Sports: The Power of Emotions

At the top of the Prime Sport Pyramid sits emotions. It’s closest to the top of the pyramid because emotions will ultimately dictate how you perform throughout a competition. Emotions during a competition can cover the spectrum from excitement and elation to frustration, anger, and disappointment. Emotions are often strong and, most troublesome, they can linger and hurt your performances long after you first experience them.

Negative emotions can hurt performance both physically and mentally. They first cause you to lose your prime intensity. With frustration and anger, your intensity goes up and leads to muscle tension, breathing difficulties, and a loss of coordination. It also saps your energy and causes you to tire quickly. When you experience despair and helplessness, your intensity drops sharply and you no longer have the physical capabilities to perform well.

Negative emotions can also hurt you mentally. Your emotions are telling you that, deep down, you’re not confident in your ability to perform well and achieve your competitive goals. Your confidence will decline and you will have negative thoughts to go along with your negative emotions. Also, since your negative emotions are so strong, you will likely have difficulty focusing on what will help you to perform well; the negative emotions draw your attention onto all of the negative aspects of your performance. Finally, negative emotions can hurt your motivation to perform because you just don’t feel good and it’s no longer fun.

Emotions come from past experiences in similar athletic situations in the form of beliefs and attitudes you hold about performing and competing. The emotions associated with these beliefs and attitudes are commonly known as the “baggage” you carry from your past. Your perceptions from the past impact your present even though the emotions may not be appropriate or useful in the present situation. One of the most difficult aspects of emotions is that they become habits that can cause you to automatically respond with a certain emotional reaction to a particular circumstance even when that emotional response does more harm than good. When you see professional athletes on TV, for example, totally “lose it” and get ejected from a game, you are likely seeing emotions that are self-destructive to both the athlete and their team.

Negative emotions can be provoked by many occurrences during a competition including bad calls, senseless mistakes, making an error at a crucial point in the competition, and just performing poorly. All of these events share two common elements that lie at the heart of what causes the negative emotions: You feel that the path to a goal is being blocked and you don’t seem to have control over removing the obstacle. For example, a tennis player is losing to an opponent that he believes he should beat and, no matter what he tries, he can’t seem to turn the match around. The tennis player is likely to experience frustration and anger initially. These emotions can be helpful at first because they motivate him to fight to clear the path to his goal and regain control of the match. But if he’s unable to change the course of the match, then he may experience despair and helplessness, in which he accepts that he can not win, so he just gives up.

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

In my work with high-level athletes, I have seen extremely negative emotional reactions to the smallest failures. A missed shot, a few errors in practice, or falling behind early in competition, produced frustration and anger that seemed to be out of proportion to the magnitude of the failure. For example, a young  gymnast I worked with would beat herself up emotionally for making a mistake in practice. Her level of performance would steadily decline and she would feel terrible about her gymnastics and herself. By the end of the day, she would be battered and bruised by her own emotions. Clearly, the punishment did not fit the crime.

Be sure that your emotions are proportional to what causes them. Ask yourself whether a few mistakes are worth the ill feelings you might experience. Are you being fair to yourself?  When the severity of the punishment exceeds the seriousness of the crime, you have lost perspective on how important your sport is in your life. It might be worth getting really upset if you didn’t get into the college of your choice or you lost your job, but are these strong negative emotions worth feeling over some unimportant mistakes?

You should also consider whether these emotions help or hurt your sports performances. Negative emotions can raise your performance at first because they increase your intensity and get you to fight harder. After a short time though, your performance will likely decline and it usually spirals downward into a vicious cycle from there. Negative emotions usually hurt your performances and keep you from reaching your goals. Why would you allow yourself to experience emotions (e.g., frustration, anger, depression) and act in ways (throwing a tantrum, choking, giving up) that ensures failure rather than helps you achieve success?

It’s okay to be disappointed when you make mistakes or perform poorly. In fact, you should feel that way. It means that you care about your sport and want to do better. But when your negative emotions are strong and self-defeating, particularly for how minor the crime is (you will make a lot of mistakes during your sports career), then you need to look at why your punishment far exceeds the crime you committed.

Consider the best athletes in the world. Sports are very important to them because it is their life and livelihood. How upset do they get when they perform poorly and lose?  Some get very upset. Overall, though, considering how important sports are to them, most great athletes handle mistakes and losses pretty well. In fact, one reason why the best athletes in the world are at the top is because they have the ability to control their emotions rather than their emotions controlling them.

Emotional Threat vs. Emotional Challenge

In recent years, I have found that a simple distinction appears to lie at the heart of the emotional reactions athletes have to their sport: threat vs. challenge. At the heart of emotional threat is the perception that winning is all-important and failure is unacceptable. Emotional threat is most often associated with too great an emphasis on winning, results, and rankings. Pressure to win from parents, coaches, and athletes themselves is also common. With these beliefs, it’s easy to see why competing in a sport would be emotionally threatening.

Emotional threat manifests itself in a “negative emotional chain” in which each psychological link separately and cumulatively causes you to feel badly and hurts your performances. The most common reaction to a threat is the desire to avoid the threat. There is often a loss of motivation to perform and compete, especially when the threat of losing is immediate, for example, when you are behind in a competition (think of giving up as a major loss of motivation). Emotional threat also suggests to you that you’re incapable of overcoming the situation that is causing the threat, so your confidence is hurt and you’re overwhelmed with negative and defeatist thoughts. The threat produces strong negative emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, despair, and helplessness.

The emotional threat also causes anxiety and all sorts of the negative physical symptoms. The previous links in the emotional chain make it nearly impossible to focus effectively because there are so many negative things pulling your focus away from a useful process focus. All of the previous links in the chain ultimately result in very poor performance and little enjoyment in your sport.

In contrast, emotional challenge is associated with your enjoying the process of your sport regardless of whether you achieve your goals. The emphasis is on having fun and seeing the competition as exciting and enriching. Sports, when seen as an emotional challenge, are an experience that is relished and sought out at every opportunity. Thus, emotional challenge is highly motivating, to the point where you love being in pressure situations.

Emotional challenge communicates to you that you have the ability to meet the demands of your sport, so you’re confident and filled with positive thoughts. Emotional challenge generates many positive emotions such as excitement, joy, and satisfaction. It also stimulates your body to achieve prime intensity, where your body is relaxed, energized, and physically capable of performing its best. You also have the ability to attain prime focus, in which you’re totally focused on what enables you to perform your best. All of these links in the emotional challenge chain lead you to Prime Sport and great enjoyment in your sport.



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