Anger and Performance: Sport Psychology Techniques for dealing with extreme emotions

“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:

Pre-Performance Routines
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.

Positive Self-Talk
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.

Mental game for referees

by Jimmy Yoo

When I am right, no one remembers. When I am wrong, no one forgets.” – Doug Harvey, Hall of Fame Umpire

During competition, referees decision-making is always subject to public opinion. As a result, referees find that they are often criticized and questioned on their decision-making and game-management skills. Good referees can make sporting events flow well and they are able to create a positive environment that is focused on sportsmanship and competition. On the other hand, inefficient referees can make a sporting event seem to drag on because play is constantly being interrupted by fouls or penalties being called, which can also lead to angry coaches and athletes, and unruly fans.

To be successful as a referee, it is important to be proficient in the following areas: game knowledge, decision-makings skills, psychological skills, strategic skills, communication or control of the game, and physical fitness (Guillen & Feltz, 2011).

Game knowledge includes knowing the rules, understanding proper officiating mechanics, and understanding the basic strategy of the game.

Decision-making skills are defined by how quickly and accurately a referee is able to make decisions that include making accurate judgment calls and being firm in one’s decisions.

Psychological skills are defined as focusing attention and concentration, staying cool under pressure, and recovering quickly from making a bad call.  These are almost identical to the psychological skills athletes need, and therefore sport psychology can be beneficial to referees too.

Strategic skills tend to focus on making the right interpretation of the game and its rules. Strategic skills include being able to stay up with the play, being at the proper angles for decisions, and anticipating game actions.

Communication means being able to communicate effectively with players, coaches, and co-officials. Effective communication equates to maintaining control of the game and resolving disputes.

Physical fitness or being in good physical shape allows the referee to stay up with the play.
Even if referees are well versed in these six categories, challenges faced during competition can interfere with performance. For referees, on field obstacles include: working with an uncooperative officiating partner(s), inclement weather, intense coaches and athletes, and unruly fans. With the start of the spring sports season, here are some helpful tips for referees:

Goal Setting: This can help you to identify obstacles or distractions that prevent you from staying focused. By goal setting, you can identify potential challenges and create a plan on how to deal with those challenges.

Communication: The most respected referees not only know the rules and make the right calls, they also communicate well with the athletes, coaches, and the other referees managing the game. The following information was taken from the January 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine:

#1. Understand that coaches can be passionate and sometimes overbearing. Listen beyond their tone of voice to hear and understand their underlying questions or concerns, and remember to be polite in your response.

#2. Know the rules like the back of your hand. This allows you to listen to coaches and decipher the meaning in their comments. It also leads to better consistency with the other referees managing the game. Most of all have the rulebook onsite.

#3. During timeouts, between quarters, or at halftime, be available to listen to coaches with an open mind. Answer rules-related questions using specific language of the rules.

Staying calm and relaxed under pressure: One aspect of staying calm under pressure is to understand what is in your control. For example, a referee cannot control how coaches or the fans are going to respond to a penalty that is called, but you are in control of being objective when calling a penalty and not letting your emotions, the coaches, or the athletes influence your decision.

Motivation and Enjoyment: Successful referees enjoy what they are doing. Like athletes, success is based off of hard work, dedication, and practical experience. The more work you put into something, the easier it becomes; and the easier it becomes, the more fun you tend to have. Likewise, it is important to understand why you enjoy it. If you are having fun, then you are motivated to work harder and improve your skills.

If you are interested in learning more about mental tools of the trade for referees, or just have questions that have come up while reading this article, please feel free to contact SPINw. We work with referees individually or in a group setting. Let us help you to unlock your potential so that you can consistently perform with confidence, focus, and joy for the game!

Helpful Articles:

Confidence versus arrogance:

The Psychological Qualities of a Good Referee:

Trust and Respect:

Avoiding Distractions:


Guillen, F., and Feltz, D. L. (2011). A conceptual model of referee efficacy. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(25), 1-5.

Clark, L. P., (2014, January 14). Why can’t we be friends? Lacrosse Magazine, 38 (1), 68.