifting his focus from the atrocities of war to making small decisions on something completely unrelated helped put him at ease and transfer him into a confident and empowered mindset.

George Washington chose to focus on what he could control instead of what he could not. Choosing the  type of wood for the dining room table was a choice he could control, while the lack of food, blankets, and shoes as the temperatures dipped below 15 degrees was not. General Washington knew exuding confidence was a choice, and he chose to exhibit confidence around his men in hopes of inspiring it within them. 

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These are two key principles I talk about with my clients, control what you can control, and confidence is a choice! Committing to ideas like this can help an athlete begin to build a positive and confident mindset. A confident athlete is one poised for peak performance. A positive and confident mindset does not necessarily guarantee success, but an athlete is not even giving themselves a chance to succeed when they possess a negative mindset. 

Many of us can get caught in the trap that making a decision is simply a way to clear a path, or to give ourselves clarity. While this can be an important function of a decision, the act of making a decision can help restore our confidence, raise our self-esteem, and increase our optimism. George Washington knew that, and by making decisions on his home’s renovation, he was able to restore confidence in himself, raise his self-esteem, and give himself something to look forward to at home. He channeled all of this restored positivity towards the war effort, and maintained his position of leadership all the way to American victory in 1781.

George Washington. General, President, leader of men, leader of a brand new country, and amateur Sports Psychologist.

Ben Kaplan