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Texas A&M Football 2017: In Defense of Optimism

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“For I myself am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.” - Winston Churchill

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NCAA Football: New Mexico State at Texas A&M Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Aggie defense is going to finally figure it out this year. Whoever starts at quarterback is going to have an all-conference type of season. The Aggies are going to finish stronger than they start, playing meaningful football late in November and then again in January. What’s that, you say? I’m crazy? No.

I am an optimist.

But wait, don’t go. I know we optimists annoy some of you. You are a pessimist, or as you may call yourself, a “realist.” Years or even decades of disappointment hardened you, and I understand completely where you’re coming from. Your outlook is yours to choose and yes, the historical facts often support your view of the inevitable future. But humor me for just a bit and let me sell you on the virtues of optimism.

This article will end up at Aggie football but before we start arguing about young men in tight pants playing chase, let’s at least have an honest discussion on optimism for its own sake. I present three arguments, all of which could literally change your life.

Optimism increases life expectancy

Bear with me for a while as we go down this rabbit hole. Optimism HAS been shown to have tangible positive effects. It’s not just a useless crutch or a pointless exercise guaranteed to leave you disappointed by unmet expectations. Study after study after study (seriously, it’s staggering when you start researching it) find a correlation between optimism and health and even life expectancy.

Many studies have been done measuring the effects of optimism on overall health and recovery from injury or sickness. This page summarizes several of them, the most staggering of which showed that in a study of 6,959 people over 40 years, the most pessimistic individuals had a 42% higher rate of death than the most optimistic. This study shows a clear difference in the death rates of optimistic and pessimistic elderly subjects. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between optimism and heart health.

And it’s not just physical health and life expectancy. It’s about mental health too. Studies have found that pessimism has significant direct links with depressive symptoms and life satisfaction and that increased optimism was associated with improved depression and benefit finding in multiple sclerosis patients. A study of optimism and suicide among college students found that optimism was inversely associated with suicide.

I could go on, but one thing is clear: every time it is studied, optimistic people are healthier both physically and mentally and live longer than pessimists. If nothing else, take a minute to ask yourself if there are areas of your life where some optimism is needed. Life is bigger than Aggie football, which we’ll get to. Even if I don’t convince you to be a football optimist, maybe you’ll sprinkle some positive outlooks into other areas of your life and it will make you live longer. The longer you live, the greater your chances of seeing an A&M national championship, amirite?? I’ve added a few more links at the bottom of the article.

Optimism leads to success and growth

This can be seen in several areas. Part of it is that optimism is linked with resilience and coping abilities, both of which are naturally linked to greater success. In any environment, being able to handle inevitable difficulties and setbacks and bounce back from them is often what separates the successful from the unsuccessful.

But furthermore, it is possible that the concept of “making your own luck” is actually real. A study recently found that people’s personalities drastically impacted how lucky or unlucky they were in life. (Yes, the definition of “lucky” in this case is not quite what it sounds, but still.) Furthermore, banks are more likely to loan money to more optimistic people. Entrepreneurial optimism is linked with business success.

Optimism leads to happiness

Growing up in the 1980s, I had an older sister, so I was exposed to a lot of Haley Mills movies. First of all, I will fist fight anyone that talks bad about The Parent Trap. To this day, I can sing “Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah” and do the dance just like my sister taught me. And don’t even think about saying that the Parent Trap remake with Lindsay Lohan was comparable. Lindsay Lohan is like the Texas Longhorns football team: overhyped, tops out at roughly five-seven, hasn’t done anything good in almost a decade, and can’t sell out a stadium. Anyway, where was I...

Oh yes, Haley Mills. Her next best movie was Pollyanna. Mills plays a girl named Pollyanna who likes to play “the glad game.” No matter what is going on around her, she can find something to be glad about. The movie was influential (Mills even won an Juvenile Oscar for it) and now the term “pollyanna” is synonymous with being an optimist.

The lesson in the movie is that Pollyanna is happy. Her optimism allows her to see the world through a certain lens, and that lens is a happy one. But it’s also a more accurate lens. Scientists call this the “Pollyanna Principle,” and it states that people remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant items. It’s not hard to see how this can affect one’s quality of life. If we choose to focus on the good, not only will our disposition improve, but we will also be thinking more accurately.

Now let’s get practical. Aggie football starts soon. You may be saying “yeah, optimism works fine if you’re talking about your own life, but my optimism or pessimism has no effect on my sports team.” Let’s talk about that.

Do I believe that just thinking happy thoughts or focusing on the good will somehow make A&M play better against UCLA? Not in and of itself. I do, however, believe that there is something to be said for the vague idea of group optimism spurring people on to greater success. It’s impossible to quantify, and maybe it doesn’t even exist. But I know of one example where I believe that group optimism somehow propelled a team to victory.

After Bonfire fell in 1999, I can remember to this day the feeling that swept through Kyle Field during the candlelight memorial prior to the t.u. game. There was a moment at the end of that night where Ja’Mar Toombs ran out onto the field and started riling up the crowd, and something magical happened. The mood changed, and suddenly, we all just KNEW that A&M would win the game. If you were there I’m sure you’ll back me up. It was an optimism that started with the team and spread to the entire crowd, and it was as if victory was a foregone conclusion.

I would argue that the shared optimism of the group affected the outcome that day. Quarterback Randy McCown alluded to as much. The Aggies trailed 16-6 at halftime but came back to win. “A game like this is something you wish for all your life,” McCown said. “When we came out for the second half, we saw the crowd didn’t give up and believed in us.”

That last part is important. It matters to the players, and the players happen to be the ones we are relying on. There is certainly some chicken and egg with positive attitude. Are people positive because things are going well or are they going well because the people are positive? You can make a case for both at times but the fact is, people perform better if they are optimistic and I believe they perform better if they have the backing of optimistic people.

This can be personalized and I hope you’ll take it to heart. When you have played sports, did someone believe in you? Did that help you? If you have kids or friends, do you not support them with an unquenchable optimism? Why? You know why. It matters. Maybe we can argue about how minimally it matters, but it has to matter some. If you have ever achieved anything and felt helped by someone else’s belief, and if you have ever helped anyone else achieve something by believing in them, then it wouldn’t it stand to reason that it is at least possible for us as fans to help our team achieve more than they otherwise would have by being a positive force for them? Absolutely!

It matters when the players are optimists. They HAVE to be. And that optimism, that belief, plays a role. Every single time a team comes back from a deficit, what do they tell the reporters? “We never stopped believing.” They remained optimistic. And quite often, they credit the fans belief in them as something that helped.

I would even go so far as to say that it’s disrespectful to the players and the coaches to be a pessimist regarding their chances. Their whole outlook is one of optimism. It has to be. Every great athlete who talks about it says that they believe they are the best player on the field. If not for that optimism, they’d be destroyed. The coaches are the same. If there isn’t a belief that they will be better, then what are they wasting their time on? And if we as fans look at them and what they’re working towards and give it an attitude of “eh, they’re gonna suck again,” what good is that? Beyond that, they are human beings. Respect them with your support. “Support” and “pessimism” are not compatible.

But beyond that, I would argue that even those of you that are the most pessimistic among us are perhaps just optimists in hiding. You are a pessimist outwardly because you feel like having low expectations makes it hurt less when the disappointments happen. You can easily say “well that’s what I expected, no big deal” when the team loses and then claim to be pleasantly surprised when the team wins. But I’m here to call you out on that. You are, on some level, an optimist. You wouldn’t follow the team at all if you weren’t. If you were absolutely, positively sure that the team was only always going to fail and never would bring you satisfaction, you would give it up for good. It would be the only rational response. But you’re still here. You may be griping and complaining and scoffing, but you’re here. And that means that somewhere deep inside, you do have hope and belief and optimism. So why not just filter your views through that? It’s more pleasant for you, it’s more pleasant for others, and it has actual benefits.

As I wrote prior to last year, this insane thing that we put so much time and emotion into is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? Is it fun to sit there and be angry about what just happened and mad about what you assume is going to happen when the Aggies inevitably (in the mind of the pessimist) fail? And what are some of the most fun and happy memories? They are of the times when the team succeeded when all hope was seemingly lost. The games where the Aggies are down by 21 in the second half but win, the games where everything looks bleak but then then something impossible happens.

I’m not saying I’m better than anyone since I’m an optimist. Even I have had my battles with pessimism. It’s easy to head down that road. But is there any real benefit to it? I don’t see any.

So many times, a successful team or group or business will credit their success to the culture that they have built. Google has a culture. Alabama football has a culture. Optimism and positivity are likely always a part of these successful cultures. Who’s to say that the culture of a college football team can’t be extended to the fans? We as Aggies sure have a culture and we are always proud of the times the team reflects the culture of the university. Let’s add optimism to the list of qualities we hold as Aggie fans.

Yes, irrational optimism is bad. That’s not what I’m advocating. I’m advocating realistic optimism. I love to analyze Aggie football both from a purely objective X’s and O’s standpoint and also from a biased fan standpoint, but I’m not predicting that A&M will go 15-0. That would be irrational optimism. But one thing I will do is give the most optimistic take I can give based on the realistic analysis I make.

And that leads me to this. I’ve been writing for Good Bull Hunting for a few years now, and between this and Twitter and Facebook and message boards, I have developed a reputation as an optimist, someone who always thinks things are ok, someone who actually defends the coaches and players when they are inevitably attacked. An insane person, basically. And I’ve really reflected on it and have chosen to own it. I will again be writing about Aggie football almost every week this season, and there will be good things to say, and there will be bad things to say. I’m not afraid to say the bad things, but I will continue to focus more energy on the good things.

Each week that I’m able to, in addition to hopefully doing some interesting football strategy talk, I’ll also be giving an optimistic, but realistic, view of what we can reasonably hope for from the Aggies going forward. Later this week, Lord willing, I’ll post the first such article, looking at what we can realistically hope for from the 2017 Texas Aggies.

As I type this final section, the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey are being felt across a large part of Texas. These times are always full of sadness and loss, but they are also inevitably full of great stories of human survival, rescue, bonding, sacrifice, and love. Stories full of hope and optimism, among other things. My prayers are with those of you along the coastal areas and my prayers are with you, Houston. I pray for your safety and your recovery. God bless Texas.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2894461/

https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/optimism-and-your-health

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/03/the-benefits-of-optimism-are-real/273306/

https://www2.usgs.gov/humancapital/pb/documents/HealthyExchange-Fall2013.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2009/aug/11/optimism-health-heart-disease

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/12/07/504709736/a-brighter-outlook-could-translate-to-a-longer-life

http://sites.chapman.edu/hwblab/files/2014/05/Boehm-Kubzansky-2012-Psych-Bull-1jhjz1g.pdf