Emotional Aptitude in Athlete Preparation

Emotion has traditionally been viewed as something to be suppressed. The logic goes that as leaders and people in positions of authority we should be detached and act ‘without emotion’. If somebody is described as ‘emotional’ generally this is construed as a bad thing; when we become ‘emotional’ the implication is that we are no longer being rational or we are not capable of reason. Conventional wisdom further advocates that we should avoid an emotional response, or making emotional decisions. In contrast to these established views, more recent study in this area demonstrates that emotion is in fact integral to reasoning, decision making, guiding our behaviour, and our ability to relate to others. Emotional intelligence is accordingly becoming recognised as being at least as important as more established forms of intelligence. Indeed we increasingly hear commentators proclaim that ‘EQ trumps IQ’. In this latest Informed Blog we delve into the role of emotion in coaching and our work with athletes, and explore what aptitudes we need to possess in this area as leaders, coaches, and practitioners.

DEFINING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE…

Emotional aptitude is a meta ability
— Daniel Goleman

Emotional intelligence is a blanket term that encompasses a host of aptitudes. What we are speaking about is our ability to discern, express, and understand emotions; and in turn, regulate how we respond to them. Moreover @@emotional aptitude pertains not only to navigating our own emotional state, but also the emotions of others@@.

In his excellent book, Daniel Goleman outlines five domains of emotional intelligence. The first is awareness of our own emotions (in the moment). The second pertains to our ability to manage our emotions. The third aspect relates to how we motivate ourselves. The fourth domain of emotional intelligence is the ability to discern the emotions in others. The final domain concerns fostering and managing relationships.

Emotional intelligence thereby encompasses intra-personal and inter-personal elements. The meta-abilities that comprise emotional aptitude are central to our ability to understand ourselves, regulate our own behaviour, and relate to others.

As we will see, emotion in athlete preparation is manifested in a host of different ways. As coaches and practitioners the various aspects of emotional aptitude therefore directly relate to our work with athletes.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE IN SPORT…

Sport has a unique propensity to ignite passions and stir emotions. Working in the domain of sport thereby provides a fertile environment for each of the respective elements of emotional intelligence.

Being good with humans is clearly a critical attribute for coaches, practitioners, and any member of support staff who interacts with athletes. Our effectiveness as coaches and practitioners ultimately rests upon our ability to foster a quality working relationship with the athlete. Building and maintaining this relationship necessitates managing ourselves and our interactions with others, both in the day to day environment and in the crucible of competition. Emotional aptitude encompasses the meta-abilities which will determine our ability to achieve these outcomes.

Equally, the propensity of the athlete to manage their own emotions and relate to others represent critical factors in terms of their ability to perform and also their physical and emotional health. @@Emotional aptitude has a major bearing on the psychological and physiological stressors the athlete is exposed to@@, both within the training environment and beyond. Moreover these abilities are also implicated in the coping skills and social support structure the athlete is able to bring to bear to mitigate these stressors.

The health of the athlete’s relationship with the coach is a primary factor that governs the psycho-social and physiological stress placed on the athlete. As such, the coach-athlete relationship and the dynamics of the daily environment under the stewardship of the coach are strongly associated with athlete health. The athlete’s stress response to training is even affected by the quality of the coach-athlete relationship, as this impacts how they appraise and experience the training performed. It is easy to see how this cumulative stress may affect the athlete over time; and indeed the quality of the coach-athlete relationship shows a demonstrated link to their likelihood of burnout.

Whether we like it or not, as coaches and leaders we have a high degree of influence on the environment we create for the athletes in our care. @@Wittingly or unwittingly, we have a great deal of power over the athlete’s emotional state@@. Our interactions with each individual have a pronounced effect on their psychological and emotional state, and this manifests itself in the psycho-physiological stresses they experience. In view of the myriad ways emotional aptitude comes into play in athlete preparation, and given the stakes involved, clearly we need to explore the topic of emotion more deeply.

EMOTIONS CONNECTING BODY AND MIND…

The term ‘embodied cognition’ has been used to describe how body and mind interact to determine how we think, what we feel, and in turn how we act. Embodied cognition captures how our thoughts and what we perceive combines a host of sensory inputs from multiple sources, both internal and external to the body. When we think and prepare to act we integrate sensory information from the environment with information derived via sensations from our own body.

Emotions are experienced as ‘somatic sensations’; in other words, they are manifested bodily. Emotions hereby serve to mediate the bi-directional link between body and mind.

A related term that has arisen in the literature is ‘motor cognition’. This concept emphasises the interconnected nature of cognition and action; and once again, emotions are a feature of this connection. Emotions serve to provide the impulse to act. @@Emotion is a driver to how we move; conversely, how we move is manifested in our emotions@@. Our posture, facial expressions, and bodily movements both reflect and are reflected in our emotional state. Put another way, motion and emotion are inextricably linked.

Our ability to navigate and work effectively with our emotions is accordingly integral to functioning effectively, in terms of both mind and body. As our emotions contribute to the bodily sensations we experience at any given time, the ability to identify our emotions and understand both what lies beneath them and how they are manifested in bodily sensations will help us to interpret and better integrate the bodily cues we use in thought and deed. This relates to how we conduct ourselves as coaches and practitioners, in the same way as it applies to the athletes we serve.

EMOTION IN JUDGEMENT AND DECISION MAKING…

@@Emotion and decision making go hand in hand@@
— Lerner & colleagues, Annual Review of Psychology, 2015

Emotion is integral to judgement and decision making. Emotions are central to how we imbue information with meaning in order to make choices. Thus emotions inform our judgements and motivate our choices. When the input from emotion is removed, we are essentially robbed of our ability to make effective decisions in the moment. Emotions are also central to how we reflect on past decisions, and thereby help shape our future choices.

Emotions powerfully, predictably, and pervasively influence decision making
— Lerner & colleagues, Annual Review of Psychology, 2015

What is certainly true is that our mood state affects (pun intended) how we perceive the world and those around us. Our emotional state not only provides motivational drive that influences our decisions, but can also alter our cognitive process when making judgements. For instance, when we are happy we may not engage in the cognitive heavy lifting, but rather rely on more superficial heuristics or rule of thumb based judgements. Conversely, when we are in a different emotional state we may be more inclined to be more deliberate in our thinking and process things more deeply.

Here it is worth making the distinction between emotion and mood. The original emotion is transient, whereas mood persists. As such, persistent feelings that we would describe as our mood or emotional state are more likely to be fueled by our thoughts and ruminations, rather than simply an extension of the original fleeting emotion. We can further differentiate between emotions that are integral to the choice or decision at hand, and incidental emotions that arise from unrelated matters, but are nevertheless present and part of the emotional landscape when choices are made.

How we appraise and process our emotional responses also has a major bearing on our mood state. Typically, what impacts our decision making and cognitive processing is not necessarily the original emotions themselves, but rather the thoughts that accompany them and the secondary feelings which are elicited. The term used to describe this is ‘ruminative cognition’, which encompasses the thoughts inspired by our emotions and past, present, and future situations. Our expectations and societal norms influence how we view our emotions as appropriate or otherwise. Often it is how we feel about our emotions due to the stigma attached that is the source of much of our anxiety. The ruminations that follow the inciting event are also more long lasting and typically more distracting than the original emotion itself.

The emotional aptitudes that allow us to be conscious of our emotions at a given time, and understand where they are coming from, in turn enable us to moderate how we allow our emotions to influence our mental state and thereby our decisions. Being cognisant of our emotional state at the time and mindful of our mood permits us to weigh these considerations accordingly in how we integrate our feelings on the situation, and ultimately decide how to proceed. Simply having an awareness of our decision making process, our present mood, and how those two things may interact, can help mitigate the adverse effects of our mood and incidental emotions, in terms of unconsciously biasing our decisions.

REGULATING THE INFLUENCE OF EMOTION ON BEHAVIOUR…

Emotion helps steer our behaviour: as noted previously, emotion represents an impulse to act. How we choose to heed this impulse is a key tenet of self-regulation. Self-regulation encompasses our ability to heed our emotional state and our emotional responses, and in turn choose if and how we act on these impulses. What occurs between the external event and our subsequent actions is central to our ability to use emotion in ways that serve us.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom
— Viktor E. Frankl

In order to work in synergy with our emotions, clearly there are some ‘meta-abilities’ we need to master. The first step is to be conscious of our emotions; our self-awareness and emotional literacy to accurately identify our emotions permits the necessary reflection to make sense of them. From here we can develop our ability to modulate how our emotional state and emotional response to outside events influence our behaviour. Emotional regulation is therefore underpinned by these various elements of intra-personal intelligence concerned with how we are able to discern, interpret, and process our emotions.

In relation to emotional regulation, the term ‘emotional reactivity’ describes instances where we react in the moment with unchecked behaviour that is directly triggered by our emotional response to the external event. Returning to the wisdom of Viktor Frankl, avoiding such an involuntary ‘knee jerk’ reaction requires us to create some separation between our emotional response to external stimuli and the behaviour that follows. In this way we can conserve our capacity to appraise the situation, and exert some rational influence in how we respond amidst the maelstrom of our emotions.

In a similar fashion, emotional resiliency necessitates being able to return to some sort of equilibrium, so we can restore our capacity to be objective and rational in the wake of challenging situations. Being able to observe ourselves with a degree of objectivity helps us to retain a level of equanimity. Ultimately this allows us to retain our ability to deal with external events, and buffer our behaviour towards others from being unduly influenced by surrounding events. Bringing the discussion back to the realm of coaching, these aptitudes are crucial to avoid outside events in our life impacting how we operate and interact with athletes and colleagues.

SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE…

A potential downside to self-monitoring and reflection is that such constant inwardly directed attention might make us prone to self-absorption. Clearly it is imperative that we remain similarly attentive to these emotional signals in those around us. On one hand, it is true that our propensity to entertain and accept our own emotions makes us more receptive to dealing with the emotions of others. Equally, we need to invest appropriate attention to avoid neglecting the critical social elements of emotional intelligence.

If we are to respond appropriately in real-time, it is crucial that we are attentive not only to the words of others, but also to non-verbal cues and related signals. Beyond words and facial expressions, once again we infer others’ emotions from their bodily movements. Our ability to read and interpret these signals is a critical skill that is generally acquired in childhood and adolescence. These acquired aptitudes enable us to relate to others, and to foster and maintain healthy relationships.

There are a number of different implications of this social intelligence aspect of emotional aptitude from a coaching viewpoint. One is that even when we say nothing our emotions are likely to be communicated to our athletes. By extension, the emotions we express as coaches have a demonstrable effect on how athletes think and behave. This can have either a positive or negative impact, depending on the emotions involved and the context. When we lack the self awareness or ability to regulate our emotional state and what we express, there is also a high likelihood of ‘emotional contagion’. Inevitably this will impact those around us, affecting the climate of the training environment and the athletes themselves.

The other salient point is that we need to be vigilant to the expressions of emotion and associated non-verbal cues from our athletes. Once again, we must be aware in order to be responsive to the athlete’s emotional state. This information can allow us to take appropriate action and adapt our interactions accordingly. Ultimately this is a shared responsibility for all support staff who come into regular contact with the athlete.

EMOTION SHAPES LEARNING…

Emotion is central to learning, being integral to working memory and allocation of cognitive resources. Emotion is integral to the curiosity, confidence, motivation, and reward aspects that are fundamental to learning. The myriad roles played by emotion include our drive to learn, our approach to the learning process, how we direct our attention, and our capacity to sustain learning over time.

Emotion has a potent effect on mobilising and directing attention. Retention is also directly related to the background emotions, or ‘emotional landscape’, associated with the learning activity. Emotions not only provide the context, but also mark the occurrence or observation as significant in our minds.

It follows that we can apply ‘affective practice design’ by using emotional constraints to optimise conditions for skill acquisition. Emotion is one of the ways we can increase motivation and make practice more engaging. For instance, we can employ imaginary competition scenarios during the learning task, and simulate competition constraints and conditions in practice. Aside from greater engagement, this is also likely to aid retention, as the experience of practice in the mind of the athlete becomes more rich as a result.

The experience of competition is laden with emotion, but what is less often recognised is that emotion is also a feature of the practice environment. Periods of learning (or relearning) are associated with more variable motor performance in practice (and competition), and accordingly greater intensity and range of emotions are elicited at those times. Learning new or different ways of performing an action inevitably involves some degree of struggle. Depending on the athlete’s disposition, moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar and uncertain can be very challenging. This is especially true for experienced performers, given the inherent difficulty of making alterations to established movement patterns and strategies.

One way we can account for the elements of emotional and psychological load in the planning process is by incorporating these parameters in the periodised plan. In this way be can be systematic in how we introduce novelty, regulate amount of instruction, and manipulate difficulty and degree of psychological challenge in practice during respective phases of training.

We can also periodise these elements according to the competition schedule (and academic calendar in the case of student athletes). This is a theme of the ‘5A model’ for technical refinement proposed by Carson and Collins (Analysis, Awareness, Adjustment, (Re)Automisation, Assurance). Essentially, this model proposes that we plan a period of consolidation prior to key competitions, whereby we permit the athlete to practice without further manipulation, with minimal coaching intervention, and a high degree of perceived control, so that performance is more stable and the athlete is more assured when they come to compete.

Ultimately, the athlete will be required to perform under the full spectrum of emotions at various times in competition. It follows that if we want practice and training to be representative of competition conditions we must account for emotion. We should therefore seek to expose athletes to the spectrum of emotions they are likely to encounter competition in a systematic way during practice and training.

Similarly, we can manipulate challenge and perceived ‘threat’ conditions during practice for the specific purpose of developing tolerance and coping strategies. With the athlete’s consent we can devise situations that are likely triggers for emotional reactivity, in order to develop related abilities in an environment of relative psychological safety. In doing so, we can also take advantage of opportunities for the athlete to rebound in the aftermath, and ultimately develop their resiliency. Similarly, we can work through and utilise the lessons from challenging experiences in competition, and use the practice environment to trial solutions and countermeasures.

The emotional landscape during practice and competition is of course not always positive or necessarily beneficial. One of the pitfalls of the recognition that comes from achieving success is that performing in the sport can easily become intertwined with the athlete’s identity. A typical consequence is that the athlete adopts a conservative and risk averse mindset as they seek to protect this status. Competition and even practice itself can become laden with perceived risks and associated negative emotions, as they labour under the weight of real and perceived expectations. This ‘ego involvement’ and outcome focus puts a great deal of strain on the athlete over time, and accordingly is associated with risks of burnout.

STRATEGIES AND COUNTERMEASURES…

An extension of our responsibilities in preparing the athlete to perform is the collective responsibility to help athletes perform under the stress of competition. We clearly have a stake in helping the athlete to express the qualities we worked so hard to help them develop.

A critical mental skill for athletes to hone is being able to ‘get out of their head’, to order to avoid the distraction and potential disruption of motor skill execution of excessively inward focussed attention. This is particularly the case for athletes with a disposition that tend towards introspection. However, this applies more widely at different times, even for outwardly confident athletes, especially when they are challenged to perform under high stakes conditions.

I vividly remember counselling an athlete on the need to ‘stay out of her head’ on race day a few years ago, and her turning to me with a concerned and exasperated expression and asking ‘how do I do that?’. Whilst I was able to suggest some things, at the time I felt the answer I gave was incomplete, and I have continued to mull over the question over the years since that conversation.

Switching from inwardly focussed attention on our own nagging thoughts, or ‘ruminative cognition’, requires a strategy to direct our attention elsewhere. One such strategy is to steer our attention externally towards our environment, essentially immersing ourselves in our surroundings. We can similarly engage our mind to observe our bodily sensations and breathing. Beyond the mystique, ‘mindfulness’ practices of this type simply serve to divert our attention. We can re-engage our attention by steering it outwards, and towards an external observer point of view.

Ultimately our objective is to help to lower the volume of our internal chatter, and the narration of our internal commentary, whilst accepting that we are unlikely to silence it entirely. Similarly these practices help to anchor us in the present, rather than ruminating on past events, or speculating on what might happens in the future.

The aspect that tends to cause much of our disquiet is the uncertainty of both the situation that faces us and the outcome. Amidst this uncertainty we can find assurance by latching onto something familiar. Here the athlete’s warm up routine can attain the power of ritual. Engaging our attention in the routine of the warm up not only provides something to invest our attention, but the act of repeating a sequence of steps that we have done innumerable times in itself can be reassuring.

Fundamentally it is critical that the athlete permits themselves to feel emotion. Rather than avoidance, we should counsel the athlete to acknowledge and accept whatever emotions they feel. An important message is that what they are feeling is a natural and an appropriate response. It is necessary to take away the stigma, and the surrounding anxiety that it is somehow wrong to be feeling what they are feeling, and any fear that they are somehow weaker or lesser for it. Emotion is an essential part of how we experience sport, and performing on the biggest stage naturally invokes the highest intensity of emotion; indeed this is part of what first drew us to it. Reminding the athlete of this is often helpful.

A final tried and tested strategy is ‘reappraisal’. This applies to how we appraise the situation we face, and also how we appraise the feelings or sensations we are experiencing.

One countermeasure that as coaches we can use to alter the psychological and emotional stressors of practice and competition is by reframing how athletes appraise the activity. Specifically, consistently directing the athlete focus on the task itself, rather than outcomes and ego-involved consequences, is shown to mitigate stress responses.

We can also reframe our interpretation of what we are feeling. Our experience of being fearful or agitated has much the same somatic sensations as excitement. So rather than calming down we should work with the intensity of what we are feeling; we can switch mode to another similarly intense emotional state. The feelings we were perceiving as anxiety or fear we can reinterpret to feel excited. Another way we can switch our mode is changing from anxiety and aversive, to curious and eager.

IN CLOSING…

An integral part of athlete development is acquiring the skills to be an athlete, and this necessarily includes the emotional aptitudes to function and to thrive amidst the stressors of participating in sport over the long-term. The life of an athlete has arguably never been more turbulent, given the challenges and distractions posed by social media in this era of hyper-connectivity. Unfortunately, young athletes are increasingly proving to be ill-equipped to cope with the attendant stress and emotional struggles.

As coaches and practitioners we accordingly play a vital role in guiding the athlete to develop their own emotional aptitude. It is part of our duty of care to help the athlete to acquire the necessary tools and coping resources to handle the trials and tribulations that are part of athlete life (and being a human).

I can anticipate that some coaches may protest that dealing with such matters in relation to emotion is outside our expertise or scope of practice, and should be left to sport psychologists or mental skills consultants. I would counter that emotion is an integral and essential part of being human. As humans who work with humans, irrespective of what discipline we work, we are in a de facto coaching role and so we share a responsibility to cater to the emotional needs of our athletes.

I would contend that fostering emotional aptitude falls squarely in our domain as coaches. Indeed, the context of practice and competition provide the richest learning environments to bring elements of emotional aptitude to the athlete’s awareness, develop and trial different strategies, and consolidate learning via reflection and debrief following exposure to high stakes situations and emotionally charged experiences.

We also need to acknowledge the profound influence we have on the emotional state of the athletes in our care. This is enacted in our stewardship over the daily training environment, through our direct and indirect interactions with athletes and support staff, and how we express our own emotions both verbally and non-verbally. We need to be aware of each of these aspects and their potential impact on the athlete’s frame of mind. We hold great influence, and we need to be highly mindful of the responsibility this confers.

Finally, if we want to be effective as coaches and practitioner, fostering and maintaining a quality relationship with the athletes (and others) is an integral part of this. From each of these perspectives it is incumbent upon us to invest the time, attention, and mental resources to develop our own emotional aptitude. When we unpack the host of meta abilities this encompasses we start to appreciate the size of the task we face. Practically, this means being more self-aware of our emotional state, engaging in reflection to understand our own emotions, regulating how our emotions impact our thinking and behaviour, and being more attuned to the emotions of others so that we can better relate to them and adapt our interactions and behaviour accordingly. When we reflect honestly, each of us can say we have room to improve in one or more of these areas.

Found this a worthwhile read? Feel free to share with friends and colleagues who might find value. See also the Books section of the website for more on a variety of topics relating to athletic preparation, athlete development, coaching, and sports injury.

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