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Does emotional intelligence matter in sports?

Does emotional intelligence matter in sports?

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Emotions – we all have them. That’s what makes us human. However, did you know that the simple shift of having better knowledge of emotions could enhance your athletic ability?

Understanding how others are feeling as well as how you’re feeling can have a massive impact on your performance. But how is this possible? How does something intangible affect your physical ability?

The sport psychology team here at InnerDrive have been researching this topic, called emotional intelligence, and whether it matters in sports. Here’s what we found…

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and the emotions of the people around you. If you have high emotional intelligence, you can identify what you are feeling and what those around you are feeling. You can also understand what those emotions mean and how they can impact behaviour. For example, identifying that a basketball player is upset that he missed his free-throw shot uses your emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence can be divided into two emotional competencies:

  1. Intrapersonal emotional skills – These are how well we identify, express, regulate and use our own emotions.
  2. Interpersonal emotional skills – These are how well we identify, express, regulate, and use the emotions of others,

Both of these emotional competencies play a huge role in emotional intelligence. But what impact do they have in sport?

How does emotional intelligence impact sports?

Sports competitions naturally have a high emotional element attached to them.

Imagine you are competing in the final of a big cup match. It is likely your emotions will start to arise under severe amounts of pressure. This is completely normal, but these intense emotions can either cause you to thrive or crumble. With emotional intelligence, you may be able to avoid the latter.

Athletes who are emotionally intelligent can usually identify the emotions of others through their non-verbal behaviours. This could be through analysis of facial expressions, body language, eye contact and even posture.

When performing, it is important to recognise which emotions are influencing your performance and if this effect is positive or negative. Gaining knowledge of this will help you switch to your best emotional state when competing and enhance your performance.

What does research say about emotional intelligence?

Research has suggested that emotional intelligence has a positive impact on sports performance. In this interesting study, participants were asked to watch videos of athletes during matches and guess whether they were winning or losing the match. Emotional intelligence will help you identify that when the athletes are losing, they tend to display more negative emotional states compared to when they are winning, in which their emotional states are seen to be more positive.

Now, you would think participants who had higher interpersonal emotional skills (identifying others’ emotions well) would do a better job at identifying what athletes were winning and losing, right? Well, shockingly, that’s not the case. Results showed it was those with high intrapersonal skills (identifying their own emotions well) who were more successful in the study.

Yes – how well we express, identify, and understand our own emotions has a direct effect on how well we can do the same for others. So, how does understanding our own emotions better help us understand the emotions of others? The answer may be mirror neurons. Let’s take a look at the science behind that.

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The brain and mirror neurons

Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that activates when we watch someone do something, causing our brains to “mirror” what we see. For example, when watching your favourite player take a penalty in football, have you ever felt as nervous as if you were taking the penalty yourself? That’s because of the mirror neurons.

These special neurons explain why having a better understanding of our own emotions helps us to understand others. If watching an action and performing it cause the same part of the brain to activate, then it allows us to understand how these same actions can also elicit the same feelings in other people.

Athletes with high intrapersonal skills can better relate to what other athletes are feeling thanks to similarities with what they may have experienced during competition or training. Think about it: if you’ve ever lost an important race or missed a shot, you know how it feels. So, if you see another athlete in the same situation, you’ll have a more accurate idea of what they are feeling just by observing their emotional state through non-verbal behaviours – you’ve been through the same thing yourself.

What does this mean for your sport?

Emotional intelligence can play a big role in your sport. Increasing your emotional intelligence can provide a better insight into your opposition and even your teammates.

For example, if you are playing tennis, your emotional intelligence can help you identify how your opponent’s emotions affect their performance. Maybe you can see that your topspin makes them nervous, or your backhand frustrates them through their body language and facial expressions. This means you can continue to use it to apply more pressure and give yourself an edge.

Emotional intelligence also allows you to manipulate your own emotions if you have a good understanding of them. For instance, if you are aware that you perform your best when you’re calm, you could engage in meditation to lower your arousal levels and help you relax before you compete.

4 tips to increase your emotional intelligence

So, we’ve learnt that to better identify others’ emotions, we need better understand and manage our own. But how can we do this? Here are 4 tips…

1. Keep a journal for competition and training

Noting down what emotions you feel and how they impact your performance can be very beneficial. It allows you to identify what emotions you need to regulate during competition to help you be successful.

2. Listen to music

Listening to music before a competition can manipulate your emotions depending on the type of music you listen to. If you need to feel energised, then upbeat music may be the way to go, whereas if you want to feel relaxed, try calming music.

3. Positive self-talk

When you consistently use positive self-talk, you create a relationship between self-talk and emotion. Positive self-talk can help you achieve the emotional state you desire before performance and maximise your potential.

4. Goal setting

Setting emotionally-focused goals can help develop your emotional intelligence. Once you establish which emotions aid and hinder your performance, the next step is to try and change these emotions, and goal setting is a good way to do so.

    Final thoughts

    Who knew emotions were such a big deal!

    The power of emotional intelligence is never ending and if you invest a little extra time into improving it, this will really show in your performance. Emotional intelligence can give you an advantage over your competitors and enhance your abilities even in high pressure situations. Therefore, if you try to understand your own emotions better, this could really change your sporting game.


    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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