Sports can evoke a wide range of emotions, from inspiration, pride, exhilaration, and satisfaction, to fear, frustration, anger, and panic, often in a very short time span during training or competition. Emotions lies at the top of the Prime Sport Pyramid because it has been my experience that they ultimately dictate your ability to achieve Prime Sport (defined, if you recall, as being able to perform at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions). Your ability to perform consistently is often determined by the consistency of your emotions; as your emotions go, so go your performances. And your ability to respond positively to the inevitable challenges you will face in training and competition are, again, often impacted by your emotional reactions to those challenges. Because of this influence, your ability to master your emotions gives you the power to use emotions as tools to facilitate individual and team performance rather than weapons that hurt you and your team.
I have found four emotional styles among athletes. These styles involve characteristic ways in which athletes respond emotionally to their sport. Athletes with a particular style react in a predictable way any time they find themselves in a demanding situation.
The seether feels frustration and anger build slowly during the course of a competition. They appear to be in emotional control, but that is only because the negative emotions haven’t surfaced yet. They’re able to keep the frustration and anger in check as long as they are performing well and the competition is mostly going their way. If the competition turns or they make a crucial error, they can explode and lose control emotionally. Often, they’re not able to reestablish control and end up losing the competition.
The rager also feels anger and frustration strongly, but it is expressed immediately and openly. For this type of athlete, showing strong emotions acts as a form of relief (or so they think). The emotions arise, are expressed and released. By doing this, the rager is able to maintain a kind of emotional equilibrium. Up to a point, this ongoing emotional outlet helps their performances by increasing motivation and intensity. However, though these athletes let the negative emotions out, they do not really let them go. If the competition turns against them, the rage builds until it finally engulfs and controls them. At this point, their emotions become their enemies and their performances deteriorate.
The brooder also feels strong emotions, but, unlike the seether and the rager, the most common emotions are despair and helplessness. These athletes tend to dwell on negative experiences, thoughts, and feelings and can be seen as pouting during a competition. Brooders are very sensitive to the highs and lows of a competition and their emotions tend to mirror its course. If they’re performing well and winning, they’re fine, but if they perform poorly and are losing, the “down” emotions emerge and hurt their performance. They may possess a strong defeatist attitude and are best known for their giving up in pressure situations. There are no world-class or professional athletes who completely fit this emotional style because someone could not reach such a high level of performance if their dominant emotional style was as a brooder. However, there are many successful athletes who have some brooding qualities, which can prevent them from getting to the very top of their sport.
The Zen master is the rarest of the emotional styles because they’re largely unaffected by threat and negative emotions. Errors, poor performances, and losing seem to slide right off of them, as if they are made of Teflon. They have the ability to not let pressure situations affect them and they’re able to let go of past mistakes and failure. The Zen master rarely shows emotions, either negative or positive, and maintains an consistent demeanor even in the most critical competitive situations. This equanimity results in consistently high performance and positive reactions to the normal ups and downs of sport.
What emotional style best describes you? Think back to competitions you have performed in that did not go well. How did you respond emotionally? Were you a seether, rager, brooder, or Zen master? It’s likely that a pattern of emotional reactions will emerge in your sport that place you into one of the four emotional styles.
Emotional styles are not easy to change. In fact, there is evidence that we are born with a particular temperament, in other words, we are “hard-wired” that way and rewiring our emotions is real challenge (though not impossible). A first goal is to gain control of your emotional style so that it helps rather than hurts your sports performance, with a more long-term goal of actually altering your emotional style in a way that allows it to naturally facilitate rather than interfere with your efforts toward your competitive goals.
Emotional Master or Victim
Many athletes believe that they are the way they are emotionally, have little control of their emotions, and there is nothing they can do to gain control of them. If their emotions hurt them, well, they just have to accept the situation because they can’t do anything about it. I call these athletes emotional victims, where their emotions control them, they possess unhealthy and unproductive emotional habits, and their emotions hinder their ability to perform well and achieve their goals.
Despite these perceptions, my work has clearly shown that athletes are capable of becoming emotional masters. Athletes can gain control of their emotions. They can develop healthy and productive emotional habits. And their emotions can facilitate their ability to perform well and achieve their goals.
Emotions are a simple, but not easy, choice. They are a simple choice because if athletes have the option to feel badly and perform poorly or feel good and perform well, they will certainly choose the latter option. However, emotions are not an easy choice because their hard-wired temperament, past emotional baggage, and old emotional habits can lead athletes down the bad emotional road can cause them to respond emotionally in ways that are unhealthy and result in poor performance. The choice comes with awareness of when old emotional habits will arise and choosing a positive emotional response that will lead to good feelings and successful performance.
The process of emotional mastery begins with recognizing the negative emotional reactions that hurt your sports performances. When you start to feel negative emotions during a competition, be aware of what they are, for instance, frustration, anger, or despair. Then identify what situation is causing them.
After the competition, consider what was the underlying cause of the emotions. This might require you to examine your emotional baggage. If the emotions are strong and you find that they present themselves in other parts of your life, you might consider seeking professional help (a lot of my work focuses on clearing these emotional obstacles). Such guidance can assist you in better understanding your emotional habits, how they may interfere with many aspects of your life, and how you can learn new emotional responses that will better serve you in your sport and in your life.
To continue the process of emotional mastery in practice and competition, specify alternative emotional reactions to the situations that commonly trigger negative emotions. For example, instead of yelling, “I am terrible,” you could slap your thigh and say, “Come on, better next time.” Or, instead of screaming at the referee after a disputed call, you could turn your back and take several deep breaths. These positive emotional responses will help you let go of the past mistakes, motivate you to perform better next time, generate positive emotions that will give you more confidence, and allow you to focus on what will help you raise the level of your performance.
Recalling that mental skills like emotional mastery are skills, this positive reaction will not be easy at first because your negative emotional habits are well ingrained; realize how difficult it is to change a bad technical habit! But, with commitment, awareness, control, and practice, and the realization that you feel better and your performance improves with a positive response, you will, in time, retrain your emotions into positive emotional habits. The result will be a transition from being an emotional victim to becoming an emotional master who now has the tools to not only perform much better, but also be a whole lot happier.