This article aims to give an insight into the deliberate use of emotions within sport performance through an applied perspective. The course of the article will move firstly through the association between sport and emotion, then through to the concept of emotion regulation with examples of how it is used within an intervention.

What is emotion regulation?

Research suggests that emotional states are predictive of sports performance (Beedie et al., 2000; Hanin, 2010), and that athletes regulate emotions accordingly (Totterdell & Leach, 2001; Hanin, 2003, 2010; Jones, 2003; Robazza et al., 2006; Ruiz & Hanin, 2011). Emotion regulation is the automatic or deliberate use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify or display emotions in a given situation (Gross & Thompson, 2007)- for example the subjective experience (feelings), cognitive responses (thoughts), emotion-related physiological responses (for example heart rate or hormonal activity), and emotion-related behaviour (bodily actions or expressions).

Situation Selection

It is important at this point to define differences in goal behaviour. Situation selection involves choosing to avoid or approach an emotionally relevant situation. If a person selects to avoid or disengage from an emotionally relevant situation, he or she is decreasing the likelihood of experiencing an emotion. Alternatively, if a person selects to approach or engage with an emotionally relevant situation, he or she is increasing the likelihood of experiencing an emotion (Gross, 1998). Thus not all goals are directed towards approaching a desirable outcome, motivations may be directed towards avoiding failure or a display of incompetence. Approach goals involve demonstrating competence to others, whilst avoidance goals involve avoiding an undesirable outcome such as avoiding the demonstration of incompetence to others, otherwise known as avoidance goals. Avoidance goals may elicit an intense anxiety provoking response (e.g tenseness, nervousness) whereby emotion regulatory strategies are most useful.

Regulatory techniques

According to the work of Gross & John (2003) there are two techniques towards regulating emotion that are namely ‘Cognitive Reappraisal’ and ‘Expressive Suppression’. Cognitive Reappraisal (Situation Modification) is a strategy whereby an individual thinks about a situation to change its emotional impact (Gross & John, 2003). To exemplify, an athlete may visualise an anxiety provoking situation and perceive it as either nerve wracking or alternatively, ‘reappraise’ to perceive it as an opportunity to learn more about their performance, thus making the gravity of the situation appear less threatening. Expressive suppression however is the process of supressing feeling of nervousness about the anxiety provoking situation in an attempt to be less likely to engage in displaying emotion expressive behaviours (Gross & John, 2003). Expressive suppression is generally considered to be a maladaptive emotion-regulation strategy. Compared to reappraisal, it is correlated positively with many psychological disorders (Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer., 2010), associated with worse interpersonal outcomes, is negatively related to wellbeing (Gross & John, 2003), and requires the mobilization of a relatively substantial amount of cognitive resources (Richards, 2004).

There are two distinct motivations to regulate emotion in the form of ‘Hedonic’ or ‘Instrumental’ (Tamir, 2009). The hedonic approach is the motivation to turn a negative event or emotion into a relatively stable level of happiness. An example may be an athlete that wakes feeling angry or tense may wish to go for a jog to make themselves feel more positive emotions thus regulating for hedonic reasons. The instrumental motivational approach may involve an athlete having learned from previous experience that they perform better when angry or tense, may use memories or imagery of anger-inducing events to up-regulate their anger prior to competition, thus facilitating an improved performance through initiating these temporary unpleasant emotions for instrumental reasons (Tamir, 2009).

The link below serves to demonstrate the use of the instrumental motivational approach put into practice with a professional Ultimate Fighting Competitor Diego Sanchez, who deploys the said method to initiate an emotional response upon entrance into the ‘Octagon’.

Diego Sanchez Entrance to the UFC 107-

As seen the athlete uses a ‘trigger word’/Self talk (“Yes!”) and is seen closing his eyes to visualise (using emotive imagery) and maintain the emotional response which in this case is aggression, in order to ‘psych-up’ for the fight. As in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and other sports such as weightlifting or powerlifting that require a high levels of  physiological and psychological arousal, the instrumental motivational approach to inducing emotions can be highly effective for facilitating an athletes’ performance. The essential element within Emotion Regulatory techniques is to create individual profiles, specific to the individual athletes’ needs and optimal functioning zone.

Having explained the foundations and theoretical background of Emotion Regulation, I will now explain how this may be applied within a Sport Psychology intervention. The strategy will be used within an Olympic Weightlifting domain with an athlete hereby referred to as the pseudonym ‘Rob’. Rob is an international standard weightlifter that has recently broken through into the national team. He normally performs well when in his ‘comfort zone’ of competition standard that he is well seasoned and used to (e.g national and regional standard competitions). However ‘Rob’ has recently been attaining better (heavier) lifts and new personal bests in competition when put under intense pressure, even though these feelings have been identified as unpleasant. He approached a Sport Psychologist in order to learn how to utilise and control these emotional states so he is able to adapt to differing competitive situations. To clarify, these differing situations relate to emotional states associated with approach (comfort zone) and avoidance (outside of comfort zone, feeling the intense pressure) goals.

Initial Assessment

As with any intervention, it is important to recognise that there is no set mould technique that can be used with every athlete. Each specific intervention needs to be applied with the individual athlete in mind. Thus we must firstly understand the athletes’ Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) (Hanin, 1997, 2000) (displayed in Figure 1). The IZOF makes several empirically supported individual-orientated predictions of emotion-performance relationships between the arousal/anxiety balance and the athletes’ performance. Each athlete has a specific constellation (Hanin, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000) or a ‘recipe’ (Gould & Udry, 1994) of individually optimal and dysfunctional emotional states (their individual optimal zone), with variance occurring across pre-, mid-, and post-event performance situations (Hanin & Stambulova, 2002).

Once the athletes IZOF (Hanin, 1997, 2000) is identified, the consultant can then begin to work on creating emotional profiles with the athlete that are specific to their performance goals (approach vs avoidance) as well as how the emotions associated with this performance feels.

Creation of Emotion Profiles

To create the emotion profiles, the consultant provides the athlete with information regarding concepts of pre-competition emotions and associated bodily reactions and their effects upon performance for the athlete to identify how they feel pre-competition. The consultant must also explain that these emotions and bodily reactions could be pleasant or unpleasant regardless of them being beneficial or detrimental to performance. The athlete is then asked to identify emotions and physiological states associated with their recalled best and worst performances in order to identify four categories of emotion profiles that are displayed in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Emotion Profiles

From this information of identified emotion and physiological feelings, the athlete can then be presented with emotion and somatic symptom descriptors (serving to identify the associated emotions) in the four categories. An Emotion Somatic Symptom Descriptor Table can then be generated to identify the facilitative/debilitative emotions/somatic responses and pleasant/unpleasant emotions/somatic responses. Figure 3 below displays the Emotion Somatic Symptom Descriptor Table consisting of the associated emotions and symptoms identified by ‘Rob’ for each of the four categories of performance.


Figure 3. Emotion Somatic Descriptor Table

As visible from Figure 3, the emotions and symptoms are consistent with the type of goal during specific competitions. The ‘Facilitating-Pleasant’ category displays ‘Robs’ ability to stay calm when demonstrating competence through an approach goal, remaining cheerful and relaxed which is compatible with his recollections of national and regional competitions. It is also evident from Figure 3 that ‘Rob’ experiences unpleasant emotions and symptoms consistent with an avoidance goal where ‘Rob’ feels much less relaxed and more under pressure, compatible with his recollection of international competitions that he has just beginning to experience. Although these emotions and symptoms have been identified as ‘unpleasant’ by ‘Rob’, it is also important to note that these are facilitative to performance, thus enduring these short term emotions and symptoms during completion may actually lead to a positive outcome post-competition. For the purpose of this article, only the facilitative categories (highlighted by the red boundary) are going to be dissected into an intervention strategy.

Intervention Techniques

For ‘Rob’ to enter and maintain these particular facilitative ‘emotion profiles’, there needs to be intervention techniques to initiate and maintain these emotions that ‘Rob’ must be able to reproduce to enter his IZOF (Hanin, 1997, 2000), as well as maintain the emotion (as seen in the Diego Sanchez video above). As well as ‘Psyching Up’ (Energising), increasing his arousal levels to adapt to high pressure, ‘Rob’ may also wish to use the intervention techniques for calming reasons such as an approach goal in National or regional level. However ‘Rob’ may also use these techniques to pursue an avoidance goal if he is feeling anxious about his position within the competition (e.g. Sub top 3 placing). To do this we may incorporate a number of intervention strategies.

Instrumental Imagery

“Remember how you felt in the backstage weight room just before your successful lift”. This intervention strategy involves the use of emotive imagery used in an instrumental fashion in order to recreate and use the facilitative feelings, symptoms and emotions immediately prior to the successful lift, regardless of whether they were unpleasant or pleasant. This may be used to ‘Psych Up’ and increase arousal or aggressiveness to attain a ‘big lift’ (Energising technique), but also may be used to relax the athlete in an attempt to block out any distractions or pressure (through the use of a suppressive method) with emphasis on ‘Controlling the controllable’ (Calming technique). Any external factors outside of the competitors control will not actually have an impact on the individual athletes’ performance if the athlete remains task orientated and in control of their ‘own game’.

Reappraisal Self-Talk

Self-talk refers to the thoughts and words athletes and performers say to themselves, usually in their minds. Self-talk phrases (or cues) are used to direct attention towards a particular thing in order to improve focus or are used alongside other techniques to facilitate their effectiveness (Vealey, 2005). The technique revised to include a reappraisal component may change the gravity of the situation and alter its perception to the athlete, as well as providing ‘Trigger words’/ self-talk to use to maintain an energising (“Power”, “Strong”) or calming (“Calm”, “Relax”) technique in pursuit of an avoidance (high arousal) or approach (low arousal) dependent on the athletes IZOF.

Relaxation Techniques

Such as breathing exercises or Progressive Muscular Relaxation (Jacobson, 1938), which is a technique for learning to monitor and control the state of muscular tension. This intervention method may be used for a calming approach to aid the athlete in pursuit of an approach goal.


Just like physical practice, mental rehearsal and practice is also extremely important to an athletes’ performance and development. Thus, an athlete can become more skilled at the processes of Emotion Regulation and the strategies involved in the concept (eg. Imagery, re-appraisal self-talk) then this will require a set schedule to allow for practice. Set practice hours would be negotiated between the practitioner and the athlete that would be supervised by the Sport Psychologist at first to enable the athlete to learn how to use and control the techniques under supervision, before being used by the athlete independently. These sessions would entail an induced state of these emotion profiles (Facilitative-Pleasant- & Facilitative- Unpleasant) through the use of a mental imagery technique. These sessions would also include teaching relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises and progressive muscular relaxation (P.M.A) to enable the athlete to enter the pleasant-facilitative when involved with an approach goal, or if they feel their anxiety levels are increasing, thus leading to exiting their IZOF. During these consultations, the practitioner may also negotiate ‘metaphors’ or ‘trigger words’/ Self-talk with the athlete that have specific meanings or reactions to the athlete (E.g. “Power”, “Strong”, “Calm”, “Relax” etc.) to use in physical practice and competition in order to help induce the desired emotional state. This may also be integrated into the athletes pre-performance routine in order to gain a standardised procedure whereby the athlete has a set schedule and has the perception of being in control prior to competing.

Below is a flow chart of the intervention process taken from one of my lectures I have previously conducted on emotion regulation (Fig. 4). It shows the intervention strategy in its more basic visual form that allows to see progressive stages easily throughout the consultancy process.


Figure 4. Flow chart of Emotion Regulation Intervention

Monitoring and evaluation of the technique

For evaluation of the technique and to establish weak points or its effectiveness, the consultant may wish to assess how the athlete is using the technique through a series of questionnaires. For pre-competition emotion monitoring, the consultant may use the BORG cr-10 questionnaire and adapt it to incorporate a rating scale of the ‘client identified’ emotions with a rating of intensity from 0-11 (as is already existent on the questionnaire). This method which may serve as useful to gain knowledge of the emotions the athlete is feeling pre-competition may also be detrimental as with all questionnaires immediately prior to competition. In this time period, the athlete needs to be preparing for the competition in hand, whereas having to fill out a questionnaire may be seen as intrusive and distracting to the competitor. Thus, the method may be used in a less ecologically valid way by its use within replicated competitive training sessions (eg. Induced pressure such as sparring sessions in boxing) to gain an insight into the emotional states that has less probability of a detrimental impact on performance.

A consultant may also wish to use the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (Gross & John, 2003) to assess whether the athlete is using the techniques correctly. For example, to look at whether the athlete is actually using a re-appraising technique rather than suppressing.

Post-competition monitoring may also be used through a variety of questionnaires such as a Profile of Mood States (McNair et al., 1971) or Brunel Mood Rating Scale (Terry et al., 1999, 2003) to assess the athletes’ mood prior or during the competition retrospectively. However this method also has its weaknesses in the fact that retrospective questionnaires as equivocal in their reliability due to the retrieval of a mood state at a previous time that may be distorted through subjective changes in the athletes’ perception when recalling.