When athletes allow anger and frustration to manifest into full-blown outbursts while playing their sport, they almost always end up playing far below their potential (The Parents Playbook). While it is obvious that athletic performance suffers when athletes completely “lose it” (the ones who break equipment, start fights, etc.), did you know that even the smaller, more controlled anger disruptions can still negatively impact athletic potential and success? Controlling emotions is a big part of mental toughness development, and can be the difference between success and failure if not dealt with in a healthy way. Sport psychologists know this, and so should you.
So just how does uncontrolled anger directly impact athletic performance? The answer is in two, inter-related ways:
- Cognitively – When an athlete becomes angry about the last missed or bad play, focus is usually the first thing to go. In other words, rather than doing what he should be doing (focusing on the next play), he will likely instead continue to dwell on the previous bad play. Naturally, this only compounds the problem, as it becomes that much more likely that with poor focus will come more bad plays – and more uncontrolled anger!
- Behaviorally – When we become upset and angry, our bodies respond in a number of physiological ways (i.e. increased heart rate, more rapid breathing, and constricted muscles). When these body changes occur, the athlete is usually left to deal with a higher arousal level that will need to be controlled and tempered in order for perfect mind-body synchrony to once again develop. In sports where precise muscle movements are paramount (like golf, pitching a baseball, or shooting free throws), the increased tension athletes feel when over-aroused can dramatically throw off the synchrony needed between the message the brain sends to the body and the ways in which the body carries out the brain’s instructions.
Many athletes deal with anger, frustration, and poor coping when it comes to sport stress (Mind of Steel). Unfortunately, most athletes (and coaches) do not properly identify and accurately frame the problem, and end up doing what they think will help – simply practicing more. Of course, extra practice will never hurt an athlete, but it is an example of working harder rather than smarter if we are talking about controlling emotions, improving mind-body synchrony, and developing better mental toughness.
To further illustrate this point lets use the following example — if an athlete struggles in games with frustration on the basketball court, prompting her to simply “practice more” in typical practice-situations will likely not solve the problem (the most obvious reason is because it’s not a real-game situation). Instead, the athlete will benefit far more by learning simple coping skills that can help during games, like learning how to moderate breathing, using imagery, or having a cue word to revert to when times are tough. Learning how to respond to failure and frustration is the key, and can only be fully developed by learning skills designed to help combat negative emotions experienced in games.
Negative emotions, especially anger, can rob an athlete from reaching his or her full athletic potential. Learning how to channel negative emotions into competitive, healthy emotions is key – and the good news is every athlete can improve in this area!
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