Often in life we can break down our decisions to fall within 2 distinct categories: Logical and emotional. When we employ logic, we engage in critical thinking, exercise patience, objectively weigh evidence, and tamp down our feelings that might get in the way of sound decision making. Conversely, when we are emotional, we ignore logic and instead “go with our gut,” or just think and behave by feel. Both logic and emotion have their place within the human experience, but when improving mental toughness the key is to stay in balance and not make logical/emotional decisions disproportionate to what makes sense. For example, using logic all the time may steal from those exciting, spontaneous moments in life, while working regularly from an emotional mindset can lead to regrettable, not-well-thought decisions that actually create and/or compound problems.
The human continuum of logic and emotion
Logic and emotion are on opposite sides of the continuum, meaning that we cannot experience both at the same exact time, and that we tip in the direction of one over the other at any given point in the day. For example, you might begin your day with an emotional decision by purchasing the latest fancy coffee drink at Starbucks — even though you do not welcome the extra calories. Later in the day you might use your logical brain to work through upcoming weekend plans that include various scheduling and logistical challenges. Generally speaking, there is a time and place for both logic and emotion to be employed, and when we get it right good things usually follow. The problem, however, is when we employ the wrong mindset for the situation.
When we examine mental toughness in sports, most of the time the focus is on learning ways to control emotions and keep them in check. In fact, mentally tough athletes tend to stay even keel because they have learned techniques to keep emotions in check after they make a mistake, get called for a foul, and experience any kind of failure while competing. The “highs” never get too high, and the “lows” never get too low, allowing mentally strong athletes to synchronize their minds and bodies and coordinate muscle-memory movements for success.
The negative impact of uncontrolled emotions
Athletes who allow their emotions to regularly interfere with what they are doing on the field almost always fail to live up to their potential for an number of reasons. First, the emotional roller coaster they experience disrupts the natural rhythm athletes need to perform because breathing becomes irregular, muscles tighten, and anxiety takes over. Athletes also lose their focus when emotions emerge, as attention redirects toward something irrelevant (the last bad play), instead of what is relevant (the next play coming up). And finally, emotional outbursts lead to inconsistent play, and that leads to a decrease in self-confidence — resulting in greater anxiety and less on-field success.
When we talk about mental toughness, we are referring to the ability to moderate emotional and logical thinking and apply each at the appropriate time. For example, it makes sense for an athlete to engage in logical thinking when trying to work through a tough game that requires offensive and defensive strategies and techniques. In football, players have to know their role with each new play, including where to go and who to block. Players also have to be disciplined to not jump off-sides, and to keep emotions in check for when a penalty is called against them. While logical thinking is needed to execute plays successfully, emotions are important in sport at the right time. For example, football players should enjoy the emotions associated with lead changes, big plays, and picking up momentum after stopping the opposing team. These emotions experienced can trigger all kinds of great things, including a positive attitude, more confidence, and greater resiliency when things don’t go well. As you can see both logic and emotions are important, the real challenge is learning when to engage in logical and emotional thinking.
Unlike robots, human beings have the capacity to both think and feel, allowing us to use logic when we need to problem-solve, and emotions when feeling the effects of a specific outcome. Athletes who learn how to regulate the times in which they use logic and emotion develop a high degree of mental toughness, and this mindset in turn allows them to play consistently and at their highest levels. Developing mental toughness is a skill that can be learned and improved upon, and is arguably just as important as any sport skill an athlete will ever develop.