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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 play.  Athletes and other individual can learn to manage their emotions in ways that improve performance and the overall quality of experience.


A great demonstration on the value of emotional agility 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 this 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.


Contrary to what one might think, managing emotion is not about burying frustration, excitement or disappointment.  It is more about acknowledging the emotion and then channeling responses constructively to have positive impacts on performance. Emotion is internal reaction to a situation.  They have the potential to distract a performer from maintaining an optimal activation level or provide a challenge to focus more intently.



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.


Five reasons to work on emotional composure:


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

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

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

4 –       enjoyment and satisfaction is more available of the sport experience by managing     the emotions that can be felt in sport

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


Here are five ways overly emotional responses 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


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.


Athletes who are in competitive social environments where coaches lead by example are much more likely to demonstrate emotional composure.  High stakes games such as play-offs or tournaments are also typically more charged emotionally.


While we cannot always control the social environment or competitive situation however with education, practice and guidance athletes can learn to more aware and be more in charge of their own emotions.  A good place to start is to understand the anatomy of emotions and then learning strategies for more effective responses.


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 component i.e. ‘I can’t believe I missed that shot, you’re not on today at all’

B – The physiological and feeling 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 component of the emotional reaction largely represents the self-talk, the mental stories and images we have about a situation. Athletes need to start with becoming more aware of their thoughts in a given situation.  Then learn to challenge negative self-talk statements and change them into something more constructive.  A popular and effective technique called ‘thought stopping’ suggests that we can mentally ‘step in’ and ‘park’ a thought.  We then substitute the negative thought with something more positive.  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.  Or simply coach yourself and say something like, ‘park it!’ and shift your attention to the next play.


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 might need to really commit to visualizing yourself handling a challenge with greater poise, ease and confidence.  This may take frequency, definitely a sincere desire and possibly the help of a trained professional.

Strategies targeting physiological elements are categorized as arousal-regulating techniques such as taking one or two deep centering breaths, physically shaking out tension or thinking relaxation into areas of tension.  Acknowledging and admitting the emotional feelings can also help an athlete can past the negative emotions as well.


Other strategies include maintaining positive body language and consciously re-focusing on the task at hand help an athlete shift attention more constructively. Keeping good athletic posture for the demands of your sport position can have your body to lead your emotions and thoughts in a more positive direction.


From the behavioral perspective, some athletes develop little rituals to more formally move past a mistake or set-back during performance.  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 a negative emotion will plague the remaining performance.


If this is an area you need to work on, know that you need to believe that is it an important skill to develop and that it is going to take some practice.  If you are experiencing a negative emotion that consistently plagues your experience of sport and these techniques are not helping you, then I strongly encourage you talk to a professional about your experience to explore these emotions in a more in-depth way.


Otherwise, the skill of emotional agility for performance is available for athletes to develop and has the potential to have a positive impact on the quality of sport experience.


All the best in sport and life,




Tara Costello-Ledwell, M.A., C.S.P.A.

Sport psychology & mental performance consultant