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Do smartphones help or hinder athlete’s self-regulation?

Do smartphones help or hinder athletes’ self-regulation?

4 min read
  • Phones & technology
  • Sport psychology

In today’s digital age, smartphones have become an integral part of our daily lives, including in sports. While these devices offer numerous benefits, many wonder if they can also pose as a challenge to athletic performance.

Athletes nowadays are seen to spend a lot of time on their phones, which leads many to think that this potential distraction could have detrimental effects to their performance. However, if athletes can create healthy habits to use their phones for training, analysis and communication, this could really improve their performance.

But how can they do this? Self-regulation might be the answer.

In this blog, we will explore how self-regulation and phone usage can help athletes achieve their best performance. We’ll uncover the keys to maintaining self-regulation in the digital age to help fuel your athletes’ athletic performance.

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation refers to an athlete’s ability to manage and control their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. Doing so allows them to achieve specific goals or maintain optimal performance. Self-regulation is essential for athletes to develop as this enhances their performance and allows them to cope with various challenges that they may encounter.

3 key components of self-regulation

Self-regulation strategies can involve three key components, which include:

  • Self-awareness and self-reflection – Athletes will regularly reflect on their performances. This enables them to identify their strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement.
  • Emotional regulation – Athletes learn to control their emotional responses, stay focused and channel their emotions positively, allowing them to perform their best, even under pressure.
  • Motivation – This type of athlete possesses an internal drive that allows them to stay focused especially when faced with obstacles.

Smartphone usage and self-regulation

Whilst there is a lot of research on smartphone usage within sports, this usually focuses on how athletes use social media and not other aspects of the phone.

There are many reasons athletes use their phone during training or competition – and these reasons don’t just include updating their status or live-tweeting their training session. Athletes may use their phones to supplement their self-regulation behaviours. Phones allow athletes to self-reflect on a performance. It gives them instant access to a notes page so they can write down different aspects of the performance and highlight what went well and what can be improved on. It can also allow them to improve their emotional regulation through listening to music. Putting on some headphones before a competition can help athletes calm their emotions. This in turn can reduce negative emotions such as stress or anxiety and decrease the likelihood of distraction especially before match or competition.

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Self-regulation and smartphone usage model

The self-regulation and smartphone usage model is a framework that explores the relationship between an athlete’s ability to regulate their thoughts, emotions and actions effectively and their use of smartphones. This model emphasises how self-regulation plays a crucial role in sports performance. It shows that using smartphones without self-regulation protocols in place can hinder an athlete’s performance and cause constant distractions, negatively impacting concentration – and ultimately affecting athletic performance.

However, with proper self-regulation strategies in place, athletes can manage their time effectively, which enhances focus and maintains a healthy balance between digital engagement and sports performance.

Conditions of usage

Whilst this model has many factors, one of the key factors are the conditions of usage. These are the circumstances that mediate smartphone usage. There are five conditions:

1. Context of usage

The situations that athletes use their phones in must be important and meaningful to the situation. For example, a footballer looking over their game plan on their phone would be deemed as meaningful. However, if they were to look at schoolwork, this wouldn’t be meaningful. Situations where phone usage is meaningful and interesting heightens athletes’ self-regulation and has a positive impact on performance.

2. Type of usage

This refers to the nature of the athlete’s smartphone usage. If the smartphone usage is purposeful and anticipated, this can increase performance. For example, if a netballer goes on their phone before every match to write down three goals they have for their performance, this phone usage was expected and can therefore be better monitored.

3. Awareness of usage

This refers to how mindful the athlete is of their smartphone usage. When the usage is mindful, athletes are fully attentive to the purpose of their usage as it is completely related to the task within their sport. Mindful usage also aids athletes’ emotional control as can reduce arousal levels and keep them calm before performance.

4. Autonomy of usage

Athletes’ smartphone usage can be classified as either intrinsic (driven by personal motives) or extrinsic (driven by external factors). Intrinsic usage allows athletes to make personal choices and feel a sense of control. On the other hand, extrinsic usage, influenced by coaches or sponsors, can lead to resentment and diminished outcomes. Athletes perceive intrinsic usage as more beneficial, while extrinsic usage causes frustration and depletion.

5. The concurrence of usage

Athletes’ smartphone usage can involve either single-tasking (focused on one task) or multi-tasking (engaging in multiple tasks). Multi-tasking is more likely to deplete athletes and disrupt their self-regulation compared to single-tasking.

    3 tips to improve athlete’s self-regulation when using a smartphone

    Sometime, it’s hard to know how to control your athletes’ smartphone usage during sports. So, here are a few practical tips that can help you out…

    1. Come up with a plan for when your athlete will use their smartphone and what they will use it for.
    2. Reflect with your athlete on why they are using their smartphone and whether it can help with their performance.
    3. Limit your athletes to engaging in only one task on their phone.

    Final thoughts

    Contrary to common belief, smartphone usage during sports doesn’t always harm performance. When athletes harness self-control and self-regulation while using their phones, it can actually enhance their performance and contribute to their athletic success. By finding the right balance, athletes can effectively utilise their phones as a tool to support their sports journey.


    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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