Regulating Athletes’ Emotions

  • May 14, 2015


Some thoughts from By: Dr. Katherine Tamminen & Courtney Braun – University of Toronto

Emotions can have a large influence on athlete performance. A talented, hardworking athlete may perform very well or very poorly, depending on whether they are experiencing frustration, anxiety, happiness, or excitement before and during competition. One of the main areas of research within the Sport and Performance Psychology lab at the University of Toronto is to explore how athletes regulate their emotions and deal with stress in sport. In particular, we are interested in understanding how individuals interact and help one another regulate their emotions and deal with stress. We are now starting to learn more about the ways that coaches influence their athletes’ emotions and performance. While coaches have a number of responsibilities, it is clear that the ways in which coaches interact and respond to their athletes may affect the athlete’s emotions and their confidence to perform well in the competition.

There are a variety of strategies and approaches that coaches might use to try and increase the positive emotions or decrease the negative emotions of their athletes. One model for classifying emotion regulation strategies was developed by James Gross and it has increasingly been used to explore athletes’ emotion regulation in sport. While there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ emotion regulation strategy for all situations, there are common ways that coaches may help their athletes to regulate their emotions.

Situation selection and situation modification consist of designing, choosing, or modifying a situation/event with the purpose of changing the emotions that your athlete may experience.

Example: You have an athlete consistently failing with a task in a workout and is experiencing frustration as a result. As a coach, you may select to scratch some of the more difficult drills at the end of a training session to avoid creating feelings of anger or sadness among your athletes. You may also modify the task to have the athlete experience success in order to ease frustration and elicit more positive emotions.

Attention deployment refers to efforts to direct your athlete’s attention toward or away from a stressful situation, to change the emotions they are experiencing.

Example: An athlete is anxious prior to competition. You begin chatting with the athlete about his/her personal life (e.g., school, family, work, etc.)  to distract the athlete from the competition and reduce feelings of anxiety. Some coaches may use games or puzzles for their athletes to complete in order to distract them from the upcoming competition.

Cognitive change involves changing an athlete’s interpretation of a situation/event in order to change the emotions arising from that situation.

Example: An athlete is disappointed and frustrated with his/her training progress prior to competition. As a coach you may help the athlete think differently about it by putting things into perspective (e.g., telling the athlete that this single performance does not define him/her as an athlete) and/or rationalizing the athlete’s progress (e.g., we are in the middle of hard training); by changing the way the athlete thinks about the situation, you can help to reduce their disappointment and help them prepare for the upcoming competition.

Response modulation consists of strategies to increase or decrease an athlete’s emotional response to a situation/event.

Example: An athlete is happy following a fantastic performance. You congratulate high five, and/or hug the athlete to elicit even more happiness and excitement.

While different emotion regulation strategies will work for different athletes in different situations, it is important for coaches and athletes to maintain open and active communication to understand what works best for both the coach and the athlete. Although the research is still ongoing, we are learning that coaches do have an influence on the types of emotions that athletes experience in training and in competition.

See what Coach-2-Coach is all about!

Coach Responses

What are some strategies you use to regulate athletes’ emotions?

Do you find that your own emotions have an influence on your athletes in training and competition?

Do you regulate your own emotions when you are around your athletes?

Share your tips and best practices!

Coach Joe – Hamilton – Softball – 30+ Years

“…Emotional control and emotional intelligence are huge factors in determining the success

We often talk about the Chinese proverb: ” If you can count to three the sea will calm”, to help the athletes understand the value of keeping one’s composure.

As a coach we must be aware of how expressive and emotional we are in general and how that changes when the competition gets a bit heated, and how our athletes react to what we do and say in both a positive and negative way.

I have heard of coaches who give their athletes permission and actually encourage them to go right up to them during competition and let them know” ” Hey coach, remember when we talked about staying in control at all times, well I think you might be losing it “

So the message is we all want to do well, we all care, … sometimes we care too much and are at risk of letting our emotions get the better of us. Regardless of what happens in a competition remember … if we can count to 3 ….”

Coach Alice – Sudbury – Basketball – 9 Years

“…I use visualization as a tool to get players mentally accustomed to competition scenarios. I encourage players to set small individual goals for each competition, so they are able to feel a sense of accomplishment, regardless of the results of the game. We discuss relative successes and weaknesses, and develop comprehensible plans to achieve goals…”

Coach Chris – Burlington – Basketball – 15 Years

“…Always stress the positives. Players can lose confidence very quickly and then they will make more mistakes because they are hesitant. I will always try to talk to a girl after she has been substituted out of a game and give her something positive to think about while she is on the bench so that she does not dwell on the negative. One of our players got pulled after she made a really bad pass. As she came to the bench I pulled her aside and complimented her on a couple of strong rebounds she made and some nice defensive plays she had made. After that, we talked about the past she made (which she was able to laugh at) and what she needs to try and do in the future. I have never coached an athlete who tries to make a mistake and most of my players understand when they have done something wrong. By focusing on the positive things a player does they can learn more effectively when they make a mistake because there is no criticism. Also, I always try to get my athletes to focus on the future. You cannot dwell on a bad play or something you did wrong, learn from it and move on. If you can point out opportunities where players can learn from what they did and apply it in a future event, the players stay more positive and will compete until the end. Finally, I want my team to be focused on what they have to do and not to let distractions affect them. I try hard to keep an even keel emotionally and not get too excited or upset if there is a bad call by the referee or a bad play. This way I remain focused on the task and the players hopefully will do the same…”

Coach John – Windsor – Baseball & Basketball – 48+ Years

“…It is wise to be sure that the training you are doing is age-appropriate and to ensure a degree of success is to proceed one step at a time and being sure that each athlete is ready for the next step before you proceed … baseball is a game of failure when one realizes that the best hitters fail 70 % of the time( major leaguers included). We learn from our mistakes which themselves are not failures, but an opportunity to learn. Coaching is explaining., demonstrating, observing and correcting. which covers the spectrum of learning styles. It is also important to remind players that concentration and effort are the keys to success: Nothing trumps preparation and hard work by both player and coach. Each athlete has the potential for achievement which will only be realized with the maximum effort on their part. It is not how good one thinks he or she is but rather how willing one is to work to achieve the level of talent they were born with.

Strive to be the best you can be and do not let anybody outwork you. One should be able to look in the mirror and say I did the best I could at each practice and game be they, player or coach.

I believe that players often will assume the attitude and the behaviour of the coach. Success is the result of 4 things: attitude, passion, work ethic and commitment to what you do…”

Coach Heather – Milton – Lawnbowling – 10 Years

“…Allow the athlete the right to feel awkward, frustrated and deficient while developing. Without these emotions, they will not progress or improve. Yes, if the task is too difficult they will feel frustrated so yes modify to meet their abilities but only temporarily. If they are to progress they must experience that frustration and then experience the thrill when they do succeed and nail that tough exercise. It all depends on the athlete’s goals and aspirations and drive…”

Coach Chad – Niagara – Hockey – 8 Years

“…First and foremost, if we as coaches cant keep our own emotions in check, how can we help our athletes? Not only is it what we say to manage the emotions of our athletes, but our own emotions during training and competition. Each of the common strategies I use on myself as a coach. By changing the way the athlete thinks about the situation, you can help to change your own thinking of a situation…”

Coach Paul – Mississauga – Fastpitch – 26 Years

“… I find that anticipating times when athletes’ emotions may off help. Exam times are very stressful, also lead-ups to major events, such as key games, championships, etc. Sometimes just a couple of encouraging words does the trick, other times it is more of a one-on-one conversation that is needed. Whatever is required, it is important not to become frustrated with the athlete…”

Coach Sean – Waterloo – 20 Years

I have used a combination of the above-mentioned tools, and I think we (as coaches) can give athletes tools that they can understand how to approach things in life, and how they can cope with their pos/neg and in-between emotions, which should create a more balanced life and sport environment. This more balanced approach, where both coach/athlete share in the emotional environment/growth experience, can be done by working through tools such as:

  • using colour codes (and giving colour to their emotions/feelings)
  • working through personality tests w the athlete – learning who they are
  • developing critical thinking skills w the athlete (using the De Bono Groups ‘hats’)
  • using things such as “emoji’s” for the athlete to display their emotions in a different manner than verbally/physically
  • having them write their thoughts & feelings down in a journal which hopefully gives them pause & insight
  • tapping into their interests/hobbies and uniquely incorporating that into their sports environment (music or art, for example)
  • allow them to lead and own an activity (mentoring)
  • etc.
See the new issue

See past Coach 2 Coach topics.

Sign up to receive Coach 2 Coach webinar updates monthly!