Self-regulation and emotions in sports

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Self-regulation is an important psychological concept that can be applied in every area of life. It can broadly be defined as the regulation of the self towards a desired goal. It can also be broken down into physical, emotional and cognitive regulation. Physical regulation is mainly observed in competitive sports where elite athletes are advised to follow strict routines. However, while the physical aspect of self-regulation is given respected attention from sports organizations, the same cannot be said about the psychological. Even though it is well established that psychological factors such as emotional and cognitive beliefs directly influence athletes ability to perform.

Some of these psychological factors are increasingly making the headlines as athletes become more publicly vocal about them. For example, anxiety and depression impaired Tennis sensation Naomi Osaka ability to participate in recent tournaments. Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles pulled out of the 2021 Olympics finals to focus on her mental health. England euro 2020 star Tyrone Mings consulted a psychologist to cope with the social criticism and doubts before the first game of the tournament. These examples capture a general lack of mental support provided to athletes across different sports domains. To achieve sustainable superior performance, sports organizations must take a holistic approach to self-regulation that covers both physical and psychological functioning.

A closer look into the psychology

A closer look into the role of emotions and cognitions in sports reveals that they can affect performance in many ways. Firstly, emotions felt before a competition can directly influence the athlete performance during competition. Secondly, the type of cognitive beliefs held by the athlete about the competition also activates behaviours that can facilitate or inhibit performance. This is because emotions and cognitions can influence many neurophysiological factors required for effective performance (e.g visual attention, movement, perception etc) (Laborde, Raab, & Dosseville, 2013).

However, they can also directly influence the athlete physical self-regulation after a competition or performance. Such as reported injuries or recovery from injuries (Balk & Englert, 2020). An effective psychological skill that directly influences physical regulation is self-awareness which is reported to reduce overuse injuries (Van der Sluis, et al., 2019). Lastly, organizational psychology has a history of investigating the crucial role that organizations play in regulating the wellbeing and performance of their members. Concurrently, a recent study has directly linked sports organizations to influence the motivation of their members and the ability of their members to effectively manage their emotions for performance (Porcar & Soriano, 2020).

Overall, self-regulation in sports needs a more holistic approach as evidenced by the number of athletes becoming more vocal on the topic. The psychological functioning of athletes is related to their physical functioning through factors that influence performance and physical health. However, the athlete motivation and ability to self-regulate is also influenced by the nature of the specific sports organization.

What can be done?

Understanding your organization

Understanding the context of performance is critical in understanding the desired behaviour. Practitioners and scholars of organizational psychology have highlighted critical areas for effective organizational functioning. Some of these are the organizational leadership, culture and even the implicit unconscious beliefs held by the members. All of these can influence self-regulation processes that can hinder or contribute to performance and wellbeing. Athletes and sports organizations will benefit from becoming more aware of the factors that govern their context and environment.

Understanding your personality

Our personality is our general pattern of behaviours across situations. Understanding your patterns and how these may be causing injuries, difficulties with performance, low mood or affecting your overall psychological functioning is crucial to sustaining wellbeing and performance. Understanding the personality increases engagement in behaviours that contribute to our growth and productivity. A simple exercise would be to ask three different friends or acquaintances to describe you. They should ideally not be related to each other in any way (e.g sharing close mutual friends). Finally, what sense can you make of their collective descriptions of you?

Learning coping skills

The greater the challenge, the greater the need to self-regulate to achieve our desired goals. Therefore, learning coping skills to deal with challenging situations is imperative for our growth. Depending on the personality, coping skills may take different forms. They can benefit the athlete or teams to effectively cope with the demands of an important game or tournament. The right coping skills can be useful during games where emotions quickly fluctuate as the game changes. Such changes can lead to doubts, crowd pressure and dysfunctional anxiety that can easily come to dominate talent and hard work.

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