Sport invokes emotion. For a sportsperson the emotions they experience will be the difference between realising their potential or instead falling short. Yet too many sportspersons underestimate the power of emotions or don’t even think of it in the first place. Most people, let alone sportspeople don't understand what an emotion actually is, let alone the important differences between emotions, feelings, and moods.
In this blog I will explain what emotions are, and then why negative emotions are the enemy of sports performance and positive emotions should be your best friends.
I suggest you read this blog a few times - I’m going to pack lots of information into a short space. Take a deep breath – here we go!
An 'emotion' can be thought of as an electrochemical spark in the limbic system of our brains. This gives real physiological changes in the body which we experience (through our nerve endings around our visceral organs) as 'feelings'. An ‘emotion’ is not a ’feeling’, and the overall experience of emotion plus feeling plus stimulus plus cognition is ‘mood’. There are 6 basic emotions – fear, anger, surprise, sadness, joy/happiness, disgust – everything else is a ‘blend’ of these.
Emotions are linked to our thoughts and our bodies, our attention and our focus. They provide our motivation, which can be thought of as “movement through emotion”. Negative emotions motivate us to move away from something and positive emotions motivate us to move towards. The feelings associated with negative emotions tense us up. Positive emotions promote feelings that relax us.
Emotions are linked to our attention and focus. Our attention and focus guide our thoughts. Our thoughts dictate our behaviour, which creates our results.
With me so far? You may want to go back and read all that again!
Let’s get to the practical bit, and what the correct emotional state is for ultimate sports performance. In a nutshell, positive emotions are your friends, and negative emotions your enemies.
For the ultimate sports performance a person needs to be in the state of ‘flow’, which I define as “easily and effortlessly and unconsciously doing the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right effect”. This will only be possible if you have a positive emotion present.
Negative emotions create tension in the body, positive emotions promote relaxation. In sport if your body is tense you will be working against yourself – like you are driving with the brakes on. If you have a positive emotion you will be relaxed – allowing yourself to be efficient and only using the muscles that are required. This means that you can be more efficient, faster, more accurate, and your conditioning will last for longer.
What we give focus and pay attention to we unconsciously move towards. Negative emotions concentrate our focus and attention on what we don’t want to have happen. Positive emotions concentrate our focus on what we want to have happen. I would suggest that in sport the positive emotion wins again, allowing us to focus clearly and give the appropriate attention to performing well.
Most sports require a suppression of pain during performance. Pain is there to move you away from the source of that pain – it is there to stop you from causing yourself damage. Pain is a subjective experience. If negative emotion is present the subjective experience will be worse, if positive emotion is present the pain will be less or not there at all. I wonder, how much more would you do with a positive mind-set?
Here are some examples of emotions in sports performance, and how we can flip a negative into a positive.
Our self-talk and metaphors help to shape our emotions. Think of a cyclist who may want to “attack the hills”. What emotion is he creating, positive or negative? Think about the supporting structure to the metaphor – what is he paying attention to? I would suggest that there will be a negative emotion present and he will be paying attention to the challenge, the struggle, and the threat. Would it not be better to change the metaphor, maybe to have the cyclist “flying up the hills”? Notice the more positive emotion and thought structure that this supports, and imagine now how the body will respond in kind.
A sprinter may be on the starting block thinking “I can’t false start”. He is still paying attention to what he doesn’t want to happen, and in doing so the negative emotion will be present ‘assisting’ him in poor performance. It may be better for him to think “start clean”.
Many fighters feel the need to get ‘aggressive’ or ‘angry’ before a fight, as they believe that these negative emotions will create the right physical and mental state to perform well. They’re wrong. They are just creating an environment where they won’t perform to their best – an environment with tension, incorrectly directed focus and attention, and inefficient motivation. As a suggestion ‘excitement’ may be the correct state. Excitement is the angel to anxiety’s devil. They are the same yet polar opposites. Both have similar feelings – yet with anxiety comes tension whilst excitement brings relaxation allowing flow. Both have sharp focus and attention yet excitement will let you pay attention to what you need to be doing.
I say that sports performance relies 100% on the mind. Sure, you need technical ability and conditioning – yet if your mind isn’t in the right place you won’t even get to training in the first place! The emotion you hold in your mind will directly affect this mind-set – it provides your motivation.
I have just briefly skimmed through the role that emotions play in sports performance, yet still have provided masses of information. Perhaps as you re-read this blog you can learn how to utilise this information to your advantage, and start to achieve the sports performance you are capable of.
I regularly provide my Ultimate Sports Performance (USP) workshops to clubs, groups and gyms. Emotions are just one of the many points I can cover. If you are interested in hosting me for one, please don’t hesitate getting in touch via www.garyturner.co.uk. I regularly work with individuals too utilising a host of psychological interventions to help you achieve top performance. If you want me to work with you, please don’t hesitate to contact me!