Mental Strategy: Are You an Emotional Athlete?

Are you an emotional athlete?

When I used to race ITU, I dreaded racing in the rain. The close pack of riders on twisty, turny, wet roads scared the crap out of me (not literally, just figuratively). I witnessed too many accidents in those conditions to feel light and breezy when such races occurred. In stark comparison to my nervousness was four time Olympian Sheila Taormina’s approach. She would always say, with a big grin, “I love racing in the rain. It makes things so exciting!” You call it excitement, I call it danger. Sheila’s attitude about racing in the rain only now makes sense to me; at the time, I thought maybe she had a little too much daring.

Sheila’s reaction to racing in the rain falls into something called emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is the “processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions.”[i] The concept of emotion regulation is actually fairly new. Initially, it was thought that emotions simply happen of their own volition without any actual input from the person emitting the emotions.[ii] Of course, that seems silly, because we have all been in situations where we were tested with anger or distraught about something and by counting to ten, just like we were told to do by our mothers, we managed to calm down.

Research seems to lag behind common sense, and now, it is known that individuals have the ability to exert control over their emotions using upward of 400 different strategies to “evoke, diminish, prolong or intensify emotional experience, cognition, expression and/or physiology”[ii],[iii] Clearly, controlling emotions is some kind of big deal if there are over 400 ways to do it.

Researchers like to test their hypotheses with questionnaires that measure in some fashion their concepts. Emotion regulation is most commonly measured with the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ).[i] I really like it when they come up with original names for their questionnaires. The ERQ measures two types of emotions: emotion reappraisal and emotion suppression.[ii]

Before I define those two ominous sounding terms, let’s first delve into two important questions. What is an emotion during sports participation? Why does it even matter?

Emotions during sports participation can show up in all sorts of ways. For example, you can experience elation when you accomplish a target goal. Or, you might be angry at a flat tire during a race. Or, you can be scared of racing after a prolonged injury. Or, maybe you are feeling joy while you are training on a glorious day with friends. Or, perhaps, you are anxious about racing in unfavorable weather conditions. Or, you are upset because a race is just not panning out. Or, you are hesitant about whether you will be able to complete a hard workout.

You can see from just this short list there is a wide range of emotions that an athlete can experience, sometimes all in one day! What matters, then, isn’t necessarily that the emotion is happening, but, rather, how we react to the emotion itself.

Back to the two types of emotions.

Emotion reappraisal is called antecedent-focused, meaning it is something “we do before the emotion response tendencies have become fully activated and have changed our behavior and physiological responding”.[ii] More simply, emotion reappraisal occurs early in the emotion process allowing time to divert the emotion before it becomes a problem, particularly if it is a negative emotion. Sheila’s “excitement” about racing in the rain could be construed as emotion reappraisal. Rather than getting upset or anxious, which could result in an unnecessarily raised heart rate or negative thoughts, Sheila turned her thoughts into something positive. Her emotion reappraisal served her well with excellent results.

Here are two questions from the ERQ that measure emotion reappraisal: (1) “When I want to feel more positive emotions (such as joy or amusement) I change what I’m thinking”, and (2) “When I’m faced with a stressful situation, I make myself think about it in a way that helps me stay calm.”[ii]

Have you seen a barista tamp down the coffee grounds when making a latte? Emotion suppression is sort of like that. Emotion suppression is a response-focused strategy which refers to how we manage an emotion once it has escaped from Pandora’s Box. You might find yourself getting angry over drafting at a race or getting a penalty yourself for drafting. Emotion suppression would be pushing the anger away and dealing with it after the race is over.

Here are two example of questions on the ERQ that measure emotion suppression: (1) “I control my emotions by not expressing them”, (2) “When I am feeling negative emotions, I make sure not to express them.”[ii]

Mental Strategy: Emotion Regulation
two example of questions on the ERQ that measure emotion suppression

How do emotion reappraisal and emotion suppression fit into sports performance? I am so glad you asked. In athletes, the two types of emotions are correlated, meaning athletes use both types of emotion regulation during sports participation[ii]; perhaps this is to protect against some kind of nuclear emotional meltdown. Look, we have ALL experienced some kind emotional meltdown, after all we are humans not robots. I know I have fallen apart during rough training days or during difficult races. The objective is to limit such occurrences and learn how to fend them off before they become a habit.

It turns out that emotion suppression doesn’t really correlate with other measures of positivity or negativity, though. Once the emotion has become a full-fledged EMOTION, suppressing the EMOTION is not associated with intensity or frequency of emotions, either positive or negative. This means, feeling emotions is not what impacts performance, it is how the athletes deals with the emotions that truly matters.

Athletes who scored higher on reappraisal, meaning they are able to turn negative emotions into positive ones or create positive emotions by changing their thoughts, reported “heightened excitement and pleasant emotions prior to performance, and a perception that happiness and pleasant emotions facilitate performance.”[ii] Athletes who are happier express more satisfaction with their performance, perhaps in part due to “focusing on the controllable vs. the non-controllable aspects of one’s stress.”[iv]

We all must deal with the duality of emotion reappraisal and suppression during training and races. Think about the last 5k of a marathon. It never feels good. There is worry about falling off a certain pace. Muscles are aching. There is a certain amount of anticipation of crossing the finish line. Those who excel at reappraisal will likely get through the bad patches more easily than those who succumb to the negativity of failing legs and a tired mind.

Here is one more example of how emotion reappraisal can be beneficial to performance. The unheralded Allie Kiefer set a massive PR and placed 5th at the 2017 New York Marathon. Her ability to even start was in question a few short weeks before the race due to tendinitis in her foot. She said, “Two weeks ago I said there’s no way I can run, but the last few days I was trying to change the mind and tell myself I was fit, I was fresh.”[v] Clearly, her change in mindset worked!

Next time you are faced with negative emotions, ask yourself whether you want the negativity to perpetuate itself and ruin your performance or if you want to turn that frown upside down. Use positive self-talk to break the cycle of negativity. A change in attitude will eventually lead to improved performance. If you are on an emotional roller coaster, your performances will eventually suffer and your enjoyment of sports will likely diminish. If you feel like you need some help understanding your emotion regulation, please get in touch with me!

Joanna ZeigerJoanna Zeiger, MS, PhD, raced as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed fourth in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the 2008 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships. She is a seven-time Olympic trials qualifier in three sports — marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna still pursues her passion for sports as a top Masters runner. Through her company, Race Ready Coaching, Joanna trains endurance athletes to reach their personal best and instills in them the importance of having fun even when they are training hard. When she is not coaching or training for running events, Joanna works as a consultant in the field of biostatistics. Joanna’s book The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness will be published in February 2017 by St. Martin’s Press.

[i] Tamminen, K. A., Gaudreau, P., McEwen, C. E., & Crocker, P. R. (2016). Interpersonal emotion regulation among adolescent athletes: A Bayesian multilevel model predicting sport enjoyment and commitment. Journal of sport and exercise psychology38(6), 541-555.

[ii] Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology85(2), 348.

[iii] Uphill, M. A., Lane, A. M., & Jones, M. V. (2012). Emotion Regulation Questionnaire for use with athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise13(6), 761-770.

[iv] Laborde, S., Dosseville, F., Guillén, F., & Chávez, E. (2014). Validity of the trait emotional intelligence questionnaire in sports and its links with performance satisfaction. Psychology of Sport and Exercise15(5), 481-490.


Athlinks Staff
Posts by the Athlinks Staff are authored by our in-house group of athletes and subject matter experts in the fields of performance sports, nutrition, race organization, and training.

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