Anxious, fatigued, unhappy, uncertain? We’ve all been there, all known times when our emotional hot buttons take over. We swear to ourselves that this time we will overcome them and stay committed to our goal, but it doesn’t work and we react with indulgent self-gratification. “I had such a long day, and I just don’t feel like going to the gym today.” “I’ve already fallen off the wagon so I’ll just eat what I want and start again on Monday.”
Sound familiar? Making exceptions just this once gives us immediate relief from discomfort, but afterward, when we muster the courage to confront our actions, we become sad, disappointed and frustrated. What happens next? We further engage in indulgence and self-comfort!
Why do we self-sabotage despite our best intentions? We’re not alone—even professional athletes struggle with moods and emotions. So what’s going on? Many believe we have no real control over feelings, but with awareness and some handy tools in our mental toolbox, feelings can be regulated, managed and manipulated. That will be the focus here: showing you how to keep your emotions within your control so you can follow through with your goals and get results.
How Do Emotions Affect Performance?Thoughts and emotions shape behavior. They trigger an activation response that, in its simplest form, falls into one of four categories: (1) unpleasant activation, (2) unpleasant deactivation, (3) pleasant activation and (4) pleasant deactivation (Karageorghis & Terry 2010).
As you can see from Figure 1 (see Sidebar, below), not all emotions we consider negative lead to poor behavior, and not all positive emotions enhance performance. For example, you may have had a productive 3-mile run while feeling tense, nervous, stressed or even upset. You may also have had an unproductive weight workout while feeling positive—for example, contented, serene, calm and relaxed.
In sports psychology, we often refer to the Iceberg Profile, originally created by psychologist William Morgan in the 1970s. Morgan focused on tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue and confusion (Morgan 1980; Morgan 1985). The consensus is that
- vigor enhances performance;
- confusion and fatigue reduce performance;
- anger and tension reduce performance for athletes already in a depressed mood; and
- anger and tension enhance performance up to an optimal point for athletes not feeling depressed. Past that optimal point, anger and tension reduce performance.
Even with this research, it’s important to understand that, when it comes to the relationship between emotion and performance, we are all individuals. Your goal is to learn how to control each of your emotions to the best of your ability. With this control, you can access whichever emotions work in a particular moment to help you achieve results.
Preparation: Creating a Mood Profile
To begin developing the psychological skill of emotional control, first reflect on the ways an optimal mood is your ally. What does this state help you to do? Are you more likely to find the motivation to exercise? Does it affect the type of training you do or how much intensity and effort you exert? Does being in an optimal mood make it easier to receive support from others and give it in return? Are you better able to get the results you’re looking for?
Next, create a mood profile to find your unique optimal emotional state for peak performance. For at least 2 weeks, each day before bedtime, journal four things:
- On a scale of 1–10 (1 = really bad and 10 = really great), rank your overall mood for the day, as well as your mood just before exercise.
- Write down one word to describe your overall mood and your mood just before exercise.
- Rank how productive your exercise program was.
- Record your greatest achievement during exercise.
As an example, your daily journal could look something like this:
At the end of the 2 weeks, evaluate your journal and highlight any patterns you find. Look for the rankings and emotions that facilitate high performance.
Now you know your optimal emotional state for peak performance, and you can strive for it. Next, act to keep your emotions in check using any of the following seven methods:
Visualize Emotions as Cartoon Characters
Did you see the movie Inside Out, where emotions were represented as animated figures? Similarly, picture your own emotions as cartoon characters separate from yourself—it will create distance and add objectivity, making it easier to deal with them (Wallin 2012). When they are cartoon characters temporarily taking up space inside you, you can work to calm them down, listen to what they’re saying and then take charge (like a parent taking a nonnegotiable stand).
Practice Cognitive Restructuring
We can’t always control what thoughts enter our minds, but we do have control over how long those thoughts linger. There are a few techniques for conquering the maladaptive and irrational thoughts that strengthen debilitating emotions. One technique is reframing, where (for example) you change “I can’t snap out of this bad mood” to “I can turn the day around by giving myself 5 minutes to get engrossed in this indoor cycling class and feed off everyone’s energy.”
Another technique is making molehills out of your emotional mountains. Our thoughts and emotions can so consume us that we get caught up in them and succumb to temptation. Asking
“So what?” brings things back into perspective:
“So what if I had a difficult meeting with my boss today?”
“So what if I didn’t sleep well last night?”
“So what if traffic made me miss my kickboxing class?”
“So what if it’s raining and cold outside?”
“So what if I don’t like today’s yoga instructor?”
“So what if I ate poorly last night and feel sluggish today?”
This self-talk makes all emotional mountains sound like excuses (which they are). If you truly want to achieve results, acknowledge the mountains and cut them down to size. Then you can pursue your goals with energy, commitment and drive. In other words, you can feel the emotional pain and do it anyway!
Eat for Emotional Control
Poor moods can lead to poor food choices, which further affects mood. Sure, we may feel immediate pleasure from sweet carbohydrates and fat—delicious, creamy, decadent fat—but then we become sad, disappointed and frustrated, and we’re likely to eat more unhealthy foods to console ourselves.
Stay in control by being organized. For example, if you know that you typically start to feel sluggish around 4 p.m., eat something healthy around 3:30 to give you energy. If you get home and grab whatever food is most convenient after a long day, instead pack a healthy snack and eat it right before you get home to curb your cravings. Never wait until you’re “hangry” to eat. Stay organized so that your optimal mood can help you make good food choices.
Turn on the Music
Music is medicine. The melody, harmony, dynamics, rhythm, tempo and lyrics of music all have a unique regulating effect on our emotions. When properly chosen, music narrows our attention, steering our focus away from debilitating sensations while simultaneously generating a more optimal emotional experience (Karageorghis & Terry 2010). There is a great deal to learn about the relationship between music and mood. For now, spend a bit of time creating a playlist that places you in your optimal emotional state for peak performance.
Research suggests that low- to moderate-intensity movements that are rhythmic and repetitive promote self-reflection, creative thinking and a better mood overall. In addition to your training schedule, begin to incorporate this type of exercise into your day. A quick 10-minute walk around the block can release endorphins into the bloodstream, causing beneficial changes to your mood.
Value Rest and Recovery
Rest and recovery are not just about lying down and doing nothing. We can also rest and recover from one activity by engaging in another one. As soon as you catch yourself on the path to emotional turmoil, take a break from whatever you’re doing and engage in a different task. This gives you time to regroup and reset while you’re still being productive.
Use Your Best Body Language
No matter what your mood, as you transition from one activity to another, take the time to assess your body language and, if need be, change it to one that helps you feel confident and strong. A simple phrase to remember is “shoulders up, back and down—and smile” Experience the benefits of your best body language, including energy management and emotional control.
Remember, You Hold the Reins
We can control our emotions. We don’t have to lose our temper, give into temptation or make choices we later regret. We can live up to our ideal performance by being aware of our emotions and the impact they can have. Most importantly, by using mental toughness we can be stronger than they are and get results!
Karageorghis, C.I., & Terry, P.C. 2010. Inside Sport Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Wallin, P. 2012. Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior. New York: Atria Books.
Morgan, W.P. 1980. The trait psychology controversy. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 51, 50–76.
Morgan, W.P. 1985. Selected psychological factors limiting performance: A mental health model. In D.H. Clarke and H.M. Eckert (Eds.), Limits of Human Performance (pp. 70–80). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.