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This post is by associate Triage Practitioner, and guest blogger, Matthew Savage 

With the climax of the English football season fast approaching, and just one point separating the top two teams, many people will be watching intently to see who out of Liverpool and Manchester City can “keep their cool” and take home the Premier League title. Some may say that one side is better than the other and that technique, skill, tactics or “luck” will be the deciding factors. However, it is important to consider the intense mental strain that such high-level competition can have on individual athletes and coaches. Being an elite sportsman takes dedication, motivation, skill and mental toughness. It takes a lot of emotional control for a player to be at their best during competition and issues with emotional regulation have blighted many a sports player throughout the years. with many suffering unintended consequences as a result. For example, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney have both “lost control” during highly charged England football matches, leading to terrible abuse being thrown their way following the match. In tennis, John McEnroe is famous for his regular emotional outburst on court, especially against Bjorn Borg, a man who was lauded for his for his rigorous discipline and who, despite retiring at 26 years old, won 4 more grand slams than McEnroe. So this leaves the question: how important is emotional regulation in sport? What kind of emotions are felt and what are some techniques to control our emotions during sporting competition?

What kind of emotions are most commonly felt during sport?

It is widely accepted that steps can be taken to manage emotional responses to sport and this is seen as a vital part of sporting success today. For example, Orlick and Partington (1988) studied the mental links to excellence in Olympic athletes, examining three states of readiness (mental, physical and technical). Of these states, only mental readiness was statistically linked to final Olympic rankings. During sporting competition, a whole range of emotions can be felt ranging from happiness or elation after scoring a goal, or getting a win, to sadness and despair at a loss, anger at an opponent for perceived cheating, surprise, guilt, pride and excitement (Campo et al, 2019). Emotions can have an impact on performance, motivation, health and wellbeing and, because of their importance, have been heavily researched. Emotions can be defined as “brief positive or negative feelings which happen due to meaningful environmental stimuli and these can influence mood states.

Moods are defined as less intense and prolonged affective states which are often consciously thought about and feelings involve both emotional experiences and physical sensations (Gendron, 2010). Further distinction can lie in that emotions are often seen as something that happens to us following an automatic appraisal of the environment for things that are important, whereby a feeling may be seen as something that is developed once the emotion has penetrated the consciousness (Beckoff, 2007). It is in the distinction between emotions, moods and feelings and how they are developed that can lead to some of the biggest disagreements in the literature. Social construct theories pertain that emotions are developed through interaction with the surrounding environment and evolutionary theorist believe emotions are genetically guided characteristics and behaviours developed for survival and built into a human’s “hardware”. Because both these theories hold value, it is fair to suggest that emotions during sport can be both voluntary and automatic responses to an external stimulus.

How much of an impact can emotion have on our performance?

Much of the research has focused on stress and anxiety and its impact on performance but it is also important to consider that emotions can be harnessed for future performances. Momentary lapses in emotional regulation can lead to consequences for both the individual and also other participants. For example, very obvious consequences of an emotion in sport can be anger and a loss of control could lead to the sending off of a player in football, leading to the team having to play with less players. This could lead to an immediate reduction in confidence for teammates and also a direct boost in confidence for the opposition. More covert impacts can include a loss of focus, shift of attention to retaliation, start of negative self-talk and criticism and a reduction in technical ability, further impacting the performance and motivation of the squad.

Some of these changes may be seen in non-verbal behaviours (NVB), which include body language, posture and facial expressions, and these have also been shown to correlate with future performance outcomes. For example, avoidance behaviours such as looking away from the goalkeeper or rushing preparation have been shown to correlate with worse performance and a higher chance of missing and celebratory behaviours can have an effect on the opponent who is next to shoot (Jordet & Hartmann, 2008). These NVB’s are often seen as automatic, though management strategies can be implemented if thought about in advance. In addition to this, emotions such as fear can also lead to an automatic response, such as specific facial expressions, blood flow changes and reactions which are designed to combat certain stimuli. For example, falling off a beam in gymnastics may impair future performance if higher order cognitive functions, positive learning and coping strategies are not put in place following such events.

What coping strategies can be used in sports to enhance performance?

Because it is vital to maintain high levels of mental readiness before, during and after sporting events, sports psychology has been a growing industry for many decades now, and most major sporting bodies and teams will have a sports psychologist as part of the team. Such psychologists are tasked with creating strategies for individual players and teams to overcome mental barriers during competition. Such strategies include:

  • Listening to music and establishing routine – Many athletes can be seen entering stadiums and changing rooms with headphones on to distract and calm anxiety prior to competition. However, listening to music is a mentally active process which, if done too close to the start of an event, could lead to a lack of focus and so timing is important. Establishing a routine is a good way to ensure this does not happen and a strong routine uses less cognitive resources, giving more energy for establishing focus.
  • Establishing optimal attentional focus – This is the process by which an athlete allocates mental resources to cue, stimuli or states and covers four areas of attentional focus (Neumann, 2019). These areas include broad external (environmental elements), broad internal (strategies within the athlete), narrow internal (mental rehearsals of upcoming action) and narrow external (a focus on specific external cues to generate action). Mental preparation across these areas can include mental imagery of good technique, mental examination of procedures in difficult situations, recreation of emotional situations, rehearsing events to come, positive affirmations and a focus on past successful events, such as a successful training session (Hamilton, 2020). Focusing on things that are in the athlete’s control are also vital to successfully establish optimal attentional focus.
  • Response modulation (suppression) – Understanding your emotions is key to being able to suppress them where necessary in sport. For example, an awareness of non-verbal behaviours is vital to ensuring body language and behaviours remain positive during sporting events. Other methods include noting down and recognising which emotions have the potential to help or hinder performance. Using “if-then” statements can help to prime the mind for future events. This involves considering “if A happens, then B will happen” and the steps involve identifying the stimulus, identifying the current story (so what B currently is), identify a new story for B, create an ‘if-then’ statement and then repeat this statement as much as possible away from competition to ingrain the positive story. However, If-then statements are not so successful for intense negative emotions and other strategies can be more effective for the management of these.
  • Anger management – As one of the most damaging emotions in sport, anger needs to be controlled to maintain optimum performance. A number of strategies exist including keeping a hassle log, deep breathing, visualization and role play (Gapin, 2012). A hassle log involves writing down incidences that led to anger, including the thoughts, emotions, reactions and consequences experienced during the game. This allows for greater awareness for similar future events. These incidences can also be role played away from competition and training, allowing time to practice more positive responses to similar anger-provoking situations. Positive affirmations and cue words can be recited also in addition to this and deep breathing exercises can further support the success of the above strategies.

About Matt Savage

Matthew Savage is an associate triage practitioner and neurological personal trainer. He has two masters degrees, one in psychology, another in clinical neuroscience at the distinction level and is also a Level 3 Personal trainer. Matthew combines his knowledge and interest in neuroscience, cognitive and physical rehabilitation and general wellbeing to provide positive physical and mental support to his clients.

References 

Campo, M., Mackie, D. M., & Sanchez, X. (2019). Emotions in Group Sports: A Narrative Review From a Social Identity Perspective. Frontiers in psychology10, 666

Furley, Philip. (2020). An Evolutionary Approach to Emotions in Sports. 10.4324/9781003052012-4

 

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