Emotional Intelligence in Sport

There has been an increase in recent coaching literature aimed at helping coaches to create more emotionally intelligent athletes; in the belief this will benefit performance by improving motivation, awareness, problem-solving capability, decision-making, and resolve. The move to bring emotional intelligence (EI) into sport comes after great success by corporate organisations introducing specific strategies to develop this in the workplace. The potentially significant role of EI on sports performance is of interest as the aim will be to help athletes develop emotional control techniques, which has already been associated with improved performance in team sports. Simply put, having the ability to manage emotions successfully will lead athletes to use their emotions to assist performance during competition.

What is EI?

The concept of EI was brought to the forefront of researchers in the mid-1990’s, focusing on a mix of skills such as: awareness of emotions; traits (persistence and resilience); and good behaviour. While the specific skills required for EI are still debated, there is a general consensus that EI is “the ability to deal with your own and other’s emotions through recognition of how you are feeling, sensing emotions in others and building productive relationships”. What is also agreed within the literature is that EI should be viewed as a skill that can be taught, learned and developed. To provide a brief summary of the literature, EI is understood to be composed of several different competencies that are related to performance. As mentioned these competencies and skills are still being debated but the core aspects of EI are recognised as perception, understanding, utilising and managing emotions effectively (both in self and others). Goleman et al. (2002) building on the basic competencies categorized a number of influencing factors into two general dimensions:
  1. Self-awareness – emotional self-awareness; accurate self-awareness; self-confidence
  2. Self-management – emotional self-control; transparency; honesty / integrity / trustworthiness; adaptability / flexibility; achievement / drive for performance; initiative; optimism

The Benefits of EI

EI is associated with desirable behaviours and psychological well-being across a number of different settings. Understanding your emotions is essential to your personal well-being. It is easy with so many demands on performance to become overwhelmed and ineffective. Development of EI and the improved ability to understand yourself (and your emotions) allows for clear thinking, creativity and better communication. Further the ability to enhance EI develops your potential to cope with stressors in both performance and training environments. High levels of EI are associated with stable personality and behavioural dispositions, which in turn are known to increase commitment and persistence to achievement of goals. Without the ability to recognise and regulate one’s own responses, many individuals will struggle to consistently select the best option particularly in stressful times. Therefore better EI can help lead to a happier life because acting calmly and rationally in difficult circumstances positions you to handle situations, events and other people more effectively. By understanding your own emotions and how to manage them, individuals are better able to express how they feel (including what you want and do not want), while at the same time acknowledging and understanding how others are feeling. This allows for better communication, understanding and stronger relationships.

Developing EI

Recognising that EI can be developed, it is important to provide some simple strategies that each individual can begin to work through to achieve this. While in no way is the information below an exhaustive approach, the aim here is to provide a starting point to initiate the process.
  1. Take responsibility for your own emotions – don’t blame other people. By taking responsibility of your emotions then they are yours to manage (to influence and direct).
  2. Know your emotional triggers – while it is not possible to plan for every emotional reaction, we all have certain things that trigger responses in us (both positively and negatively). Take some time to identify these and develop conscious and purposeful responses.
  3. Stop and think – most situations need clear and calm thinking. Try to slow everything down (note- there are a number of different approaches for this. For example: reciting the alphabet backwards; recalling everything you ate yesterday; snap an elastic band on your wrist; etc.). The important part is to ensure that it challenges your brain and that it provides the time to remove the initial emotional response.
  4. Manage the physical feelings – emotions are made up of thoughts, actions and physical feelings. Intense anger and anxiety are normally associated with quick, shallow breathing and muscle tension. Concentration on long, slow, diaphragmatic breathing can help reduce these physical responses.
  5. Manage your behaviour – managing emotions is dependent on a number of variables, so it is important to be flexible in your approach. Because each situation is different it is helpful to develop a range of strategies.
  6. Consider your options – generally the more choices and options you have available the less stressful a situation. Don’t just do the same thing over and over, rather identify as many possibilities as you. It does not matter if these are feasible or not, the important part is to gather lots of them.
  7. Reflect – the best method for learning and developing is to reflect on your response. How could you change this if you are in a similar situation? Would you need to do something different? How could you be even more effective? Reflection is crucial independent of the outcome (positive or negative).