“You have to be able to centre yourself, to let all of your emotions go. Don’t ever forget that you play with your soul as well as your body.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Can I Control my Emotions in Sport?
We cannot block out or control our emotions 100% when performing. We have to accept that the whole spectrum of emotions, like thoughts, are an inevitable outcome of our interactions with our world and the unknown, uncertain and uncontrollable forces in it.
This is especially true in the high-pressure, highly judged world of sport or professional music where we put so much value and emphasis on our life’s work being demonstrated for high stakes.
So if we accept we cannot pick, choose, block or control our moment-to-moment emotions 100% then what can we do to manage their effect on our mind and body in performance situations?
We can accept and understand them. Then we can build a new relationship with them so we can process emotions and influence them in a positive way. Our interpretation or belief about an emotional state is the key to reducing its effect on attention and performance.
Focusing less on controlling or hiding from emotions, and more on strengthening our interpretations of emotions when they are triggered allows more flexibility of mind and adaptability to the situation at hand. This can reduce their undesirable effects on performance and increase their value as you harness a range of emotions so they work for you.
Can I Channel my Emotions in Sport?
It’s exciting when we learn we can work with emotions in this way.
For instance the belief, or interpretation, that “anxiety will limit my ability and confidence and make me freeze up and choke”, leads to avoidance and internal struggle every time anxiety is experienced. If we adjust our belief so when we are anxious we interpret it as meaning we are ready for something important, then the shaky hands, stomach butterflies and even a pre-game regurgitation (many professional athletes do!) don’t seem as influential, and we can breathe through the sensations and worries and let it clear our system without struggle.
We can even turn anxiety into excitement or focus, as many mentally tough athletes seem to do effortlessly. This flexibility of mind to channel emotions like anger, frustration, anxiety and fear begins with making the decision to accept our lack of control of emotions, and instead making the effort to strengthen how we interpret and process emotions.
Can I Trigger Positive Emotions in Sport?
This is not to say we are helpless and it is not worth improving our ability to trigger positive emotions.
Once we accept a lack of control, we can indeed learn ways that reduce the likelihood and duration of unpleasant emotions, and regulate our arousal or energy levels in the body through things like breath and meditation.
We can also influence emotions to bring about positive emotional and motivational drives through positive self-talk, imagery, and other energising or relaxing skills. Learning to utilise music to regulate emotions also helps athletes to learn about emotions, communicate about them, and harness them for performance.
There is no ideal emotional profile for all sports or all people. Working with emotion requires a personal attention to the sport requirements and personality of the athlete or performer. A Sport and Performance Psychologist can work with you to build a profile of the ideal emotional state for you and your sport, and then work to enhance the probability that you can attain that state in training, competition, or high-pressure events.
At the same time a sport psychologist can work with you to build your ability to accept, positively interpret, and channel unpleasant emotions, so you are confident that what ever happens, you have the flexibility of mind to perform at your peak.
A Great Place to Start
A key component of emotion in performance is arousal, as it is linked to anxiety and relaxation and our central nervous system. Being able to recognise and regulate arousal is a powerful skill in sport, and can take out the charge of many unpleasant emotions. Breath work and mindfulness are powerful tools that one can learn to master with the help of a Sport and Performance Psychologist.
Our emotions can be our million-dollar ticket or our Achilles heel in sport. In becoming more mentally tough, we can set the target to build both flexibility of mind to be prepared for anything, and the ability to channel our emotions in ways that facilitate focus and confidence in ourselves.
Building self-awareness of our own emotional triggers and emotional profile, and engaging in routines and rituals that promote this before we perform will help us be at our best.
Lastly, and most challenging, is learning to accept that we are not in control, and to let go of the struggle to control emotions so we can focus on the task at hand.
Author: Abra Garfield, BPsych, MPsych (sport & exercise), MAPS; Medicare ATAPS provider.
Abra Garfield is an endorsed Sport and Performance Psychologist, with a passion for helping others to achieve optimal performance whether on the sports field, in the classroom, home or office. By drawing on a range of therapeutic techniques including Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Motivational Interviewing, Abra helps many people with goal setting, motivation, and overcoming anxiety.
Abra is the Principal Sport Psychologist and founder of Summit Performance Psychology. Visit the Summit Performance Psychology website to learn more or like us on Facebook to receive Summit Performance Psychology Articles and event updates.
Psychologist Abra Garfield has moved.
Find his details on his website: Summit Sport & Performance Psychology.