Opponent: ‘You’re gonna lose today.’

You: ‘…’

Opponent: ‘I’m gonna chew you up.’

You: ‘…’

Opponent: ‘You’re a f*cking horrible player’

You: ‘…’

Opponent: ‘I’m gonna kick you into the ground.’

You: ‘…’

 

How do you react to this? It is expected of you to always contain your anger or rage on the pitch. How can you make sure you can stay in control? What is the best way to deal with a situation such as this one? Will it improve your performance? Will it crush you? Or does your vision get hazy, shortly after which you exit the field with a red card?

Strong emotions can completely take over your behavior without you being in control or even aware of it. This is called emotional hijacking, and even the best football players in the world have to deal with this. A coach wants to help, but cannot get beyond ‘stop reacting emotionally!’ or ‘Come on, just let it go!’ Of course, he means well, but this is neither practical nor easily done.

There is a complex world hiding behind simply ‘not reacting’ or ‘letting it go’.

In order to create a practical, workable situation for this case and many others, we need to take a few steps back and understand this process, starting at what an emotion actually is.

What is an emotion?

Before you find out whether you can use emotions to improve your performance, of course you’ll need to know what an emotion is. This might sound a little bit childish, but try this: ask three different people to describe to you what an emotion is. These three people will without a doubt give you three categorically different answers. Without having discussed what a specific emotion means to you, you cannot help or improve one another.

It is as if you work together to score, whilst everyone thinks the goal is in a different place.

Since there are so many features and characteristics to emotions, the best way to describe them are along three general parts: (1) an emotion is movement, (2) an emotion can be felt in the body, and (3) an emotion is different for everyone.

An emotion is movement

The word emotion originates from the Latin motere, which means ‘to move’. The prefix ‘e‘ gives direction to this movement. Take ‘love’ and ‘uncomfortable’ as examples. When you’re in love, you want to be near or around a certain person. You move into the direction of this person. But when you are in an uncomfortable situation, you just want to get out. You move away from the situation. An emotion therefore is a tendency to exhibit a specific behavior.

Because there is a direction to an emotion, this means it is always directed at or towards something. This could be a situation or a person, but also an imagined or hypothetical situation can prompt an emotion. You might get annoyed with a teammate (person), be happy about a victory (situation) or be afraid to make a mistake (imagined situation).

An emotion can be felt in the body

In one hour the game starts. The more you think about it, the faster your heartbeat rises. Your palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy and you can feel your mouth drying up. The game fully immerses your mind, leaving no space for anything else.

Imagine your body as an orchestra. An orchestra is composed of many different instruments and together they can produce a wide range of sounds, just like your body. The first violin is your heart, the transverse flutes are your stomach and the trumpets are your skin. When all sounds together create a coherent piece of music, we call it a symphony. Or in the case of your body, an emotion.

In anticipation of the game, your body is playing a certain symphony. You recognize this, because you’ve felt this so many times before that you can name the emotion you feel. If you orchestra plays two songs at the same time however, or if every musician starts playing random notes, it becomes difficult to give the ‘song’ a name. Still, you’re hearing a lot of sounds. Your body can do the same thing, which can make it very difficult to describe the exact emotion you’re feeling in a moment.

Your brain is the conductor during all of this. You cannot fully control every part of the orchestra, but you can direct the collective. If you’ve had enough practice.

An emotion is different for everyone

Think back to the situation before the game. What emotion were you thinking about? Many people experience the description of above as stress or anxiety. The way in which you experience stress can differ from how I experience stress. Your emotion is not my emotion. Two different orchestras can play the same song in a slightly or vastly different way. The same goes for emotions.

The emotion described in this example does not have to be stress or anxiety per se. Your body does the exact same thing when you are excited, enthusiastic or very eager. When the same sounds have a different name, it changes the way you look at or perceive them. This can have a strong effect on the subsequent behavior you exhibit, or the train of thought that follows.

Every emotion is therefore at its core a tendency to exhibit a certain behavior, and every emotion has its own characteristic way in which it manifests in different people in practice.

Research into emotions and performance

Emotions lead to behavior and a good performance is nothing else than optimal behavior at the right time. It is therefore a logical next step to start investigating how exactly this works.

The sports psychologists that first researched this found that with more self-confidence, less tension and less fear, you generally perform better. This research was done over 60 years ago.

More and less are terms that indicate there are several levels of intensity to emotions. Where more or less stops however, is not really clear. Is it ideal for your performance to have maximum self-confidence, without any form of tension or fear? Too much confidence might lead to nonchalance, and what is the effect of all the other emotions on your performance?

A bit of tension can help you focus and activates your body, and a lot of tension can cause tunnel-vision and making wrong decisions. This means that you can have too much, but also too little stress. Somewhere in the middle there is an optimal intensity of tension to perform well. This was a commonly accepted idea about forty years ago, and it’s called the reversed-U hypothesis, because the line of the graph looks like a reversed U (note the staggering resourcefulness of these scientists)

However, there are two problems with the reversed-U hypothesis. For accurate scientific research one needs large groups to facilitate statistical analysis. The results that are found will then be true on average. This is exactly the problem, as it is hard to generalize advice that is true on average, for a specific individual athlete.

The second problem is actually a direct consequence of the first one. Because we are working with big groups, there is no attention for quirky individual traits in the margins. What if an athlete needs to feel audacious and a little bit cheeky in order to perform well? There’s no research into that. Besides, as mentioned, the experience and effect of an emotion is different for everyone. Even if they would research whether feeling audacious and a little bit cheeky would boost performance, you still cannot assume the results of that research will be true for everyone.

About twenty years ago, a very elegant answer to this problem was created: the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (the IZOF). With the IZOF, we look at a specific and personal set of emotions that each have a certain intensity. This set of emotions is different for every individual, which makes it a kind of emotional fingerprint. In this way, a zone is created. When an athlete is fully in his or her zone, the chance of an optimal performance is maximized.

The IZOF therefore solves both problems of the reversed-U hypothesis at the same time. The research into the emotions of other athletes can no longer be used to tell you how you should feel, because your zone is your zone. Also, we don’t have to resort to statements about specific emotions that are true on average, because we’ll be looking at how well you perform when you’re inside our outside of your personal zone.

How can you use your emotions?

You are no longer dependent on research; you can start by yourself. As it happens, this is about your emotions. This does include a lot of self-reflection. You’ll need to ask yourself a lot of questions, and they might not be very comfortable to answer. Which emotion helps me play football better and why? Which emotions cause me to perform terribly and why? How did I feel when I played my best game? How did I feel during an awful game? Am I playing well when I feel tense? Do I need some stress or tension, or rather not? What motivates me? When do I let my head down? What annoys me before or during the game, and how can I prevent this? Can an opponent easily provoke me? If yes, how can I prevent this? Am I aware of all the things I’m feeling? If I feel bad, do I know what the consequences might be? How can I make sure that I actually feel the emotions I want to feel? Are there negative emotions that help me improve my game? Does my coach know I become a better player when I’m annoyed or irritated?

This could be a nearly-never-ending stream of questions. The more you answer, the more you get to know about yourself, increasing your mental strength and resilience. The ultimate goal is to know exactly what your zone looks like, how you get into your zone, what situations could get you out of your zone and what you can do to prevent that. So the next time you’re being taunted on the pitch, you know exactly what to do whenever your coach urges you to ‘not react emotionally’ or ‘just let it go’.

 

Sources

  • Anderson, C. R. (1976). Coping behaviors as intervening mechanisms in the inverted-U stress-performance relationship. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61(1), 30-34.
  • Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence. London.
  • Hanin, Y. L. (2007). Emotions in sport: Current issues and perspectives. Handbook of sport psychology, 3(3158), 22-41.
  • Vallerand, R. J., & Blanchard, C. M. (2000). The study of emotion in sport and exercise: Historical, definitional, and conceptual perspectives.