Hardly what you’d expect a coach to tell dissertation writers, but let’s break the rules for a show that helps and not merely distracts. Ted Lasso clearly meets that requirement.
In an era of pandemic and civic unease, millions report finding refuge in this improbable, feel-good series. The scenario unfolds when Ted, a relentlessly optimistic football coach from America’s heartland, gets hired by Rebecca, a scheming British soccer team owner. Rebecca presumes Ted will lead the team to defeat, thus exacting her revenge against a wicked ex-husband.
You don’t even have to like soccer to love the show, which garnered 20 Emmy nominations and earned it a highly anticipated third season.
Yet, from my perspective, Ted Lasso’s creative team deserves still one more award—namely for “outstanding use of positive psychology in a comedy or drama.” As a positive psychology coach, I found the show’s contagious optimism and clever wit addictive—and an engaging way to offer compelling life lessons in how to thrive. (How else could I justify binge-watching the first two seasons this summer?)
I hereby offer anyone who needs it my blanket permission to watch Ted Lasso as often as needed. The humor and inspiration will fortify your resilience to stay on track. (Plus there is a charming Christmas episode to light up the holiday season.
As you watch, draw your own lessons from Coach Lasso. Meanwhile, these eight struck me as apt for doctoral students:
1. Start where you are.
As a new soccer coach, Ted finds himself operating in an area where he lacks expertise. Rather than faking it, Ted admits his ignorance while leveraging his current strengths, especially curiosity and humility, to prevail. Instead of focusing on proving himself, Ted focuses on improving his competencies using his growth mindset.
Unless you’ve done a previous dissertation, ditch any beliefs that you should already be an expert. Take stock of your own assets that will propel you forward--perhaps a growth mindset, deep curiosity, or sheer perseverance. You can harness these strengths to hone whatever competencies you need to finish your degree.
2. Value feedback from those who matter (and forget the rest).
Coach Lasso’s self-worth never hinges on his team’s standing or his popularity with fans or the media. Who does he count on for feedback? Refusing to get triggered by nasty barbs, he proactively seeks and responds to input from the people who matter—his team and staff.
How much do you judge your self-worth by comparing your progress to your peers? When others in your cohort schedule their dissertation defense while you still await IRB approval, does a wave of shame hit you? Do you actively seek feedback from the sources that really matter? Can you accept it without getting defensive?
Follow Lasso’s model--play your own game and welcome input from those who have your best interests at heart.
3. Play the long game.
Success in Lasso-land means more than racking up game wins. Success means doing what promotes real flourishing. When the team’s loss to Manchester dooms them to relegation to an inferior league, Ted tenders his resignation. Rebecca, however, rejects it, encouraging him to continue the path forward, now with her wholehearted support.
Like the road to a sports championship, the path to a doctorate is long and hard. There are no short cuts to meaningful success. Failure and discomfort are inevitable. When you experience setbacks, identify the skills or habits you need to move forward. As you complete your dissertation, realize your opportunity to develop your inner assets for lifelong well-being.
4. Own and share your emotions.
To Ted’s credit, after the big loss to Manchester he acknowledges the team’s despondency before doing anything else. “There’s something worse than being sad—and that’s being sad and alone,” Coach Lasso tells his downcast team after the big loss.
The show reinforces the value of experiencing and sharing one’s feelings, as when Keely comforts Roy Kent mourning his career-ending injury and Rebecca accompanies Ted during his first post-divorce Christmas. In season two, the stigma of asking for help erodes as players and staff choose to see the new team therapist for support.
The lesson is clear: When you experience emotional pain, acknowledge it. Allow yourself to feel it. Seek and accept support. Forget the outdated mandate to power through it alone—a sure prescription for burnout and psychic numbness. We understand now that a more effective way to cope is to reach out to someone who cares, who will validate your pain and walk with you. When deeply distressed, seek professional help.
5. Be a goldfish.
Part of Ted’s hope strategy involves turning off the negative self-talk. As Ted says, “You beating yourself up is like hearing Woody Allen play the clarinet. I don’t want to hear it.“ Ditto for negative talk about others. When Sam ruminates over a stupid mistake on the field, Coach Lasso calls him over for a quick tip: “Be a goldfish.” He claims they are the happiest animals on earth because they have a ten-second memory.
The next time your inner critic gets out its whip, call on your inner goldfish and move on.
6. Make quality connections.
Ted shows an amazing knack for connecting with others—up, down, and across. With unflagging good cheer and homemade biscuits, he eventually wins over Rebecca. With intention, he learns everyone’s name and story—and surprises a lowly assistant with a promotion. Ted never frets about being popular but seeks ways to demonstrate his honest goodwill towards everyone.
In an intriguing move, Ted founds the “Diamond Dogs”—a safe space where the guys work out their relationship problems. It reflects the show’s prevailing model of positive masculinity, in contrast to a stereotypical toxic locker room mentality. Ted’s unfailing kindness and authenticity shape his relationships with everyone. Even his journalist adversary Trent Crimm feels moved to become an ally.
A reliable predictor of psychological health can be found in one’s quality connections. Taking time from your studies to nurture your relationships does not represent dereliction of duty but expresses wise self-care. You’ll experience more immediate pleasure and meaning while investing in future dividends. The demands of everyday life and academia make warm human connections a necessity, not a luxury. You do not have to go this alone.
7. Nurture the best version of yourself.
When asked why he created the show, Jason Sudeikis responded from the heart:
Gandhi said, 'Be the change you want to see in the world,' and this creates the change you want to see. Create the world where being nice, being uncynical, being egoless, being empathetic, and promoting forgiveness is not something that is weak and happens without consequences. Ted does see the best in people and he really is the best version of myself.
What would the best version of you look like? As Atomic Habits author James Clear reminds us, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
Coach Lasso’s motto “BELIEVE” is emblazoned in huge capitals over the locker room door. More than anything else, he strives to arouse hope in his players, especially in the darkest moments.
Your doctoral journey will include challenges, failures, and disappointments. Remember to tap your well of resources to help you over the bumps on the way to the finish line. And whenever hope wavers, find a good laugh and a healthy dose of inspiration from Ted Lasso.
Note: You can stream the first two seasons of Ted Lasso on Apple TV on Apple, PC, and android devices. Then hang on tight for season three in summer 2022.