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10 tips to help control your emotions from a sport psychologist

10 tips to help control your emotions from a sport psychologist

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

What does it take to really excel in the world of elite sport? The ability to deliver your best when it matters the most is a fundamental part of performing under pressure. Can this ability be taught, learned and developed?

We have previously explored why some athletes perform better under pressure than others and what it takes to thrive in a pressurized environments.  However, what makes emotions in sport so complicated is that no emotion is truly good or bad during competition. For example, anger can make you try harder, but it can also make you lose focus on the task at hand.

Even two people experiencing the same emotion can react in different ways. So a footballer who is embarrassed about missing too many shots may shy away from receiving the ball, whereas another might react by calling for it more to get a chance to redeem themselves.

Research by Professor Marc Jones at Staffordshire University offers fascinating insight into how athletes can better manage their emotions when competing. In this blog, we are going to look at 10 tips to control emotions in sport based on his research.


10 Ways to Control Emotions in Sport

1. Music

Listening to music is a great way for an athlete to get into the zone. Upbeat or inspirational music for example improves an athlete’s confidence and motivation, leading to better on pitch performance. Music acts as a way to boost arousal levels whilst also helping to block out distracting thoughts. Click here to read more about the impact of music on performance in sports.

2. Self-talk

Negative self-talk leads to a poor emotional state, which in turn hurts athletic performance. Replacing it with positive self-talk such as “I played really well in my last match” or “I’ve succeeded at this before, I know I can now” counters negative emotions and creates positive ones too.   This positive self-talk creates helpful emotions such as happiness. As many as 76% of elite level figure skaters utilise this technique to cope with the stress of competition. For more tips on how to talk to yourself, check out our blog on self-talk and how self-talk is linked to growth mindset.

3. Relaxing, positive imagery

If you find yourself stressed out over competing or are worried about failing,  try imagining positive scenarios like scoring a goal. As a young athlete, Wayne Rooney used to lie in bed imagining himself scoring goals and dribbling around defenders. He uses these visualisation techniques this day and credits them for his accomplishments.

It has been found that imagery focused on toughness, control, and confidence leads to increased motivation, emotion regulation, and self-belief. This is a great technique to do the night before a match or just before you go out to compete.

4. Challenging self-handicapping thoughts

It’s important to consistently review your behavior both on pitch and off to ensure it is helping, not hindering your performance. If you are exerting energy and focus on behavior that is hurting you, you’re wasting energy.

One elite tennis player in this study was asked how many times in her career she argued with the referee and how often it had actually resulted in a call being changed (very rarely). The massive difference in the energy wasted compared to the result she gained, helped her realise there were better things to choose to focus on.

5. Face your fears

As discussed in our blog on The Fear of Failure, psychologists believe that there are three ways people cope with situations. These are Avoidant, Emotional and Problem Focused. Let’s say you are worried about snakes in your garden. You could decide to never go into your garden again (avoidance focused), or convince yourself that having snakes in your back garden isn’t that bad (emotion focused) or go into your garden and get rid of the snakes (problem focused). 

Whereas avoidance and emotional focused coping may provide a short relief, problem focused coping addresses the issue head on, allowing you to make long term gains. Don’t be an ostrich and bury your head in the sand. If something is worrying you, work out how you can make it better.

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6. Relax your body

Try tensing your muscles for a few seconds and then consciously relaxing them to feel a sense of calm, physically as well as mentally. Research shows that this leads to a reduced heart rate, lesser feelings of physical exhaustion, and diminished anxiety. 

7. Learn from others

Try to emulate athletes that deal with emotionally difficult situations well; this is an effective strategy to manage anger and stress. For instance it has been shown that Role-playing exercises off pitch reduce angry behavior on pitch. The ability to learn from others is a hallmark of developing a growth mindset and a very important life skill.

8. Develop self-awareness

Keep a journal or review film of situations where strong emotions arise during play and how you dealt with them. This allows you to identify which emotions are healthy, competitive ones for you and which are not. This is important to know so that you can get the best from your emotional state. Keeping a diary to improve self-awareness is a simple and effective way to improve metacognition.

This can be incredibly effective when combined with challenging self-handicapping thoughts (check out part one of this blog), as your newfound awareness can help you identify which thoughts and emotions need challenging.

9. Reframe

The more important you believe the situation to be, the more likely you are to have a strong emotional response to it. Research suggest that reminding yourself that “it’s just another match” can help reduce the noise and intensity that emotions can bring.

Reframing our ideas of failure and success can also be effective. In the earlier mentioned research by Professor Jones, he details an example where a Premier League striker was struggling to score goals, and feeling down because of it. Helping him reframe his definition of success to include all the other things he was doing well helped raise his spirits and find his goal scoring form again.

10. Take deep breaths

Much like muscle relaxation, focusing on taking deep slow breaths can be an important factor in regulating emotion. These breaths increase feelings of relief and lead to lower physical symptoms of negative emotions such as muscle tension.  It also provides a sense of control of the situations, slows things time and gives you space to consider how best to proceed.

Final thoughts

Every athlete no matter their level needs to learn how to balance their emotions. There is no perfect formula. What works well for someone else is no guarantee that it will work well for you. Using some of the techniques described in both parts of this blog series will provide a strong platform to explore what works best for you.

If you liked these great tips, we think you’ll love our blog on How to Create a Winning Team Culture.

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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