How do emotions influence sport performance?
Psychologists and academics have proved the connection: thought – emotion - behaviour. Hence, the power of the mind has been confirmed. That is nothing new. Throughout human history, a lot of philosophers have stated that the greatest battles are fought within oneself as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsé sated in his famous quote: “Between two fighters, the one that thinks wins” Considering this, who doubts that emotions influence sports performance?
We have a talk with Vicenç Raluy, the Acadèmia Internacional Tecnifutbol sport psychologist and EntrenaMent founder, who recalls us a basic diagram: “Thoughts influence emotions, and emotions influence your behavior. In the athlete’s case…emotions can modify his perception, thus his decision-making process is also modified”.
Nevertheless, there is still people that don’t believe that emotions can be so determining. On this matter he states: “If we take a look at high-performance sports, the physical, technical and tactic part are so equal that it is the psychological part what makes the difference”
If the mental part is so determining, Sport Psychology should be an applied science in sport, but…. Is that so?
“It’s contradictory. Nowadays, few people doubt that emotions influence sport performance, however, how many sport psychologists are part of teams’ coaching staff? How many athletes in an individual level use their services? Few. In fact, there are still some big clubs that don’t have any or, if they do, they hide it as if it where something to be ashamed of” Raluy complains.
Techniques to train the mind in sport practice
We don’t know whether there is an infallible method when it comes to training an athlete’s mindset, fortunately Vicenç Raluy casts light on it: “Each sport psychologist, when working, uses some techniques more than others. However, what we all have in common is the need to work on the athlete’s goals. It is essential for the player to know where he is at, where he wants to get and if he is improving.”
In short, having the athlete an objective image of himself enables him to be aware of his strengths and of the areas he must improve, and to plan, in a more conscious way, his trainings and his achievements.
“If as an athlete you don’t adopt self-assessment routines, you depend on other’s assessment. If you don’t do it, another person will do it for you, or what is worse, they will only reinforce the things you do wrong and you can become a low self-confidence athlete.”
Self-confidence is very important. When an athlete sees himself as highly qualified to achieve his challenges, he invests more time and efforts, plans better and persists against the odds and difficulties.
The activation levels
In 1984, the north-American author George H. Sage defined the activation level (arousal) as the energizing strategies responsible for the body’s resources usage during strong and powerful activities. Vicenç Raluy helps us understand the importance of this concept:
“Before a game or a competition, it is normal to feel anxiety which is needed to activate the athlete and prepare his body and mind for the challenge he has to face. It isn’t good, if the levels of activation are too low.
Sport psychologists instruct players on finding their optimum arousal level and on knowing how to find those sensations that take them to this point, which can be different from one person to another. There are players that need to sprint before a game, some may need to be alone for some minutes listening to music, others may need to freely play with the ball. The important thing is not about which is the best strategy, is about each player finding his own.”
Remember the famous images of Maradona playing with the ball and dancing at the sound of “life is life” song during the semi-final UEFA Cup’s warm-up period against Bayer Munich in 1989. Did the Argentinian star need to get to his optimum arousal level that way?
It’s also famous the motivational video that Pep Guardiola showed to his team before the Champions League Final game in Rome in 2009. The video mixed images of the Gladiator film with the best Barça’s season moves. In the Rome’s stadium no-one knew what had happened 10 minutes before the game. The condition to release the video was to win the Final. They won, and the video went public.
Despite that, Vicenç Raluy thinks that it’s not always a good idea to stir up emotions.
“Good things were said about this video because at the end the result was good. But if we pay attention to the first minutes of the game, the players are completely bewildered. Stirring up his emotions having done the activation during the warm-up, could have been disastrous. Maybe, to some players it produced extra motivation, but I’m sure that it put others off, making them go into the game indifferent and unstable.”
He adds: “What’s more, from the sport psychology side we encourage athletes to create their own routines to manage their activation levels before every challenge. If with a video, we emphasize that, a game is more important than others, we are only activating their anxiety. If they don’t know how to manage anxiety, it can be out of their hands.”
External factors and motivation
Who hasn’t heard in informal gatherings: “With the money they make, they should run after the ball like his life depended on it”. We wonder whether social and economic recognition can be key elements of motivation and sport performance.
Raluy is clear about it: “External factors like social and economic recognition are occasional motivational activators. But, what really keeps you doing something are the internal factors, meaning, doing what you like and what makes you feel good.”
And sentences: “If and athlete only does well for the salary, once the objective is accomplished, he will slow down his performance level. Likewise, if a player bases his performance on the social recognition, when he doesn’t have the acceptance of the crowd, he will lose heart and his performance will go down”.
There are well known cases of players that haven’t been able to put up with the media pressure when they have arrived at big teams or when they have publicly been questioned for their performance. The pressure of having to satisfy the public opinion and being daily on the news can end up a promising professional career.
“There are players like Gerard Piqué, whose self-confidence is really high and external criticisms, even motivates him. On the contrary, there are players like Gerard Deulofeu, to whom the pression of having to meet expectations has played a dirty trick on him even thought he has the necessary skills to succeed. Therefore, we should change the speech and instead of saying that with the money they make the must put up with everything, we should say that with the money we have invested on these players, it is worth helping them working their emotional and mental part. “