I often get asked what I believe is the limiting factor of performance, the physical or mental aspect? While I won’t get into my opinion, I will say that I believe every athlete can benefit from working on the mental aspect of sport. Sport is highly psychological using mood, emotions, cognitions, and beliefs to influence attitude and behaviors. If you need further convincing, pay attention to all your thoughts and emotions during your next workout. This exercise can be eye-opening. Address all the emotions and thoughts that occur in as little as five minutes.
Managing Our Emotions
Emotions can be tricky because we are most often taught two extremes of managing them. The first is to bow to our emotions or to be overcome by them. This response uses little logic and lacks the ability to regulate or act in opposition to the emotion. Most often we see this happen when an athlete makes a mistake and is overcome with anger, disappointment, or self-criticism. Instead of focusing on correcting what they can they give into their emotion and allow it to control their response. The second way we are most often taught to deal with our emotions is by ignoring them. We see this most often with athletes that have disconnected from their internal experience. They may say they are “fine” but report symptoms of anxiety or depression.
The Emotions Aren’t The Problem
In either scenario, the emotions the athlete is experiencing aren’t the problem. The problem is the way of coping with them is preventing the athlete from excelling both in life and athletically. A third way to deal with emotions is to experience and process them. Gather the data the emotions are giving you, and then make a decision. That may sound like a lot to try to do in a moment. When you’re riding your bike or swimming in the open water this may not be the first thing you consider. That being said, it is a skill that can be learned and once developed can take only seconds to execute.
Learning To Develop Emotional Control
Learning to develop emotional control allows athletes to use helpful emotions to fuel performance. They can also regulate unhelpful or intense emotions so they do not interfere with performance. Each athlete is unique in which emotions and intensity of emotions help or harm their physical performance. Developing an awareness of your emotions and emotional regulation skills can help you improve performance. Doing so will allow you to alter your physical and behavioral responses to the emotion.
Practicing Emotional Regulation
There are many ways you can practice emotional regulation but most people are unsure where to start. Below are a few ways that you can begin practicing:
- Self-Monitoring Through A Mental Training Journal – After each workout take 5-10 minutes to create a mental training journal to gain awareness of your thoughts and emotions. The structure I like to use is:
- Intention/purpose of run today
- Positives for today
- Thoughts about run
- Was anything distracting me?
- Anything you would do differently or adjust?
- What’s your goal for your next run? (Short-term process focus goal)
- Self-Talk / Cue Words – Develop cue words such as “relax, let it flow, be present” to redirect your mind to the task you are wanting to complete. Be mindful of your self-talk. The things you are saying inside your head or out loud, will elicit emotions. Train yourself to change your self-talk to help you reach your goal. An example could be telling yourself you have your best performances when you come from behind. When you find yourself further back or having negative thoughts and emotions, you can rely on this self-talk.
- Imagery – Practice imagery to create in your mind the emotions and behaviors you desire to have on race day. See yourself handling difficult situations and emotions such as falling or feeling anxiety at the start line. After that, see yourself effectively managing and overcoming them.
- Focus – Choose what you want to focus on and what you want to ignore. This skill can be very effective in managing anxiety. It will allow you to block out thoughts that promote anxiety and focus on present or specific tasks. Instead of worrying about the whole 100 miles try to focus on more manageable tasks. Those tasks can include taking in fuel consistently or getting to the next aid station. Another way, is to focus on things that are in your control instead of things outside of it. Instead, of focusing on if it’s raining on race day, have the equipment necessary to race in the rain.
- Situational Selection / Modification – Choose situations or modify activity to elicit the desired emotional response. During the process of regaining confidence after a fall off the bike, athletes can choose to do an easier ride. It could mean racing at a big race to get out of your comfort zone. Another option is setting intrinsic goals for your next race instead of outcome goals.
Developing emotion control can be a game-changer for many athletes. Learning which emotions help and hinder performance allows athletes to feel more in control. Being in control of their emotions leads to better performances. Optimizing your ability to regulate your emotions can take your training to a new level. This change is regardless of your physical ability. Develop emotional control and watch your performance elevate.