Intense Emotions in Sports

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“I think my strong will showed itself early on. When I didn’t have success or I failed or we lost, I tended to throw fits and be angry because I didn’t know what to do with that energy.”–Cal Ripken, Jr.

It’s fair to say that having emotions in sports is a good thing. Knowing how to handle them makes the difference in positive and negative outcomes. I have always said that sports is a classroom with the exception of this: intense emotions are predictably are part of the competitive aspect, and as a result, emotional learning occurs. Emotional intensity can heighten learning in general.

Ripken’s quote comes from an NPR interview with Neal Conan, and he continues: “And my parents were pretty cool. They didn’t really scream at me, they didn’t yell at me, they didn’t punish me, so to speak, but they asked me, you know, why do you react this way? I just told them, I just can’t stand it, you know, I have to get it out somehow. And they encouraged me to actually put it into something positive, you know, so therefore you derive the benefit. So it was a way to manage that inner drive that served me so well for all those years.”

Skip Bayless, a well-known sports commentator and columnist compared three of the best known professional athletes he had interviewed and discovered something they all shared, the emotion of “rage.” The three were Barry Bonds, Michael Jordan, and Tom Brady, all wildly successful in their respective sports. Admittedly, people had a hard time accepting the fact that Mr. Cool, Tom Brady, was motivated to play his best by fulminating anger. But Bayless calls that portion of his persona “Psycho Tom.” He says that all three stars “burned and yearned to conquer,” but were somehow able to “channel and focus under the highest pressure.”

Dr. Chris Stankovich, a sports psychologist and author, believes that anger impacts athletes negatively unless they are able to use the emotional energy in a positive manner. And how, pray tell, are young athletes supposed to do that? I have seen unharnessed anger reverse momentum in a tough game. Unsportsmanlike behavior has a negative effect on the athlete as well as his teammates. Dr. Stankovich explains that whenever the athlete is unable to move quickly from a mistake or missed opportunity in a contest, the focus which is needed to perform successfully is lost. Positive Coaching Alliance coaches teach their athletes to “flush it” so that there can be a reset for the next play. Negative self-talk is a distraction to the cooperation between mind and body when athletic performance is the goal.

Dr. Kay Porter has an article that describes mental and physical exercises where athletes not only acknowledge their anger, but learn how to move past the emotion effectively. Positive emphasis on what the athlete does well, and incorporating the ability to “forgive one’s mistake readily” are examples of Dr. Porter’s approach. For example, an angry player who has just missed the front end of a one-plus-one free throw in a basketball game can remind herself that she is a high-percentage shooter, and that she can forgive herself for the uncharacteristic missed basket.

When I played, I was quick, but I was too much in a hurry at times. I often anticipated a pass or the trajectory of a rebound, and was able to quickly move to the basketball to intercept or take possession for my team. Unfortunately, I would get in a hurry to get rid of the ball before making a mistake, and often throw it back to opponent. I never lingered over these mistakes, although I am sure my mother did in the stands. But I was not the type to beat myself up over mistakes. I was looking forward to the next opportunity to make a play. That kept it fun, and fresh, and interesting. I had a short memory which served me well.

Not all athletes are intensely emotional human beings, and these techniques will not resonate with them. But for those of us who are, channeling the potentially negative emotions into positive energy is a skill worth developing.

Key Tips

  • Athletes perform best when not controlled by negative emotions.
  • Changing intense emotion into positive energy is a skill players can develop.


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