Friend or Foe?

Speak what we feel; not what we ought to say.

King Lear (1605-6) act 5, sc. 3, 1. [325]

The Issue . . .
Sport is an emotional experience. Yes it is physical activity but it is an emotional experience. This is the case for athletes, coaches, managers, family members, supporters and communities and there is widespread acceptance that emotion can affect athletic performance both positively and negatively. Despite this a cursory examination of the literature shows that there is a conspicuous paucity of research into this phenomenon relative to research into many other aspects of sport performance.

William James (above) was an American philosopher and psychologist who in 1884 wrote a paper called ‘What is an emotion?’ We are still waiting for a definitive answer. In the intervening years various attempts have been made to define, identify, categorise and measure emotions and whereas debate, agreement and disagreement continue one certainty is that emotion is an integral component of all aspects of the human experience – including sport.

Why is Emotion Important in Sport?
Firstly, emotion is an important aspect of an athlete’s motivation, commitment and performance. If the experience of participating in a sporting activity doesn’t ‘feel right’ it is likely that motivation levels, commitment levels and performance levels will be low. It is often noted by people involved in sport that the most technically gifted athletes are not always the best performers.

Another reason why emotion is important in sport is that the ability to read an opponent’s emotional state can be crucial to successful performance. If an athlete can identify that an opponent is experiencing a lack of confidence or frustration or anxiety or self-doubt he or she can attempt to capitalise on these weaknesses by trying to exacerbate the causes of these negative emotions however cruel that may appear. On the other hand by recognising and acknowledging positive emotions being experienced by an opponent an athlete can reassess the situation tactically or psychologically in an attempt to counteract. If an athlete can understand and adapt to the emotional power play in competition their capacity to make effective decisions is greatly enhanced and they are able to adapt their performance accordingly.

Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence – the title of a 1995 book by Daniel Goleman – is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of abilities. These include awareness of our own emotions, the ability to regulate/manage our emotions, how we motivate ourselves to fulfil our intrinsic needs and goals, the ability to understand the emotions of others and the ability to foster and manage relationships with others.

Emotional Intelligence in Sport
When we consider that athletes are continuously faced with various types of stressors and emotional challenges inside and outside competition and that athletic performance is heavily influenced by relationships and interactions with others in sport and that these are significantly influenced by emotions we may begin to understand the importance of emotional intelligence in sport.

According to Stough et al. (2009) it has been determined that emotional intelligence is essential in both individual and team sports and that it can be the key factor in an athlete’s functioning within a team setting.

Some of the listed traits of emotionally intelligent athletes are that they:

(a) Manage their stress better

(b) Identify and change negative emotions that are blocking performance

(c) Remain in better physical health (e.g. decrease in anxiety attacks, headaches, back pain)

(d) Respond more positively to athletic coach’s feedback, criticism and direction

(e) Play their sport with more confidence

(f) Are less impulsive

(g) Remain more flexibility with regard to transitions.

(h) Maintain more consistent play

(i) Maintain and increase their positive mind-set and get over mistakes and failures better

(j) Minimise conflict with team mates etc.

The Coach-Athlete Relationship
When looking at emotional intelligence in sport of particular importance is the coach-athlete relationship. The emotional aspect of this relationship has a major impact on the athlete’s appraisal and experience of their sport up to and including the phenomenon of burnout which has been defined as physical and/or emotional exhaustion. Whereas many coach-athlete relationships are positive and mutually beneficial on an emotional level not all are and in fact some are emotionally abusive as per research conducted by Kavanagh et al. (2017). A disconcerting observation here is that in many instances neither the parties involved nor observers may be aware that abuse could be occurring.

In an article by Murphy (2015) Greg Dale, Director of Sport Psychology and Leadership Programs for the Duke University athletic department is reported as saying that the difference between tough love and abuse largely comes down to the coach’s approach.

“Coaches can and should be demanding of their players, but they should never be demeaning,” he says. “Emotional abuse occurs when coaches get personal with their criticisms”.

“They should focus on a player’s mistake without zeroing in on him or her as an individual,” Dale continues. “It’s not about coaches being soft or not having high expectations–it’s about correcting athletes without cutting them down in the process. It’s an art, but the best coaches figure out how to do it.”

Self-regulation is one of the key components of emotional intelligence. Self-regulation is a term generally used to describe a person’s ability to effectively and appropriately manage and respond to an emotional experience. Healthy responses include talking, exercise or therapy whereas negative responses include aggression or avoidance.

In saying this it is important to note that every athlete has a different starting point when it comes to their ability to self-regulate their emotions. Their individual starting point is the accumulation of their unique emotional history which can result in different emotional styles in different athletes or perhaps varying abilities. Regulation can of course take place at the level of the team also.

Woodfin (2014) has listed 7 emotional styles of athletes as follows:

1 The Bubbler
Feels anger and frustration build slowly, if something goes wrong the bubbler is prone to boiling over and basically self-destructing.

2 The Actor outer
Feels anger and frustration strongly. Expresses those emotions immediately and openly but doesn’t necessarily let them go. They return and the process repeats itself over and over. Emotions become a major hindrance to performance.

3 The Mr. Negative
Feels strong negative emotions and dwells on them. Defeatist attitude and may give up under pressure.

4 The Manipulator
Tries through intimidation, confrontation, and gamesmanship to cleverly control the situation to do as he or she pleases. Puts a lot of effort into affecting other people’s emotions but becomes ineffective athletically when they ‘run out of road.’

5 The Positive Thinker
Believes when there is no basis for belief and when situations are genuinely hopeless. May have success at lower levels against similarly minded athletes but flounders at higher levels when faced with the reality that positive thinking will not overcome athletic limitation.

6 The Superior One
The vain pontificator. When things go wrong they expresses anger towards every body and every thing other than themselves.

7 The Grand Master
Calmness personified. Unaffected by threats and negative emotions. Can retain composure through high highs or low lows. This can result in consistently high performances and an ability to continually learn and redefine. The gold standard.

To Express or not to Express?
Our sport means something to us, something very deep. Whereas the advice has traditionally been for athletes to retain composure as per the Grand Master above I would slightly disagree. My disagreement revolves around the concept of individual differences between different athletes in the way that emotion is understood, experienced and processed. When one considers the unique emotional composition of each individual and the different emotional styles displayed by athletes as per Woodfin’s descriptions above, it may potentially be harmful to performance to claim that one size really fits all and to promote a blanket restriction on emotional expression in sport.

Are we really saying that the player who scores a spectacular winning goal towards the end of injury time should remain zen-like in circumstances where it is extremely uncomfortable for them to do so? Especially when bottling up this amount of excited energy may negatively affect concentration and performance for the remainder of the game? Are we saying that they should not take a few seconds to release this mass of emotional energy before then mindfully regaining equilibrium, concentration and focus for the remainder of the game?

In some instances, in my opinion, and depending on the emotional make-up of the athlete it may be beneficial for emotional expression but – and here’s the clincher – only when the emotional expression is positive, controlled and genuinely beneficial for the athlete (and their team) in that moment and for the remainder of the play. For this to happen athletes may require knowledge of the theory and practice of emotional intelligence in sport with particular emphasis on self-regulation.

Emotion is an essential and inescapable component of sport. Participation in sport can be an intense and emotionally laden experience with emotion often intrinsically linked with personal identity self-esteem or a sense of place. Understanding emotion in sport, preparing for emotion in sport, developing and implementing personal emotional management plans in sport and doing all of this on a bespoke basis should help athletes on an experiential level towards a more fulfilling and more optimal state of performance.


Emotions in sport are something we should embrace not shy away from. But it is important to channel and manage them in the right way – both in terms of personal development and of reaching and achieving peak performance. Managing emotion is a skill, particularly in a dynamic setting such as sport. Because of the importance of and the prevalence of high levels of emotion in sport it may be prudent for athletes to work on this part of their ‘game’ as they would work on other parts and likewise for sporting bodies to provide appropriate education and training.


Cogbeh provides training in person or online on emotional intelligence in sport as part of the Mindset Expertise in Sport Programme.

Kavanagh, E., Brown, L., & Jones, I (2017). Elite Athletes’ Experience of Coping With Emotional Abuse in the Coach–Athlete Relationship, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29:4, 402-417, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1298165.

Murphy, M. (2015). A Hard Look. Retrieved from (December, 2019).

Stough, C., Clements, M., Wallish, L., & Downey, J. (2009). Emotional intelligence in sport: Theoretical linkages and preliminary empirical relationships from basketball. In C. Stough, D. H. Saklofske, & J. D. A. Parker (Eds.), Assessing emotional intelligence (pp. 291–305). New York, NY: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-88370-0_15

Woodfin, K. (2014). The 7 Emotional Styles of Athletes. Retrieved from (December, 2019).

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