Can emotional awareness be developed as a sports skill?
Emotional intelligence – why your head should rule your heart
In recent years, sports psychology research has seen the rise of a concept named emotional intelligence. But what is it, how can it help sports performance and how can we enhance our own emotional intelligence? Andy Lane explains.
Emotional intelligence is a relatively new concept that has emerged over the last decade, which to date has principally been studied in business settings (1). It is defined as ‘the capacity to recognise and utilise emotional states to change intentions and behaviour’. Emotional intelligence can be measured using pen and paper tests(2); in such tests, the responses to statements such as ‘When I experience a positive emotion, I know how to make it last’ and ‘I motivate myself by imagining a good outcome to tasks I take on’ are recorded and assessed. Emotional intelligence can be summarised thus:
The ability to recognise different emotional states;
Assessing the effects of emotions on subsequent behaviour;
The ability to switch into the best emotional state to manage a particular situation.
Not surprisingly many businesses have used emotional intelligence ratings as part of their selection processes, but the ability to recognise the emotional states in others in the sporting context is clearly desirable, and the skill of raising the emotions of the team is a potentially priceless asset.
In a recent study, we looked at emotional states associated with success and failure in sport competition and academic examinations (3). The expansion of sport science as an academic study means that growing numbers of students experience the dual stresses of taking examinations and participating in competition. The results of this study are depicted in figure 1 which shows that a) emotions are strongly associated with success, and b) emotional profiles linked with success are somewhat different between sports competition and an examination.
Compared to exams, success in sport was associated with vigour and anger. Importantly, emotionally intelligent people can get themselves into the appropriate emotional states for the demands of the situation. If the situation requires high arousal, as in the case of athletes in our study, emotionally intelligent people are good at getting themselves psyched up. Equally, if the situation requires calmness, emotionally intelligent people are good at relaxing themselves.
Our research group has conducted a number of studies looking at the nature of emotional intelligence (4). We have found that emotionally intelligent people use psychological skills such as imagery, goal setting and positive self-talk more often than their less emotionally intelligent counterparts. We have found that emotionally intelligent people are mentally tough and also that they find exercise enjoyable. Importantly, it seems that emotional intelligence can be enhanced through suitably developed intervention packages. What follows is a six-stage approach to assessing and implementing strategies that people can use to enhance their emotional intelligence:
Stage 1: Developing emotional self-awareness
The capability to change emotional states and learning how to change emotions in relation to performance requires self-awareness. We need to be able to identify when our emotions are influencing our performance and how our emotions change over time. We need also to be able to assess the emotional states that other people are feeling, picking up on their body language, verbal and non-verbal gestures.
There are many possible ways in which to assess emotions, including standard psychometric tests; however, athletes often find repeated completions of standardised scales to be a tiresome task. An alternative approach is to use an open-ended diary type approach such as a video or an audio diary.
Assessment of emotions should start by asking the athlete to think carefully about a situation in which performance was very important. It helps if the athlete spends some time rehearsing this situation in their mind, and tries to remember how they felt. The athlete then writes down all of the emotions they experienced. They should also rate how they performed in the situation to allow comparisons between successful and unsuccessful performance.
Emotions such as anxiety can be positive and negative. It is the combination of emotions, and the thoughts that are linked with these combinations, that determines whether these emotions are motivational or demotivational.
The table shows an example of the interpretation of a team’s emotions. This is a typical response; athletes tend to use similar constructs to explain success and failure in the individual or team setting – for instance good performance being associated with high self-confidence and poor performance with low self-confidence.
The team description of emotions linked with success talks about the need for common goals even though each individual has a specific goal. Note the emotions that derive from feeling that some players put more effort into training and performance than others. Team cohesion will not develop without a sense of common purpose, for example achieving a common goal, and believing that every player needs to contribute 100% effort to that goal. If team members believe some make more effort than others, this can lead to a blame culture and scapegoating.
Key point: The athlete should assess both their own emotions and those of their team-mates (using mental imagery to help recreate the situations) and note which were associated with best performance and which with poor performance.
Stage 2: Developing self-awareness of emotional states during daily performance
Stage 2 builds upon stage 1. If stage 1 provides the extreme emotions linked with success and failure, stage 2 provides the ‘running commentary’ of emotions on a daily basis. Here is a small sample of the emotions experienced in a professional soccer player:
Felt furious during the drive into training. Too many people on the road. Why do bad drivers follow me to work?
Felt tired this morning. Struggled with training this morning. Became frustrated and felt a little angry when I made mistakes
Felt happy with overall effort made in training
Became irritated later in the day over trivial matters and cannot think why, but was angry nonetheless
Notice how emotions from things other than sport can influence how we interpret new situations, whether sport or otherwise.
In this example, the player was frustrated and felt angry during the drive into training, and as a consequence, became angry during training. It’s likely that his poor tolerance of errors (by others and himself) was in part because of feeling angry and tired at the onset of training.
Stage 3: Identification of strategies to regulate emotion
It is important to remember that there are ways of dealing with emotions such as anger and anxiety without the need for intervention by a sport psychologist. For example, research has found that listening to music is effective at changing a range of emotions (4).
For example, a soccer player recognises that he preferred to release feelings of anger publicly with the result that everyone around him knew he was annoyed. However, while anger might have been helpful to him, it might not have been helpful to the team who might not have understood why he was angry, especially as they were not aware that he started getting angry on the drive in to training. Equally, he uses the team for emotional support and is seemingly unaware of the influence his expressions of anger alter his team-mates’ emotions.
Stage 4: Set emotionally focused goals
Once an athlete becomes aware of emotions he or she has experienced, the effect these have on team-mates and, importantly, whether the emotions were helpful or unhelpful, the next step is to try to change these emotions. For example, identifying that the athlete may experience dysfunctional anger when tired can lead to effective strategies designed to control these feelings. Goal setting has been found to be an effective intervention strategy in a plethora of different skills, but the desire for change is crucial. Resistance to the notion of the adverse effects of negative emotions on others will only serve to maintain a lack of cohesion in a team setting.
Stage 5: Engage in positive self-talk
Once the individual has identified a need for change, developing an appropriate self-talk diary that can run alongside a diary used to record emotions can be helpful. We cannot change our emotions immediately, but we can change the dialogue that runs through our mind when we experience emotions
It is often difficult to engage in self-talk that is counter to the emotion being experienced. For example, depressed individuals find it difficult to engage in positive self-talk. By contrast, happy individuals find it easy to maintain positive mood. Positive self-talk statements are best conducted when the athlete is calm and when the emotion diary or performance diary is being evaluated. Asking an athlete to think of a sentence that they can say to themselves when they recognise the beginning of detrimental emotion can be a helpful way of preventing that emotion from starting. We have found that athletes quickly grow in confidence in their ability to recognise and control emotion through self-talk, and the early stages of raising emotional intelligence can be rewarding for the athlete and consultant.
Stage 6: Role-play to develop emotional control competencies
Role-play can be a very effective method of working with emotions and can also be an enjoyable activity for those taking part. Role-play works effectively when a situation described in the daily diary is re-enacted.
A good starting point is to deal with specific emotions that are frequently experienced in the person or group of persons you’re working with. In keeping with the soccer data presented above, it appears that our athlete frequently experiences anger and publicly releases this anger as a strategy to control or change it. Someone could therefore act as the referee to try to frustrate the player, while others play the role of team-mates, where the aim is to frustrate the player further.
At the end of the role-play, the build-up of anger can be examined, particularly the warning signals that could be used to prevent the player becoming dysfunctional. Feedback from other players on the consequences of their team-mate getting angry and how this affects them can also provide a valuable source of information.
Anger typically follows a pattern, and anger control involves teaching strategies to recognise the building frustration and strategies to deal with these feelings. One strategy might be to try to reinterpret the cause of the anger, but this is very difficult for people prone to anger, who usually find it difficult to think beyond the immediate and highly intense feelings of rage.
An alternative strategy is to try to increase physical effort to alter the situation that is causing frustration. However, this might not be compatible with the arousal levels that are required for the task. If the task requires calmness and planning, increasing effort can produce further frustration. For example, if a football team goes behind, one player madly chasing the ball might be counter-productive to the required tactics!
One possible strategy is to teach players to manage their anger internally and not to show anger to the opposition or to other team-mates. Players typically buy into this approach because they are aware that poor emotional control can lead to poor performance or poor discipline. In this approach, players are taught to visualise releasing the anger externally and to play this image in their mind when they feel angry. The player effectively releases the anger but does not affect team-mates or provide impetus to the opposition in doing so.
Emotional intelligence is concerned with the awareness, appraisal and utilisation of emotions for individuals and for teams. Emotional intelligence can be altered through training that focuses on the role of emotions in our behaviour.
1. J of Vocational Behaviour 2004: 65, 71-95
2. Mood and human performance: Conceptual, Measurement, and Applied issues. Nova Science Publishers 2006: 1-35.
3. Journal of Sports Sciences: 2005; 23, 1254-1255
4. Tuning up performance – music and video as ergogenic aids. Peak Performance April 2006; issue 228: 5-7 Electric Word Plc