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Why athletes need emotional highs and lows

Why athletes need emotional highs and lows

6 min read
  • Sport psychology

“Life is full of highs and lows. We need them both to grow to our fullest potential.” – Dawn Gluskin

Traditionally, athletes are taught that the lows of sport are something that should be minimised. The reality is that these tough times are part and parcel of the athlete’s journey and are critical to their overall development.

At first, it might be tricky to see why going through the lows of sport is a good thing, but we’re here to clear up the misconceptions. Here is an overview of why athletes need to experience emotions at both ends of the spectrum – and how you can support your athletes in their times of need as a coach.

Why do athletes need emotional highs in sports?

Lots of the benefits of highs in sport are pretty intuitive: when athletes do well, it makes them feel good. But these benefits go even deeper than simply lifting the athlete’s spirits…

Keeping the athlete motivated 

When things go right, it fills the athlete with a surge of positive emotions, making them want to keep striving for greater achievements.

When these successes evoke these feelings, it makes athletes fall in love with the sport all over again. This keeps them intrinsically motivated, partaking in the sport because they enjoy it. Intrinsic motivation is associated with better performance and lower dropout rates, so experiencing the highs of sport is undoubtedly something to encourage.

Athletes also tend to feel on a high after winning trophies and medals. This keeps them more extrinsically motivated, where they want to succeed to get a tangible reward.

The only danger here is that the athlete can become too ego-orientated, meaning that they focus too much on the outcome and less on the process they took to get there. It’s important as a coach to celebrate the wins, but also to provide the same reaction to the little wins during training, such as when they beat their personal bests. This will lift your athletes’ mood and keep them constantly aiming for improvement.

Increasing self-confidence 

When athletes succeed, it increases their confidence because they have proven that they are capable of achieving great things.

Research has shown that with high self confidence comes greater performance, as it leads to better decision making. Also, a more confident athlete is usually a happier athlete because they don’t feel insecure or doubtful about their abilities. In this way, riding the highs of sport is extremely beneficial for not only the athlete’s performance, but their mental health.

Increasing self-esteem 

Self-esteem is different to self confidence in that it refers to how the athlete feels about themselves. Winning provides them with a huge self-esteem boost, and in a similar way to self-confidence, this increases performance.

Feeling good about oneself is also crucial to ensure good mental health, which is yet another reason why experiencing the highs of sport is beneficial for athletes. Performing at such an elite level can come with all sorts of pressures, so it’s important that athletes can use these positive moments to remain happy and keep them in love with the sport.

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Why do athletes need emotional lows in sports?

Although most athletes try their best to minimise the negatives within sport, many who have attained an elite level have benefitted from significant challenges throughout their journey. Here’s how…

Building resilience 

A recent overview by leading resilience researchers has suggested that in order to build resilience, the training environment needs to be high in not only support, but also challenge.

If athletes are given too much support and don’t face enough challenges, they are at risk of becoming complacent and unable to handle failure, which can easily become a problem later down the line …

fascinating paper revealed what could happen if academy rugby players are not challenged enough in the early stages of their training. When the players were moved up to a senior team, they found it really difficult to adapt to a more difficult level of playing and took losses very hard.

Transitions to higher sporting levels are more likely to be successful if the athlete is given enough resources to pick themselves back up after defeat. In this case, these resources will come from experiencing defeat early on, and thus learning how to cope.

Giving feedback greater weight

When we feel low, it promotes more detailed reflection because we overthink about what we’ve done wrong. From an athlete’s perspective, this means that any feedback they receive on corrections will be more deeply processed, because they tend to think a lot about what didn’t go to plan.

When things go wrong, it allows you to target feedback towards improvement, rather than simply stating what went well. In the long run, feedback aimed at fixing the mistakes will be more beneficial to performance.

Correcting the perception of ability 

The aforementioned study about rugby players reported that the athletes felt under pressure to perform as well in the senior team, as they did when they were in the academy, where they never really lost a game.

At face value, these athletes looked like a super good team because they were rarely defeated. However, they were really only winning because they were never getting challenged, and so didn’t know how to handle a loss.

The pressure to perform well under more difficult circumstances is enough to hinder performance, never mind the fact that the athletes were not truly aware of their level of ability, and so had reached a plateau in their performance.

When do the emotional lows become a problem?

Different individuals will have different emotional responses to different situations. This means that they will have different ways of thinking when they are in that low state – and for some athletes, getting out of this state isn’t very easy.

The lows become an issue when they massively outweigh the highs, and the stress of sport becomes too much. This will have damaging effects on both the performance and mental health of the athlete.

Athletes need long-term management of their emotional states to avoid becoming overwhelmed with stress and pressure.

So, how can you help your athletes get out of a funk when this happens? There are lots of ways you can help your athletes put a positive spin on the low moments, helping them to thrive under whatever conditions they are working in.

Offer constructive feedback on performance 

As we touched on earlier, negative valence may promote more detailed reflection. As a coach, you can take this opportunity to provide constructive feedback, because it will be processed on a deeper level.

Whilst positive feedback has been thought to be highly memorable and lift mood, it often has limited impact on performance. Think about if you were only told what you did well – yes, you would continue to do these things well, but you would not improve any further because you haven’t been given anything to improve on.

However, it’s important to recognise the severity of your athletes’ moods, because negative feedback might make them feel even worse and decrease their confidence. If this is the case, a little positive feedback could be exactly what the athlete needs to hear.

Offer a listening ear 

There’s an old saying that goes “we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Just by being someone your athletes can offload their worries to could make a huge difference to their mood.

In this instance, feedback and advice might not be needed. By simply being there for your athletes to talk to, they will feel understood and as though they have been heard.

Final thoughts

It’s important to recognise that creating a successful athlete shouldn’t be about maximising the highs and minimising the lows, but about teaching your athletes that both are equally important in helping them develop along their athletic journey.

By using these tips to help your athletes to cope with the lows, we have no doubt that they will thrive in competitions and perform like the great sportspeople they are. Remember to celebrate the highs too, enjoying every moment of their victories.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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