Emotional Intelligence in Sports Performance

Emotional Intelligence has long been linked to leadership and success, but how does it relate to sports and performance?

An overview of EQ

Our decisions are primarily based on what we feel and what we believe is the right thing to do, specifically when we are highly aroused or under pressure.

EQ can be described as the ability to be aware of, interpret and manage your emotions and those of others. In business we tend to divide EQ into four quadrants as explained by Daniel Goleman: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. There has recently been a strong push in research, aiming at understanding the influence of EQ in sports performance.

It’s really no secret that EQ plays a vital role in sports performance. We see a common trend amongst the world’s best performers that they can keep their emotions in check, stay calm under pressure and deal with adversity. While these behaviours have direct links with high emotional intelligence, there are a host of actions underpinned by emotional intelligence that we cannot see with the naked eye. These actions are critical in the consistent success of athletes and include things like decision making, critical thinking, and paying attention to what matters. We are driven by our emotions in every action and reaction that we take.

Our decisions are primarily based on what we feel and what we believe is the right thing to do, specifically when we are highly aroused or under pressure. This concept has been true since the very beginning of our human history, as the fight or flight response is a response directly related to the emotion of fear. Although this emotional response has long served us in a constructive way by allowing our ancestors to escape danger, civilization has developed for too quickly for our evolutionary traits to keep up. Hence, in the face of so-called danger on the sports field, our very instinct is to react to the fear without bearing a single thought. The problem here is that it is no longer socially acceptable to run away in the middle of a sports match, and so our minds have to figure out other ways to deal with it.

Fear and Anger

” As Dricus du Plessis (World champ MMA fighter) recently told me, he is terrified before every fight.

Fear is and will always be the primary emotion that is experienced when taking part in competitive sport. The cause of the fear may be the opponents, embarrassment and shame, getting hurt or simply losing. Our inherent response would be either to fight, flight or freeze. The only acceptable response here is to fight and the few whose inherent response is to fight we typically describe as brave or fearless. However, I can assure you that they are not fearless, as Dricus du Plessis (World champ MMA fighter) recently told me, he is terrified before every fight. The only way those who inherently want to flight or freeze in the face of danger can perform successfully is if they have full understanding that the danger is only in their perception and is not a real threat. These cases are more prominent than we might think and are actually the majority at youth level. We don’t want to confuse ourselves by thinking the stars on TV are the normative group.

We all know of at least 5 or 6 young athletes who can perform exceptionally well at practice, whether on the driving range, in the nets or kicking at goals. When it comes to the matches, however, these kids generally fail. They are either completely over-aroused and will act completely erratic (flight response), or they will go completely into a shell and simple do nothing (freeze response). Perhaps when we start to consider individuals that we all know, this becomes a little easier to understand. This, however, is emotions explained at its most basic level, and there are many more emotions that athletes may experience during sports performance.

Having high emotional intelligence allows us to experience the emotion while fully comprehending the cause and the effect of the emotion. Imagine playing a sports match with a terrible referee. If we are angry at a ref, we should know why we are angry, and we should know that it may cause an outburst. The successful processing of this emotion will inevitably lead us to accept it and therefore let it pass on by without having an outburst.

The truth is, having high emotional intelligence allows us to understand what is controllable by us and what is not. We thus control the decision we make, we accept that refs will be bad sometimes and an outburst won’t change this, we control what we pay attention to and thus can focus on our own performance and staying in a state of flow. What seems to happen though, is that we blame the ref for our performance, perhaps for the loss, and specifically for making us so angry. The anger isn’t born from the actions of the ref, but rather from the selfish belief that WE deserve better and that WE are being affected unfairly. In other words, we are leaving the cause of our effect in the hands of someone that we have no control over. If this is difficult to understand, you probably have to work on letting go.

Letting Go

So, on average, the very best in the world fail more than 6 times in every 10 innings.

In fact, we all have to work on letting go. Holding on to emotions in a sporting situation has never worked for anyone in the history of sport. If a golfer can overcome a triple bogey by the time they set up at the next tee box, they probably have a good shot at performing well consistently. In a sport like cricket, letting go is possibly the most important mental skills one can have. This is because cricket is nothing more than a sport of failure. I can explain this by using the 3 best batsmen in the world as an example. If we take the stats of AB de Villiers, Virat Kholi and Steve Smith into consideration, at face value they have impeccable records. They average in test cricket 50.7 (AB), 53.6 (Virat) and 62.8 (Steve). However, if we look at their success rate we see that out of every 10 innings they play, AB scores 3,5 times, Virat scores 3,3 times and Steve scores 4.1 times. So, on average, the very best in the world fail more than 6 times in every 10 innings. Therefore, if in cricket we cannot let go of failure, frustration, anger or fear, we will never be able to enjoy the game successfully.

Letting go is often mistaken for not caring. There are many different strategies for letting go, and you’ve probably seen them implemented without knowing what is happening. Letting go, as described above, relates to letting go of failures and emotions attached to failing. A tennis player has very little time to let go before the next point is played, a golfer generally walks about 200 metres. However, Letting go can also happen in the present moment. Letting go of our emotionally-charged thoughts, letting go of expectations or letting go of pressure. Damian Mckenzie’s smile before he kicks at the posts is an example of conscious letting go in the moment. Some may recall Mike Hussey always smiling when he walks out to bat. When pressed on the matter he said it was a way of reminding himself to have fun and not care too much. Having a high EQ means knowing the difference between being careless and caring less.

Final Thoughts

I want to emphasize that this is a very brief description of EQ and sports performance. We could be writing a book about it. Emotional intelligence evidently plays a role in overcoming emotions that divert our attention away from our own performance. It also helps us in making better decisions as we are not overcome by our fears and thereby acting on impulse. We also see that it helps us let go of emotions that hold us back from performing at our best. When we consider a guy like Rafael Nadal, we notice that there is very little negative emotion in his behaviour. We also see very little positive emotion in his behaviour. This does not mean that he doesn’t experience these emotions, I can guarantee that the average tennis match brings up a full spectrum of positive and negative emotions in his mind. However, the emotional intelligence allows him to play at the exact level he needs to, throughout the roller coaster of emotional experience. As coaches, it should be one of our primary goals to get our athletes to that level of emotional understanding and maturity. The problem is, we cannot do that if we cannot even do it ourselves.

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