“Anybody can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power, and is not easy.” —Aristotle
An essential element of sport psychology is dealing with the emotions that come with competitive athletics. Whether you are an athlete, a coach, a referee, a parent, or a fan, the higher the level of competition, the higher the emotional level can become. And the higher the emotional level, the more important it becomes to control and manage those emotions.
One exercise I lead my athletes through is to identify which emotions help their performance and which emotions hurt their performance. For a vast majority of my clients, there are more emotions that negatively affect how they play than positively affect. This awareness is key to developing strategies to handle the negative emotions, and even use them for your benefit.
There are some emotions that athletes identify that sometimes help and sometimes hurt their performance. Among them: aggressiveness, caution, stubbornness, and surprise. But by far, the most common is anger.
Athletes describe it this way: “Sometimes I get angry and it makes me focus and play better. Sometimes I get angry and it makes me play erratic and out of control.”
That is important information to know, and to come up with a plan to make sure you harness your anger for positive, instead of letting the anger control you and your actions. If we take Aristotle’s quote above, let’s examine these questions:
Who Are You Angry With?
This is a big factor in whether anger is good or bad for performance. Typically, if the anger is directed inward, towards yourself, that could result in higher work rate and focus if positive self-talk is employed. Or, it could result in lower work rate and withdrawing from the game if self-talk is more negative. That being said, athletes need to use positive self-talk.
If you are angry at someone else — opponent, referee, coach, etc. — that rarely works in your favor. This typically leads to lack of effort and to reckless and unsportsmanlike behavior. Athletes should be able to re-focus their anger away from someone who is not in their control and toward something positive, and controllable.
To What Degree Are You Angry?
Are you just a little mad, or do you become irate or enraged. The difference being how in control of the emotion you are. Being enraged could mean the anger is too intense, and can control you. Athletes can use positive self-talk and circle breathing as a way to calm their emotions to manageable levels.
When Do You Become Angry?
Is it after a mistake, a perceived bad call, or an opponent talking trash? Know yourself and your tendencies, and the situations in which you are likely to become angry. Having a pre-performance routine to prepare is a very helpful sport-psychology tool.
Why Are You Angry?
Typically, it is because you are focused on the wrong thing. You are focused on something you cannot control. Mentally tough athletes focus on the controllable aspects as much as possible, and have tools to re-focus when they get distracted.
How Do You Handle Your Anger?
The question may not be: “Will you get angry?” More likely, “How will you handle yourself when you get angry?” Using sport-psychology techniques that you have practiced and honed until they become second nature is the way to go. Here are the sport psychology techniques that I have mentioned above:
This is a mental warm-up, with action items for athletes to check off before starting practice or competition. It can include going over goals, visualization, positive self-talk, listening to music, and more. The goals are to clear the mind of distractions and to perform with a positive mindset and confidence.
Also referred to as “self-coaching,” this technique is a way for athletes to look at any situation in a positive light. Athletes can coach themselves up by focusing on the right things, being optimistic, and circle breathing — one of the simplest and effective sport-psychology techniques. This is a slow, deep, controlled breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. It is a way to calm your mind, body and emotions, so that you can make good decisions.
Re-Focus on What You Can Control
You can control attitude, effort, preparation, and the present moment. These are factors that sports participants have 100 percent control over, and are less likely to be stressed or let anger turn negative. The ability to re-focus your attention to the right thing at the right time is a key element in controlling anger.
About the Author
Brian Baxter is the director of the Sport Psychology Institute Northwest in Portland and a prior US Lacrosse Convention (LaxCon) speaker.