Emotional Intelligence in Sports: The Game within the Game

Human anatomy - central nervous system

This post was intended to be about self confidence, but I decided I needed to take a step back and rather than talk specifically about gaining confidence; a more general overview of Emotional Intelligence in sports was in order. In this way it becomes easier to address many aspects of how the Game within the Game affects hockey performance. It is written for hockey solely because I wanted to single out a sport, but it applies to all sports.

Sports Psychology research has seen the increase in a concept named emotional intelligence. First utilized in the business world, Emotional Intelligence is finding its way into other areas of life such as sports. What is it, how can it help sports performance and how can we enhance our own emotional intelligence? Emotional intelligence is a relatively new construct that has emerged over the last ten years. Identified as ‘the capacity to recognize and utilize emotional states to change intentions and behaviors. Emotional intelligence can be measured through a series of statements about emotional states and the ways that a person deals with them.

Emotional Intelligence can be summed up as: 

  • Recognition of different emotional states;
  • Assessing the effects of emotions on behavior;
  • The ability to switch into the best emotional state to manage a specific situation.

Research

Success in sport is often associated with vigor and anger. Importantly, emotionally intelligent people can get themselves into the appropriate emotional states for the demands of the situation. If the situation requires high arousal, emotionally intelligent people are good at getting themselves psyched up and prepared. Equally, if the situation requires calmness, emotionally intelligent people are good at relaxing themselves. Athletes that perform in the zone effective regulate their emotions.

Research looking at the nature of emotional intelligence has found that emotionally intelligent people use psychological skills such as imagery; goal setting and positive self-talk more often than their less emotionally intelligent counterparts. It was found that emotionally intelligent people are mentally tough and also that they find exercise enjoyable. Importantly, it seems that emotional intelligence can be enhanced through suitably developed intervention packages.

One very real way of assessing Emotional Intelligence is through the use of paper and pencil inventories or computer tabulated assessment instruments. I’ve used many over the past 30 plus years to identify everything from personality traits and motivation to the ways people deal with stress. I stopped using many of them years ago because they didn’t really help me help athletes. If something was a personality trait, there was little influence instituting mental skills could have. But an assessment of Emotional Intelligence would be very instructive. I have just started working with another sport psychology consultant in Canada that helped develop an assessment tool called the ESi. He has used it with the NHL and a great deal of Junior Hockey Players. You can visit the ESi site by clicking on the link at end of the post. The Esi breaks down Emotional Intelligence into the following competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance, Achievement Drive, Competitiveness, Resilience, Focus, Self-Control, Flexibility and Optimism.

Developing emotional self-awareness

The capability to change emotional states and learning how to change emotions in relation to performance requires self-awareness. Athletes need to be able to identify when their emotions are influencing their performance and how their emotions change over time. The need also to be able to assess the emotional states that other people are feeling as well, picking up on their body language, verbal and non-verbal gestures.

There are many possible ways in which to assess emotions, including standard psychometric tests; however, athletes often find repeated completions of standardized scales to be a tiresome task. An alternative approach is to use an open-ended diary type approach such as a video or an audio diary. For years I have asked athletes to do journals and training diaries. The intent was to link emotions to practice and games, especially linking both very successful situations and failures to their emotional state at the time. Often it is useful to have an athlete visualize the memory or the situation and rate not only the performance, but the strength of the emotion. It may be important for the athlete to also examine their team state at the time as well.

Emotions such as anxiety can be positive and negative. It is the combination of emotions, and the thoughts that are linked with these combinations, which determines whether these emotions are motivational or de-motivational.

Developing Self-awareness of Emotional States during Daily Performance 

As a player becomes aware of their emotional state during the week, they begin to become more self-aware of how these emotions affect most everything they do. As they become aware they start to understand that they can influence their accomplishments by getting into the emotional state or frame required for the task. They also begin to see that emotions carried over from other events may influence their performance. Being upset from the drive to training because of training can carry over onto the ice and a situation that required them to be calm now is ruined because they had carry over anger. Perhaps not having tolerance for a team mate’s error causes an issue, that would have not occurred with a better grasp on their own state.

Identification of Strategies to Regulate Emotion

At this point there are many ways or strategies for the athlete to begin to regulate their emotional states, such as learning how to effectively use relaxation training and imagery rehearsal. Other techniques like understanding coping behavior are effective too. Even just knowing that certain music will change their mood or emotional state is helpful. Music is a great way to influence emotion either to calm down or to fire up. Listen to some relaxation music and then blast some AC/DC and you understand my point.

Set Emotionally Focused Goals

Once an athlete becomes aware of emotions he or she has experienced, the effect these have on team-mates and, importantly, whether the emotions were helpful or unhelpful, the next step is to try to change these emotions. Goal setting has been found to be an effective intervention strategy in a lot of different skills. Most goal setting however does not include emotional states. By focusing or adding on emotional states the athlete not only develops emotional intelligence, but I have found goal attainment to be far better.

Engage in Positive Self-talk

Another useful step along with the emotions journal is to start writing down the self talk that they are experiencing. What we say to ourselves does matter and too often it is very negative. By paying attention to self talk, the athlete begins to associate what they say to themselves and their emotional state. Recognizing the relationship between self talk, emotion and performance is important not only in terms of emotional intelligence (virtual definition) but is necessary for an athlete to maximize their potential and find success and happiness in sport.

There are of course many other techniques useful in developing emotional intelligence. The first step is becoming aware and then moving forward with the desire to implement change. It is important that skaters focus on their strengths as well as their weaknesses. It is often times far more effective to go with strength when learning to overcome a weakness.

Play with passion.  Enjoy the Game. The one on the ice and the one within you.