Author: Donato Fanelle, MA
Sports can be an emotional roller coaster, so it’s important for athletes to be able to maintain composure while they compete. Lack of emotion isn’t always the answer, as many athletes need some emotions to perform their best, put in the effort, and maintain their best focus. On the other hand, playing with too much emotion can cause athletes to lose their cool, focus on the wrong things, and make poor decisions. In order to consistently play their best, athletes must find an ideal balance somewhere between too much and too little emotional activation.
There are various theories as to the “right” level of emotional activation for athletes, but what it comes down to is that each athlete’s optimal level depends on a wide variety of factors including the sport they are participating in, their experience, skill level, and environment. Some athletes perform their best at a higher level of emotional activation, while others perform better at a lower to moderate level. To understand where your optimal level is, reflect on your best performances and think about your energy level, what emotions you experienced, and how these factors impacted your focus, confidence, and effort. Think about times that you played with too much or too little emotion and how that affected your performance. You could also talk to teammates, coaches, and people that know you best to see what they have observed in your performances.
There are lots of factors that can cause an athlete to lose their composure, such as bad calls, unfortunate bounces, trash-talking opponents, subpar play by teammates, and unruly fans. While anger or frustration can be natural reactions to these circumstances, dwelling on those negative feelings will only cause the athlete to get even more angry and frustrated. Often the more “revved up” you are, the more likely it is for one small thing to trigger a negative emotional reaction.
If you find yourself getting too “revved up” or having too much emotional activation, here is a 4-step process to “rev down” and maintain your composure (or regain it if it’s already been lost):
1.) Recognize, 2.) Reset, 3.) Refocus, 4.) Respond
- Recognize – Notice the internal cues that indicate you are losing your composure. Some of these cues include shallow breathing (short breaths from the chest rather than deep breaths from the diaphragm), speeding up processes or routines, excessive sweating, excessive muscle tension, negative self-talk, poor body language, feeling of a loss of control, blaming others, or making excuses. Also, if a coach or teammate says that you need to “relax” or “calm-down,” then they might have noticed that you are losing your composure. It’s important to recognize these cues because it’s your body’s way of alerting you that you have an excessive amount of emotional activation.
- Reset – Take a deep breath from your diaphragm. When you take a shallow breath, you’re breathing from your chest, which requires more work to bring the same amount of oxygen to the blood as slow, deep breathing. More work means more oxygen is needed, thus more rapid breathing. It also means more blood is needed, so more strain is placed on the heart, which can lead to some of the internal cues stated above. Taking a deep breath can cure this vicious cycle. Placing your hand on your belly, breathing in for a count of 4, holding it for a second or two, and then breathing out for a count of 6 is a good way to ensure that you are taking a proper deep breath. You can also incorporate a cue word or phrase, such as “relax,” “focus,” or “play your game” as a reminder to stay in the present moment.
- Refocus – Bring your attention away from the problem and towards a solution. Bad calls, bad bounces, and tough breaks are inevitable. Yes, they might be frustrating, but dwelling on negatives and uncontrollables means you are not focused on the task at hand. Refocus your attention to the present moment. Ask yourself “what are 2-3 controllable things that I am going to focus on for the next play?”
- Respond – Take action! Mentally tough athletes do not dwell on the negatives, nor do they make excuses. Mentally tough athletes embrace challenges and adversity with a positive attitude and respond to them with effective action.
There are ups and downs throughout competition, but by recognizing your emotional activation level, and then resetting, refocusing, and responding accordingly, you give yourself the best chance to consistently play your peak.
And a little food for thought to leave you with: If you notice that one of your teammates has lost their composure, screaming at them to “CALM DOWN!” or pointing out all the things they did wrong is probably not going to help them calm down in the heat of the moment. Gently reminding them to take a deep breath and refocus, or a few words of encouragement is a more effective strategy to help a teammate to compose themselves.