While it is understandable that athletes sometimes struggle to keep emotions in check during competition, it is often negative emotional outbursts that are the biggest reason why athletes fail to play up to their athletic potential. When athletes “blow a gasket” and scream at referees, their focus becomes distorted, anxiety spikes, and important mind-body synchrony needed for muscle-memory is interrupted. While it might be challenging to develop strong resiliency skills to deal with adversity, it obviously makes a lot of sense to do so if you want to play your best.
Emotions in sports
Sports are an emotional life experience, and the roller coaster of emotions felt might best be observed by watching the old introduction to the popular ABC Wide World of Sports from the 1970’s that reminded us each week of the drama and suspense sports provide:
Competitive athletes will always bounce back and forth between “the thrill and excitement, and agony and defeat,” but it is in the moments of adversity that athletes either fall behind their peers, or learn how to successfully deal with adversity and surpass the competition. Remember, even in the most difficult of situations on the field we still have a choice when it comes to how we want to handle things — we can choose to throw our hands in the air and go crazy, or we can choose to quickly move past what has already happened and turn our focus to the next play.
It’s important for athletes to acknowledge that there will be difficult, emotional challenges while playing (they are unavoidable), but often the difference between great athletes and average athletes favors the athlete mature enough to handle tough situations.
The impact of uncontrolled emotions in sports
When an athlete loses his or her cool on the field, a number of negative things can occur. Beyond the obvious impact the team might face (i.e. having players receive technical fouls, or worse yet, removed from the game), individual athletes who struggle to successfully handle adversity face the following:
- Arousal disruption. When athletes feel they are playing in the zone, it means they are playing with an optimal arousal of human energy. What this means is that their focus is precise, their confidence high, and their attitude positive. Unfortunately, all these qualities disappear when anger and frustration (and sometimes even rage) take over on the field.
- Momentum shift. Don’t let a bad call do more damage than it should by snowballing into bigger problems the rest of the game. Oftentimes big momentum shifts that have a direct impact on the outcome of games occur simply because an athlete continues to draw attention to him- or herself by arguing a call, throwing equipment, or even getting into arguments with fans.
- Ejections & suspensions. Athletes who refuse to develop their resiliency skills (it is a choice) run the risk of being ejected, or possibly suspended, because of their negative actions. Not only do these consequences impact the individual, but they also serve as a big hit to the success for the team.
If you are an athlete determined to get the most of your abilities, and if you are truly committed to that goal, then learning how to deal with adversity is actually quite easy. The problem, however, is that a lot of athletes give lip-service and say they are committed to improving their resiliency, but in the heat of the moment they find that their words mean little when they fail to actually commit to successfully dealing with tough situations.
- Accept there will be bad calls. In fact, not only will there be bad calls, there may even be wrong calls (calls where the official simply didn’t understand the rule). Quickly get rid of your frustration discretely and move on to the next play by remembering that officials don’t change calls in your favor simply because you display anger.
- Improve your emotional maturity. At the end of the day it really does come down to emotional maturity when talking about handling difficult situations. Hold yourself accountable and make the choice to respond to tough situations in mature ways, keeping sportsmanship as the foundation of your competitive philosophy.
- Positive reinforcement for your positive actions. For every situation that you handle successfully jot down a note to record your accomplishment, and use the situation as a model for future challenges you will face.
- Think of the team, not just yourself. In almost every case where an athlete loses his or her temper, not only is the athlete at-risk for getting a technical foul, but the entire team is also at-risk for team violations and/or losing you as a player due to ejection. As a member of a team, your actions have a direct impact on others and expects that you exercise responsibility that includes the welfare of everyone on the team.
Is the handling of emotions in sports an easy thing to do? Of course not! But, if you want to maximize your abilities and play at your highest level, it is a very worthwhile pursuit to learn how to keep emotions in check and deal with adversity. How we handle our frustration is a choice — remember, nobody forces us to yell at an official, throw a piece of equipment, or show up the opponent in any way — learn resiliency skills and put them into action if you want to reach your full athletic potential.