Why emotional management is a key mental performance skill.

Emotions play a central role in sport performance.  Feelings or emotions such as determination to hit the next shot, frustration at a poor call, or guilt for a poor pass, can have different impacts on performance.  Emotion can distract you, provide energy or be seen as a signal that something is amiss.

A great demonstration on the value of emotional control in sport was when the Canadian Woman’s Hockey team won the gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.   Canada had thirteen penalties called against them by the American referee.  The potential for frustration and anger to negatively impact the team was close at hand.  However, the coaches and players showed considerable leadership and poise as they maintained their composure and focus to the task. The results were golden.

You may not be going for gold but regardless of your goal you can expect that if something is important to you, you are likely to experience different emotions on your journey.  How you handle emotions on a day to day basis and in sport, a moment to moment basis, is going to have impact.

In fact, in the heat of a competition emotional management becomes a competitive skill. Positive outcomes in sport are typically the result of consistent focus and maintaining optimal arousal levels for the demands of a particular sport.

Here are six ways extreme emotional responses can hurt performance:

1 –       an athlete is thinking more about the mishap (i.e. penalty, dealing with a mistake or point scored against) than focusing on the task at hand

2 –       frustration causes tension and most sports are performed best when the athlete’s muscles are loose and reactions are responsive

3 –       a negative emotional outburst can distract teammates from their role and performance

4 –       strong emotional reactions can create an energy draining effect and be hard to recover the focus and energy needed to perform

5 –       opponents can see it as a weaknesses and a loss of confidence, making it easier to steal momentum

6 –        over-excitement before the competition is played can also change the ‘task focus’ needed for optimal performance

And here are five more reasons to work on emotional composure:

1 –       more victories will go to the competitors who show consistency of composure and focus through the ups and down of a competition

2 –       teammates will feed off leaders who maintain their ‘cool’

3 –       competitors may be intimidated by the steady confidence and composure an athlete maintains

4 –       enjoyment and satisfaction of the sport experience may be enhanced due to minimizing the emotional roller-coasters

5 –        the skills associated with emotional control can also positively impact focus and overall performance

Personality, competitive experience, social environment and particular situations, are factors that can influence a person’s response and the degree to which it affects performance.   Understanding the anatomy of emotions and developing strategies for more effective responses might save a performance and potentially add that competitive edge over a competitor.

Emotional reactions can be broken down into three components: thought (cognitive), physiological and behavioral. Here is an example highlighting a negative emotional reaction with each component:

A – The thought / feeling component i.e. ‘I can’t believe I missed that shot, you’re not on today at all’

B – The physiological component i.e. increased bodily tightness & tension, elevated heart rate, depressed shoulders and head down

C – The behavioral component i.e. bang a stick and lash out at a teammate or opponent.

We can increase our awareness with all three components and learn more positive response techniques.  Here is a list of strategies than can be combined to help athletes with this very valuable psychological skill.

The thought/ feeling component of the emotional reaction largely represents the self-talk, mental images and feelings we have about a situation. Athletes can become more aware of their thoughts in a given situation.  We can learn to challenge negative self-talk statements and change them into more positive.  A technique called ‘thought stopping’ suggests that we can mentally step in and ‘park’ a thought.  We then substitute the negative thought with something more constructive.  For example, rather than staying with a negative reaction to a call the referee has made, aim to see it as a challenge to test your team’s defense in playing short-handed and to dig deeper with your effort.

Athletes can use imagery as a thought strategy as well.  Visualize a correction to the mistake and then mentally put the mistake behind you.  For difficult situations you can visualize yourself handling the challenge with poise, ease and confidence.

Strategies targeting physiological elements are arousal-regulating techniques such as taking one or two deep centering breaths, physically shaking out tension or thinking relaxation into areas of tension.  Other strategies include maintaining positive body language, keeping your eyes focused on task relevant cues and using your ability to broaden or narrow your focus.  Keep good posture or get into your sport specific readiness position.

From the behavioral perspective, some athletes develop little rituals to more formally move past the mistake or set-back.  For a goalie, it might be tap the back board as a sign it is behind him or her.  Or to grip the curling broom for two-three seconds and upon the release, let go of the mistake and physically move on.

Some final pieces of advice, the quicker and more ‘cleanly’ you can respond with positive mental discipline by using one or a combination of strategies, the less likely the emotion will plague the remaining performance.  It comes down to staying focused in the present moment and believing that “it ain’t over, ‘til its over’.

Tara Costello-Ledwell

Sport psychology & mental performance consultant