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The Secret to Emotion In Sport: It's Not All Positive and Negative

Is it good or bad to play angry?


Does it help or hurt performance to be nervous before the whistle?


The answer: it depends on the athlete.


There are no right and wrong emotions to feel before and during competing; there are simply effective and ineffective emotions.

Before I dive into what this means, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what emotions are. When talking to athletes about how they feel, it’s important to be clear. How they feel physiologically (heart racing, jittery) is not the same as how they feel emotionally (happy, angry). So what are emotions?


Here are some examples:

Aggressive, angry, anxious, bored, confident, confused, disappointed, embarrassed, excited, frustrated, hopeful, indifferent, overwhelmed, relieved, sad, and withdrawn.


There are plenty more to round out that list, but that’s a good start. As you read through the list, I’m sure some of those emotions seemed positive or negative to you. For example, being angry or anxious seem like they fall into the negative category, while being confident and hopeful certainly seem positive. But, this is where we run into problems when considering athlete performance. It’s not about being positive or negative, it’s about being effective or ineffective for performance.

Effective emotions are emotions that help an athlete enhance performance. They help him/her stay focused, motivated, and driven, and recover quickly from mistakes.


 Ineffective emotions are emotions that decrease performance. They cause an athlete to get distracted, overthink the game, or become too amped up or too relaxed.


So, how do you determine which emotions are effective for you? And how do you sustain those emotions throughout competition? It starts with some self-reflection. Take a couple minutes to consider these questions:


Picture your best game:

What emotions were you feeling before you played, and during competition? Write them down and explain how they helped your performance.


Picture your worst game:

What emotions were you feeling before you played, and during competition? Write them down and explain how they hurt your performance.


Just answering these questions honestly and thoroughly is a great start to identifying your effective emotions. Once you know what some of your effective emotions are, you’ll want to feel them before you play to set yourself up for success in your game or competition. Consider adding them to your pre-game routine. For example, if you like to be confident before you play, carve out 1 minute in the locker room to replay your best plays in your mind; create your own highlight reel.


Think about what works for you and commit to it consistently!

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