Sports Psychology: Maintaining emotional control in competitions

Competition & Emotional Control

Here are some pre-performance strategies for taking control of your emotions before they take control of you. Competition can bring out the best or the worst in athletes, and the psychological demands are especially high when individuals or teams are striving to achieve the same goals. When physical skills are evenly matched, it is often the competitor with the stronger mental approach, who can control his or her mind before and during events, who wins. However, many athletes wrongly assume that mental aspects of performance are innate and unchangeable when, in reality, systematic mental training can have a similar impact on performance as physical workouts. Getting into the correct mind-set prior to competition is one of the most crucial aspects of top performance. In fact, a study of Olympic athletes by Orlick and Partington (1) showed that the combination of mental and physical readiness was a key factor that distinguished more successful athletes from their less successful counterparts in the Olympic Games. Perhaps even more impressive is the finding that, of the three states of readiness assessed (mental, physical and technical), only mental factors were statistically linked with final Olympic rankings. If you have ever observed performers during the lead-up to competition, you can’t have failed to notice that behaviour starts to change. As the anticipation builds, athletes and coaches cope with the demands of the situation in various ways, some becoming withdrawn and quiet and some more aggressive than usual, while others disappear frequently to the toilet. Emotional reactions to stressful situations can drain an athlete’s resources and impact negatively on performance if poorly-managed. That is why it is important to have in place a strategy to deal with pre-performance stress.

Triggers for emotions

Emotions can be defined as brief positive or negative feelings occurring in response to meaningful or important situations, which can influence mood states. Basic emotions such as fear, anger, joy and surprise are commonly experienced in sport, although complex mixes of emotions are often evident. Positive emotions can help sustain motivation and enable us to approach events with enthusiasm and energy. Negative emotions, by contrast, are linked to avoidance behaviours and withdrawal. Emotions in the sporting arena can be triggered by many things personal to an individual, including memories, conversations with other people, seeing the competition venue, weighing up the opposition etc. Researchers have studied emotions in order to determine why they occur and what impact they have on behaviour. At first it was thought that emotions were simply the result of physiological changes, since physiological symptoms, such as increased heart rate, were commonly observed in such reactions. To test this theory, scientists injected volunteers with the so-called ‘stress’ hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) to see if emotions could be generated in the laboratory. A small minority of participants reported feeling genuine emotions (usually sadness) while most reported physiological changes (to be expected after administration of adrenaline) and ‘as if’ emotions – feelings closely associated with being happy, sad or angry, but not the ‘real thing’. Subsequent research demonstrated that emotions could be induced by directing participants’ thoughts to emotional triggers, such as deceased relatives (sadness) or past achievements (pride). In summary, research in these areas has shown that both physiological arousal and the cognitive interpretation of that arousal are important in determining the emotional response.

During the lead-up to an important competition, the body starts to prepare for the demands to come by releasing hormones such as epinephrine into the bloodstream, setting in motion the physiological changes associated with increased arousal (sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response). In addition, changes occur in the attentional system, as athletes become more focussed and alert, with increasingly active minds. This overall increase in arousal can be your best friend or your worst enemy: and the key to achieving an appropriate mind-set is to analyse the changes in a rational manner and channel your emotions in a positive direction. Many élite athletes associate increased arousal with excitement as the body readies itself for competition, and use it as a cue to focus on pre-planned routines. This positive interpretation of the arousal response usually leads to more positive emotions and optimistic outlooks. Conversely, some athletes interpret physiological changes like an increased heart rate as anxiety, worry and apprehension, with a negative impact on emotions that is not conducive to good performance.

The most important thing to remember is that your interpretation of physiological changes directs your emotional response. However, the relationship between thoughts and emotions works in both directions: although emotions are the result of cognitive interpretations, they can also impact on your thoughts, giving rise to a vicious circle of negative thoughts and emotions. The good news for athletes who experience unhelpful emotions before competition is that you can gain more control by altering your focus of attention. The next time you feel these unwanted changes occurring try going through the following psychological routine:

Tell yourself ‘this is my body preparing me to perform well’, and repeat the affirmation as necessary;
Try to recall an image of yourself either winning or performing well, and connect this with the feelings you experienced at the time.
You will need to practise this routine on a regular basis in order to establish it as a habitual response that will help you feel more composed and energised before competitions. If negative images jump into your mind during this time, try to visualise the most successful athlete in your sport and the way he or she runs, competes, enjoys performing – in short every positive thing about them; Then visualise yourself with similar positive attributes. Even experienced athletes get nervous and irritable before competing, and a little tension (as long as it is controlled) is often necessary to inspire maximal performance. The techniques outlined above will not remove all the tension, but they should help you to channel your emotions more positively, which is what top athletes have to learn to do. The difference between winners and losers often boils down to coping skills, in that some athletes have learned to cope with competitive situations better than others.

It is important to challenge the belief of some athletes that emotions and mood states are simply reactions to external events; in fact, the athlete has considerable capacity for control in this area. A recent study by Stevens and Lane identified a number of strategies employed by athletes to regulate their moods (2). Although unique strategies were employed for specific mood dimensions, results indicated that ‘changing location’ and ‘listening to music’ were among the most commonly used strategies. Various research studies have demonstrated the ability of music to impact on emotions and mood by either calming or stimulating the individual as required – although careful consideration is needed in the selection of appropriate music. Listening to music or engaging in a mentally active process, such as a crossword, can help to stop the mind wandering in the hours leading up to competition, although immediately beforehand athletes need to be completely focused on the task in hand.

Having worked with sportsmen and women who have experienced emotional disturbance prior to competing, it is clear to me that mental preparation needs are highly. The common approach that I have found successful is to develop with each athlete a coping response that becomes automated and can be consistently applied in changing circumstances. Such a coping response puts the athlete in control by creating a familiar psychological comfort zone regardless of whatever is going on in the external environment.

One of the biggest triggers for anxiety is uncertainty, which is, of course, inherent in all sporting events. The key principle for the athlete is to control the things you can control but not to waste energy on things you can’t control. Many top athletes have found, to their cost, that giving attention to how opponents might perform or how technically good others were in the warm-up has a negative impact on their focus. The one thing you can control is your own preparation, so that should have your full focus. By developing consistent routines and ways of coping with distractions, uncertainty can be reduced and you are less likely to be negatively affected by external factors.

Because athletes have varying requirements, it is impossible to standardise the pre-competition preparation. However, you may wish to adopt some of the ideas below in creating your own pre-performance strategy to achieve the desired emotional state. These ideas are all designed to be put into practice in the hour before competition, although the principles can be adapted for other times.

Physical preparation

The warm-up period can be an important psychological aid as well as preparing the body for the rigors of competition and helping to prevent injury. Remember the comfort zone? By developing a relatively stable warm-up routine, including mobility work, stretching and increasing deep muscle temperature, uncertainty can be reduced and the athlete’s attention directed to appropriate cues, such as quality technique and body awareness. The development of routines in sport has consistently been shown to be important in directing attentional focus to important cues, so aiding performance.

Although during last summer’s major athletic events it was impossible to observe what was going on inside the minds of the sprinters, you could clearly observe the regularity of the warm-up routines and the intense concentration written on athletes’ faces prior to taking their marks. These routines are not haphazard, but have been systematically designed to promote optimal functioning in the final few minutes before performance.

Golfers have routines that allow them to prepare in the same way for each shot, as do some rugby place kickers, and tennis players before serving. The key to any routine is that it provides the athlete with control and directs attention to the important cues. Coaches and athletes should work together in deciding the key attentional cues and the sequence in which these should occur. Such routines are the opposite of superstitious rituals that take control away from the performer, as with superstitions outcome is essentially believed to be controlled by sources other than the self.

Mental preparation

The mental aspects prior to performance should involve focussing on what you are going to do during the event. This can include specific strategies, and the establishment of optimal attentional focus. Some athletes will like to use imagery to recall positive past experiences and generate a sense of confidence. Imagery is a very flexible method to employ prior to competition but it needs to be used correctly for maximum effect. Imagery is not just a form of visualisation, but moreover an all sensory experience that should involve the kinaesthetic sense, emotions and auditory experiences to increase the impact. Many people use imagery to simply see themselves winning but it can be employed to imagine good technique, coping with difficult situations, recreating emotional feelings and rehearsing the up-coming event in the mind. Imagery is a powerful technique since the brain interprets the imagined scenarios very literally, so directly enhancing such psychological variables as confidence. Always keep imagery sessions short (no more than a few minutes) and simple just before competition. Tailoring the imagery to the desired outcome is essential, so if you want to improve your mood, imagine a realistic scenario that makes you feel good. For more advice on incorporating imagery into your preparation, you may like to read a very practical book entitled In Pursuit of Excellence (3). Mental preparation can include the repeated use of positive self-statements (affirmations) such as ‘I have trained hard, and am in great shape’. These affirmations act by occupying our attention in such a way as to change our belief system over time, so that we begin to attend to feelings or happenings than are consistent with these new beliefs. In the example given above, we begin to focus on events that reinforce our belief that we are in great shape, such as a fast training run. In this way negative perceptions can be tuned-out.

The ‘quick set’ routine

Psychologist Jeff Simons has described one of the best ways to organise the last 20-30 seconds before competition in what has become known as the quick set routine (4). This three-phase routine is designed to provide a quick focus that can be used just before competition or as a means of refocusing quickly following a distraction. It is minimal in content, which appeals to many athletes, and involves a physical, emotional and focus cue. An example for a sprinter could be:

Close eyes, clear your mind and maintain deep rhythmical breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth (physical cue);
Imagine a previous race win, see yourself crossing the line first and recreate those feelings (emotional cue);
Return your focus to the sprint start, thinking of blasting off on the ‘B’ of the bang (focus cue).
However meticulous your planning, things often occur at the competition site that are out of your control. Such events have the potential to impact on your emotional state, distract you from your goals and push you out of your optimal state of preparedness. However, it is important to remember that things only become distractions if you let them. They do not have to negatively influence your mood if you can learn to let them go and refocus. Such distractions can by provided by your opponents. It is increasingly common for opponents to use psych-out strategies or mind games to try and break your concentration and consistency. Comments such as: ‘I’m surprised to see you competing so soon after that injury’ are attempts to divert your attention away from your preparation and towards negative memories and self-doubt. The best strategy with such comments is to ignore them, although that is easier said than done. If you feel yourself attending to them, it is important to become aware that you have lost your optimal focus and need to refocus quickly. First, ‘let go’ of the distraction and put it out of your mind; say to yourself ‘let it go’, shake down your body, and refocus on your breathing. Some people might prefer to use their quick set routine to refocus in such circumstances.

Remember that some opponents are actively seeking to unsettle you, and that by reacting to their comments or behaviours you are falling into their trap and allowing them the psychological edge. By engaging in this psychological duel you run the risk of disrupting your emotional state, becoming over-aroused and suffering a catastrophic decline in performance that is difficult to recover from quickly. Reacting emotionally often means that you discard your carefully laid plans and operate a strategy of reprisal. Self-control is best regained by not reacting to provocation. This, in turn, can make your opponent worried or angry as it demonstrates that his or her attempts to undermine you have failed. Attempts to engage in such antics can, in any case, be a sign that your opponent is worried about you. A classic example of how emotions can affect sport performers came in a famous boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. Leonard was considered the better boxer who was expected to outclass Duran with slick movements and long-range punching. However, before the fight Duran insulted Leonard in front of his family and this, to the dismay of Leonard’s Trainer Angelo Dundee, sent Leonard into a rage, which completely altered the course of subsequent events. Instead of fighting to the pre-planned strategy devised with his trainer, Leonard let his emotions take over and decided he was going to ‘beat-up’ his opponent. Duran’s actions amounted to a psychological masterstroke as Leonard ditched his boxing skills and opted for a brawl. It was exactly what Duran had hoped for, and he won a points decision.

There are many other potential distractions for the athlete, including the actions of friends or family, coaches or team mates, the environmental conditions, memories, delays and irrelevant thoughts. All of these can detract from your preparations, so be ready to clear your mind and refocus as necessary. Additionally/alternatively, remove yourself physically from the source of these distractions if possible. Learning any physical skill takes time, effort and practice. Psychological skills are no different in this respect, so don’t expect miraculous overnight changes in your performance. If you are a serious athlete, it is best to work with your coach to devise routines and mental plans. Once you are happy with these, they can be introduced first to practice situations and later to competition. Give yourself a few weeks to use these new techniques before re-evaluating them and adding or deleting parts as necessary. It is unlikely that the initial plans or routines will be perfect, so do not be afraid to develop them. It is also sensible to add distractions to your training sessions in order to simulate more realistic conditions. This can include attempting to refocus while people are trying to distract you. You might even practice your refocusing skills using imagery, by envisaging potential distracting scenarios in your mind. Only when you are comfortable with your strategies should you start to use them in competitions. Remember to give it time, as improvements take time to show through.

Emotions are an essential part of sport and competition, but if you don’t gain control of them before competing they might control you and hinder your performance. While it is true that some people are more emotionally sensitive than others, taking mental charge by implementing psychological plans and routines can help all athletes to a more optimal state of readiness for performance.

Lee Crust


The Sport Psychologist, vol 2, pp 105-130, 1988
Athletic-insight: the online journal of sport psychology, vol 3 (3), 2001
‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ (Third Edition), Terry Orlick, 2000
Track and Field Quarterly, vol 92 (1), 1992

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