How to Manage Negative Emotions When Playing Sports

21st May 2020
Learning how to control and manage negative emotions is really important for your sporting performance. In this article, we'll give you some advice on how best to do it.

Knowing how to control and manage negative emotions when playing sports is an essential skill. Even if you’re in peak physical shape, negative emotions can make you perform worse. And the reverse can be true as well. Even if you’re not in perfect physical condition, a positive mental state can still mean that you perform to a high level.

The relationship between emotions and sporting performance goes both ways. Just as your emotional state can affect your performance, your performance will more than likely induce negative or positive emotions, depending on the results.

Negative emotions

There are two very important things to highlight regarding the relationship between negative emotions and sports. First, there’s no one negative emotion. Negative emotions can range from anger or sadness to disappointment, frustration, fear, or many others. Who knows how many negative emotions there really are?

Similarly, within a single emotion, such as anger, there are varying levels of intensity.

The second thing to highlight is that emotions are states of mind, which last longer and are less intense. Emotions are caused by external stimuli and cause a rapid change in the body to respond to the situation.

How to manage negative emotions when playing sports

Given the importance of knowing how to manage negative emotions for optimal sporting performance, we’ve put together some guidelines to help you keep them under control

A runner crouched down looking dejected.

Know your emotional states and name them

The starting point is to identify the emotion. This means being aware of how you feel, think, and behave in a certain moment and categorizing that emotion with a name.

For example, before a competition, if your heart rate increases, your hands are sweaty, and you’re having self-doubt, you could label this precompetitive stress.

Simply labeling your emotions can make you feel calmer. The uncertainty of not knowing what you’re feeling can make your emotions overwhelming.

Focus on the here and now

The ‘here and now’ means focusing your attention on the present moment and not thinking about the past or future. Emotions are often caused by thoughts rather than reality.

Sadness is often caused by thinking about what did or didn’t happen in the past, whilst stress is caused by worrying about what might happen in the future.

A very simple yet effective trick is to describe five objects that you can see at that moment. Look around and describe in detail everything you can see, hear, or feel.

Use emotional control techniques

In psychology, negative emotions are regulated through the use of either relaxation or activation techniques. For example, relaxation techniques are used when a person is agitated or nervous.

Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) or diaphragmatic breathing can be very useful to help you calm down before a competition.

On the other hand, activation techniques are used when a negative emotion causes a lack of energy or a sense of fatigue. Positive self-motivation is a very effective way to improve your mood and boost self-confidence.

Keep an emotion diary

Keeping an emotion diary means writing down the emotion you felt, how intense it was, and the consequences, before and after each competition. This way, it’ll be easier to identify the situations that trigger a negative emotion.

Writing down the intensity will help you to prioritize the emotion. If it’s a very intense emotion, you’ll have a greater need to do something about it. Lastly, writing down the consequences will help you to work out how to deal with that emotion.

A woman lying on the sofa annoyed.

Aside from all of this, keeping a diary of your emotions is actually very therapeutic in itself. Externalizing negative emotions and the discomfort they cause helps to put them in perspective.

Be aware that some things are beyond your control

Many athletes become frustrated by the things they can’t act on. Many blame poor results on a rival’s behavior, the weather, or even the crowd, and this simply leads to more negative emotions.

It’s important to remember that there will always be some things that you can do nothing about. Instead, you need to focus on those things that you can influence or change.

Avoid negative emotions to perform better

There’s a close link between emotions and sporting performance and they each affect each other during competitions. Even though negative emotions are inevitable, there’s nothing wrong with that. The important thing is knowing how to manage negative emotions so that they don’t ruin what should be an enjoyable part of your life.

  • García Grau, E., Fusté Escolano, A., y Bados López, A. (2008). Manual de entrenamiento en respiración.
  • McCarthy, Paul. (2011). Positive emotion in sport performance: Current status and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 4. 50-69. 10.1080/1750984X.2011.560955.