Athletes experience emotions before and after competition and these emotions have been shown to be related to performance (Hanin, 2010; Beedie, et al., 2010). Appropriate emotional responses may benefit the athlete. For example, by reducing injury risk (Devonport, et al., 2005), or reduce the risk of losing self-control (Beedie & Lane, 2012; Hagger et al., 2010). Therefore, the ability to control emotions is regarded as an important psychological skill.

Emotions are subjective feelings experienced in response to events either in the environment (e.g. athlete walking onto the field) or in the mind (e.g. anticipation of an upcoming event; Lazarus, 2000). Emotions usually incorporate three types of response; physiological (e.g. increased heart rate), cognitive (e.g. change in perception and attention) or behavioural (e.g. aggression towards another player: Lazarus, 2000).

Emotions can influence goals and motivations (Baumeister, et al., 2007) and can be functional; for example anger and fear can make individuals deal with the cause of these emotions (fight or flight response). On the other hand, emotions can also be dysfunctional, such as when athletes are angry about an official’s decision, but recognise that this aggressive behaviour may result in the player or team being penalised. In this case, maintaining the current emotion may not facilitate performance. When this discrepancy arises between current and desired emotions, emotion regulation is employed.

Emotion regulation is the automatic or deliberate use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify or display emotions (Gross & Thompson, 2007). It is a process where individuals consciously or non-consciously monitor the emotions experienced and develop strategies to maintain or change emotions to desired levels.

There are two motives to regulate emotion – Hedonic and Instrumental (Tamir, 2009). An athlete feeling tense or angry may go for a run to relax. Their motivation is to feel better and thus is regulating their emotions for hedonic reasons. However, if the same athlete knows from previous experience that they perform better when feeling angry, they may use memories or imagery of anger-inducing events to up-regulate their anger prior to competition. In this case, they are regulating their emotions for instrumental reasons. Their motivation is to use their emotions to achieve a desired goal.

Athletes are more likely to regulate an emotion if they believe that it will facilitate performance. Athletes develop beliefs about emotions and performance, and these beliefs play a role in emotion regulation. For example, in a recent study Lane, et al. (2011), examined emotion and emotion regulation strategies in 305 runners. They found that 15% of runners reported emotion beliefs that strategies aimed at increasing anxiety or anger would help performance and used strategies to increase these emotions. That is, they attempted to make themselves feel more angry or anxious with a view to enhancing performance. In contrast 85% of runners reported beliefs that strategies intended to reduce the same emotions would help performance.

Some of the psychological strategies used by athletes serve to regulate emotion. For example, if an athlete experiences muscle tightening they might use a relaxation strategy, or direct attention away from their muscles. At the same time, these strategies may also regulate their emotions by preventing them from becoming anxious or angry about the situation. The athlete may not perceive this strategy as emotion regulation.

However, this relaxation technique or the external focus of attention may cause a reduction in performance that the athlete is aware of (e.g. behind a schedule in a race). The athlete may become anxious, and might consciously use a strategy such as imagery or self-talk to regulate this emotion. These strategies would be perceived as emotion regulation by athletes. So whether perceived or not as emotion regulation, most psychological skills interventions in sport have an effect on emotion.

In this example, the first two strategies above, relaxation and refocus of attention, prevented an emotional response and as such as antecedent focused and occur before an emotional response is fully generated. The latter two strategies of imagery and self-talk, regulate the emotion directly and are as such response focused and occur after an emotional response is fully generated.

Gross and Thompson (2007) proposed a five category model of antecedent and response focused emotion regulation strategies. Antecedent focused strategies are situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, and cognitive change. The response focused strategy is response modulation.

Situation selection involves approach or avoidance of emotionally relevant situations. Choosing to approach or engage with an emotionally relevant situation, athletes increase the likelihood of experiencing an emotion. Alternatively if the athlete selects to avoid emotionally relevant situation, they are decreasing the likelihood of experiencing an emotion.

Situation modification involves modifying external aspects of the environment to change its emotional impact (altering internal environment to regulate emotion is called cognitive change). This again may make it more likely that a desirable emotional state is attained or an undesirable one avoided.

Attentional deployment involves directing attention towards or away from an emotional situation. That is when it is difficult to change the situation, the athlete can choose to attend to stimuli that do not negatively impact on emotion (e.g. listening to music to avoid listening to the crowd prior to an event).

Cognitive change involves changing how one appraises a situation to alter its emotional meaning.

Response modulation involves attempts to directly influence the physiological and cognitive aspects of emotion.

Research evidence suggests that athletes should use strategies that influence their appraisal of a situation to create the most appropriate emotional climate for competition. Research suggests that this approach is likely more effective than the suppression of the emotions that have already happened. In short, where dysfunctional emotions in sport are concerned, prevention might be better than cure. To enhance emotion regulation, athletes should:

-Identify emotional states associated with best and worst performance

– Examine the use and effectiveness of emotion regulation strategies. A strategy believed to be effective may not be.

– Examine the perceived cause of their feelings. Change may be desired.

-Recognise that many sport performance management strategies will also act as emotional regulation strategies.