How Athletes Regulate Emotions

Emotions in Sports.

The ability to perform on and off the court is tied to emotions. Emotions must be controlled for peak performance. Athletic psychological research identified four emotional styles:

  • Seether: Bottles up emotions and does not show feelings. Once emotional “inventory” is full, loses emotional control.
  • Rager: Uses emotions as fuel. Excites self and/or holds on to feelings when “triggered”. Prefers to feel anger and excited type feelings. Is inconsistent in performance because emotions come and go.
  • Brooder: Gives up when losing. Does not regain composure. Becomes useless and can bring down the team if things are not going well.
  • Zen Master: “Lets go” of emotions. Does not hold on to or chase feelings.


Of the four emotional styles, three are “victim to emotion“, and one is “master over emotion“. ‘Mastery’, is being able to recognize negative emotional reactions before they hurt performance. It is achieved by being able to quickly answer the following questions,:

  1. What is the current feeling? – – Name the feeling, (e.g., anger, despair, sadness, etc…).
  2. What caused the feeling? – – Be specific, (e.g., a bad shot, incorrect referee call, unscrupulous opponent, etc…).
  3. What are the underlying causes? – – (Usually baggage from earlier stages of development).
  4. What are alternative emotional responses? – – Instead of saying, “this sucks”, or, “this is bad”, or, “unfair”, say, “better next time”, or, “I got this”, or, “I know how to do this right”.


There are appropriate and inappropriate reactions to emotion.


Emotional responses happen when the path to some goal is blocked AND finding oneself powerless to remove the obstacle(s). The resulting feeling is sometimes called anxiety.

There is a tendency to punish oneself when experiencing anxiety. Usually, the punishment exceeds the crime. Think about it this way, during the course of a single game, volley, or practice session, there will be many mistakes.  Treating one mistake with an over-reaction starts a chain. Mistake leads to desire to correct mistake -> which leads to inability to do so, (because it is in the past), -> which steals attention away from the activity -> which causes even more poor performance. It creates a cycle of failure and self-chastisement. Ruminating on a mistake leads to and creates more mistakes. Trying to resolve anxiety by focusing on the anxiety fuels the anxiety.

Essentially, the inner self is saying:

“There is a threat, can’t overcome it, can’t run away, therefore, I am inadequate”.



Strong negative emotions tighten muscles and thus prevent peak performance. Secondly, focus is shifted to the “object of blame“. Lastly, self-talk becomes negative. The result is an inability to perform.

Overcoming negative emotions begins before the competition. It begins with a correct mindset. It’s about managing pre-performance stress; Learning to be a good, positive self-coach; Releasing tension in the body; Focusing only on the next ‘NOW’, (next shot, play, moment, etc…), not the past. Shift focus to see competition itself as enriching. Realize, perfection is not possible. Remember, it’s about ‘competition‘, not ‘winning‘. See it for what it is, an emotional challenge.

According to one expert, “Difference between winners and losers is coping skills”. This means, being able to enter a ‘comfort zone’ when necessary. If provoked, to have no response. Coping skills are learned during practice, as well as away from the game – in daily activities. Coping strategies are learned intentionally. They are equivalent to lifting emotional weights. The result of learning and applying the coping methods leads to increased emotional control.


Most athletes have a warm-up routine and an after-performance routine.


Think of a tennis player preparing to serve, or a basketball player dribbling ritualistically at the free-throw line – these are warm-up routines.

Warm-up routines can include visualizing top performance, (for 20-30 seconds per area), and mantras. Techniques can be used in combination.Visualize and imagine yourself performing well while listening to a song you like. Say to yourself, “this is epinephrine I am feeling“, in times of anxiety, or say “This is my body preparing to perform well“. Practice off the court and then on.

When feeling symptoms, refuse to interpret physiological body responses negatively. The heart-rate may increase, sweating, nausea, slight panic, loss of concentration, feeling hot, or chills, adrenaline, tunnel vision, dry mouth, weakness in the knees, hands, and feet, etc…  Symptoms are the body’s way of preparing to “fight or flight”. Our cognitive brain can override these symptoms.


Do not interpret this emotion as bad, as the natural tendency may suggest. Instead of focusing on the symptoms, which will pass, or focusing on the past event, which you cannot change, or the reason for negative emotions, which likewise, you cannot change;  focus on doing well now. Train yourself to instantly recall and bring to mind past successful performances at current activity.

Practice “letting go”, deep relaxation, and breathing. Set realistic expectations before the competition. Have a mantra, “I am _____, I do _____“, remember your athletic role.

Be aware of body language. Do not slouch or hang your head – it sends the wrong message.

Practice off the court. Perform a relaxation routine. Then, think logically about the event, game, match, or the moment which brought you discomfort. Decide to perform better next time – just don’t do it while the game is going in, wait until after. Take whatever went wrong and set up a specific amount of time to working out possible solutions in the future. If it was a missed lay-up or putt, practice the play. If it was a moment of bad judgement, review the moment in your mind until you are certain you know how to handle it.


Techniques and directions of further interest.


Try to include these methods in your warm-up or post-performance routine:

Learn and apply the three R’s to any stressful situation:

  1. Recognize – you are focusing on the mistake
  2. Regroup – by interrupting the negative chain, or cycle.
  3. Refocus – on the next play, let go of the past.

Seek out some version of PRT, or ‘psycho-regulatory-training‘; this may include:

  • Meditation
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation
  • Autogenetic Training (such as hypnosis)
  • Imagery and Visualization
  • Breathing Exercises
  • REST and Floation (sensory deprivation)
  • Music
  • Emotional Recovery (such as vacations, outings, family time, and hobbies)


Alex is a freelance writer and student of life. He spent some time attending University in NYC after high school where he studied Physical Education. He was born in Odessa, Ukraine on October 6, 1991 (25 years old) and moved to America when he was 9 years old. He started writing when he was in college, mostly by helping friends with their school papers. He enjoys music and plays guitar. He also composes for the classical guitar and produces original electronic music. He spent some time writing original books, but never published. His interests include reading books and playing basketball. If you would like to know more, ask a question, or simply say "hi", you can send him an e-mail at: [email protected]