Emotions are a part of competition. That's an unavoidable fact.
Athletes need to be passionate and should care deeply about their performance. They should care about winning or losing. But if you are unable to harness your emotions, they will hinder your execution. If you can’t stay cool under pressure, you will hurt the very thing you care so much about - playing your best when it matters the most.
There are countless psychological studies showing the strong relationship between emotions and sport performance. Every single study points to one inescapable fact: the ability to control emotions is one of the most important psychological skills an athlete can possess.
Too much emotion and you will lose control and lose focus, especially at the most critical time when you are under pressure and the stakes are highest. Too little emotion and your energy level will fail to meet the moment.
It’s a paradox of consequential importance to all athletes.
You need to care more than everyone else, but you can’t let anyone see it. Success needs to be the most important thing to you, but it can’t consume you. It can’t overtake you. The greatest athletes are able to find this balance and use emotion to their advantage.
Respond, Don’t React.
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react.” - Charles R. Swindoll
When an athlete recklessly reacts, without pause or thought, they are setting themselves up for failure. They are giving in to the moment instead of taking command of it, allowing anxiety and anger to overshadow their performance. In this panicked state, athletes will be swallowed in a constant chaos and unable to stay focused on executing their gameplan.
Respond, don’t react.
There’s a huge difference between a response and a reaction to an event. A reaction is quick, thoughtless, and lead by tension and aggression. A response on the other hand is measured, thoughtful, calm, and decisive. Reactions provoke further reactions, which is like pouring gasoline on our emotional fire. A response leads to a resolution. Responding steadies our emotions, helping us attain clarity of the situation and put things back in focus.
Reacting is effortless, emotional, and out of control. Responding is effortful, deliberate, and exhibits control.
But responses takes preparation. Failure to do so will result in reacting when things get hot.
Here are three techniques and three strategies backed by research that will help you take control of your emotions and take command of your performance. With practice and awareness, you can do what all great athletes do - start using you the power of your emotions to your advantage. Begin responding and cease reacting.
Take a deep breath. Check-in. Breathing is a simple yet powerful way to take control of any situation. But not just any breathing - focused breathing. Ever notice a pitcher take a deep breath on the mound? Or a basketball player before a big free-throw? Those are deep, deliberate, focused breaths meant to control emotion. It’s breathing with purpose. When you engage in this type of focused breathing, your body goes through physiological changes that impact your emotional state. Your heart rate slows. Your blood pressure drops. Your muscles loosen. An oversupply of oxygen rushes to your brain, stimulating your parasympathetic (think paramedics!) nervous system and calming you down. Focused breathing before and during competition will help you connect with your emotional state, giving you the opportunity to stay calm under pressure and keep intense focus on your performance.
One of the most powerful tools in an athlete’s arsenal is visualization. The ability to see the results you want before they happen. Your brain can’t tell the difference. It believes whatever you are ‘seeing’ is actually happening. So why don’t we use this technique when regulating our emotions? Imagine yourself in a heated battle late in the game. See the opponent, the unruly fans, the atmosphere. Feel the tension and the pressure of the moment. How do you feel? How do you respond? See yourself staying calm under pressure, taking deep breaths, and being in total control. The more you practice this in your mind, the more likely it will become second-nature in the game. This is the preparation you need to avoid reacting when emotions begin to run high.
“I hate this team.”
“These officials don’t like us!”
“I am terrible today.”
“I need to hit this foul shot or coach will take me out of the game.”
The words we say to ourselves MATTER. Unfortunately, keeping those words from becoming weeds that spread negativity in our minds is very difficult. Our minds run wild all day with uncontrolled, uncontested thoughts that at times will inevitably be negative, defeating, and filled with emotional baggage. We need to retrain our thought process and be more aware of our inner monologue.
We may not be able to stop intrusive negative thoughts from entering our minds, but we also don’t have to feed into them. Trying to ignore or suppress these thoughts will only make them stronger. Saying “don’t think that” to yourself only puts more pressure on you, which can further deflate your mood and self-confidence. If I said “don’t think of a pink elephant,” guess what you immediately start thinking about...that’s right.
In psychology, this is known as the “ironic process theory.” Deliberate attempts to suppress a thought actually makes it more likely to surface. Instead, you need to accept, challenge, and replace that negative thought with one that is more constructive. In place of a pink elephant, think of a purple zebra. See, it works!
Become more aware of the words you use when speaking to yourself. Reframe them to be more focused and specific on what you can control. Avoid using general, broad strokes to describe your performance.
Instead of thinking “I am terrible today,” shift your focus to specific parts of your game that are off and recognize things that you are doing well.
“My curveball isn’t sharp today. Let me work on locating it better.”
“I’m short on my jump shots today, I need to use more legs.”
Now instead of being “terrible” you are identifying the specific areas of your game that aren’t working. “Terrible” is hard to fix. Throwing more curveballs for strikes is something you can work on. This thought process encourages positivity, growth, and helps steady your emotions.
James Gross and Ross Thompson (2007) offered a five category model to promote a more strategic approach to emotion regulation. Based on their research, here are three strategies to help you be more responsive to your emotions and less reactive.
Appraise the situation. What you control. What you don’t control. Take account of your emotions. Are you choosing them? Or are they controlling you? Do your emotions match the situation? Are you too intense or not intense enough? If you are a golfer, should you be listening to heavy metal music right before a 7-foot putt to win a match? Or do you need to put yourself in a more calm, focused state? Ask yourself these questions as you take note of the situation and how you are feeling.
Direct your attention toward emotions that benefit you and away from emotions that negatively impact you. Consciously choose what you pay attention to. Instead of listening to the chirping from the opposing fans in the crowd, put headphones on during pregame. Instead of arguing with the official, shift your focus to hustling back on defense. Instead of fixating on the losing score, focus more on how to best execute the next play. In the end, it’s about choice. What you select to attend to can help you stay on track and gain back momentum, despite things not going your way.
Once you have appraised the situation and focused your attention more directly, you’re in a position to respond rather than react. You’ve laid the groundwork and have now equipped yourself to adapt appropriately to the moment. Instead of the emotion choosing you, you are empowered to choose the emotion. In turn, this will enhance your ability to make good decisions, keep your head in the game, and maximize your performance.
Don’t leave your performance to chance when it comes to emotion. Use these techniques and strategies so that you are obtaining the correct emotional state for competition and getting the most out of your ability. Instead of trying to avoid become emotional, athletes need to learn how to regulate their emotions and use them to their advantage. Emotional responses will happen. They are a part of sports. If you are passionate about winning, it’s nearly impossible to eliminate emotion. The key is to harness it and maximize your performance.
When was the last time you did an emotional check-up?