How Emotional Intelligence can be an Athlete’s Secret Weapon

“The need to succeed is greater than the need to breathe,” my 11-yearold (at the time) daughter said to me on our way home from her synchronized swimming practice.  I knew she was a committed athlete, but “wow, I thought to myself.  

 Many of us are in awe over accomplished athletes like Mia Hamm, Maggie Stephens, and Stephen Curry.  They show their passion on the court, on the field, and in the pool, respectively. We hear about the countless training hours they put into a day and their dedication, commitment, and passion for their sport. It is not just in the professional world we see exceptional athletes. They are everywhere:  on the local soccer fields, in the high school swimming pools, and on the neighborhood basketball courts. But what separates these peakperforming athletes from the rest? 

 As an athlete and parent to highly competitive athletes, I have learned that it takes more than talent and physical fitness to achieve peak performance.  It takes focus, drive, and commitment. And, it takes something that we do not hear often in the athletic world. It takes Emotional Intelligence.   

Reaching peak athletic performance requires Emotional Self Awareness, Emotional Self Control, and Positive Outlook, which are three of the 12 competencies in Daniel Goleman’s framework of Emotional Intelligence. 

Here are three reasons why Emotional Intelligence is an athlete’s secret weapon: 

  1. Winning gold depends on selfawareness and interoception  

An emotionally selfaware athlete can understand their own emotions and the effects these emotions have on their athletic performance. They know what they are feelingwhy, and how these emotions may or may not serve them well in competition.  

 When emotions are activated, they are often accompanied by changes in the body like breathing rate, heart rate, and muscle tension. Within the brain, the insula detects bodily changes and transmits the information to the other parts of the brain. Interoception is a lesser-known sense that helps you understand and feel what is going on inside your body.  The ability to locate where in the body emotions are coming from, is an athlete’s key to responding to stress in a way that works to their advantage.  

Take synchronized swimmers; they must have the grace oa ballerina, the strength and flexibility of a gymnast, the skills of a speed swimmer and water polo player, the lungs of a pearl diver, and the endurance and stamina of a longdistance runner. Add to that the requirement for split-second timing and a dramatic flair for musical interpretation and choreography1.  The sport requires focus, discipline, dedication, and passion. Typically, there are eight athletes working together as a team in competition. What happens when one of the eight has an anxiety attack and can no longer stay underwater? The competition is over. There is no chance for a gold medal. The 20-plus hours per week of physical training all season come to a dramatic halt. And, the team is left incredibly disappointed.  

 When a swimmer can recognize and notice what it feels like in the body before ananxiety attack happens, they can learn to relate to their thoughts and emotions and better manage what comes next. They notice their heart starts to beat faster whenever they get nervous.  By noticing and really paying attention to these sensations in the body, the athlete can learn to respond to the faster heartbeat and, with practice, can calm themselves in the moment. They may learn to do things like focusing on the breath or the music tempo instead of allowing their minds and body to be swept away by the faster heartbeat and panic attack that follows. With practice, the selfaware synchronized swimmer can learn to respond to whatever experience emerges and maintain control over what happens next, instead of mindlessly reacting. This is how gold medals are won. 

  1.  Emotional self-control can mean the difference between winning and losing 

When an athlete displays emotional selfcontrol, they can manage their disruptive emotions more effectively, staying clearheaded and calm. On the flip side, an athlete lacking emotional selfcontrol may fly off the handle at one of their teammates or may be unable to recover when triggered, costing the team the competition.  Goleman referred this as an “amygdala hijack” in his 1996 bookEmotional Intelligence:  Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  

When the amygdala is triggered, it sends out an alarm. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body to prepare for “fight or flight.” An amygdala hijack shuts down the ability for the prefrontal cortex, our rational, decisionmaking part of the brain, to make sense of the trigger. We then have little to no chance to respond in an effective way.  The result, an inappropriate response to the trigger, which we end up regretting when we finally calm down. This can be the difference between winning and losing. 

Competitive soccer has been an influential and important part of my life. I first started playing in the late 70s, when there were few opportunities for girls in organized sports.  I quickly fell in love with the game and continued playing into my college years at the University of California, Davis.  One game from my senior year in high school stands out so clearly to me still, over 30 years later!  I was one of the top scoring offensive players on my team.  I had played all four years on varsity.  Now, in my senior year, we had a freshman on our team.  In the middle of the game as we were out on the field, I remember this freshmanI will call her Lucy, directing me and suggesting I move and get into my position.  Hearing her words, my focus went from playing the game, to directly and sternly telling her, “don’t tell ME what to do.”  We ended up losing the game. 

Sometimes coaches lack emotional self-control. They get triggered by a mistake made by their athlete or a bad call by the referee. One water polo game stands out to me.  The home team was ahead all the way into the fourth quarter.  They were playing with very few substitute players, and the athletes seemed to be getting tired.  The visiting team started scoring goals and the score was getting closer.  As a result, the home team coach was starting to “lose it” with his athletes.  He started yelling loudly, threw down his hat on the pool deck and started criticizing his athletes from across the pool.  The athletes started swimming slower and slower and slower.  Instead of giving it their all in these last few minutes of the game to keep their lead, they stopped trying.  Finally, the whistle blew and the game was over.  The visiting team caught up and won the game.  

 How quickly things can change when we are triggered by someone or something someone says. Our amygdala can take over, and it ruins any chance of a favorable outcome to the situation 

  1. Having a positive outlook takes the whole team to the next level

Positive outlook is having a glasshalffull outlook on people, situations, and events. Athletes with positive outlook persist in achieving their goals, despite obstacles and setbacks they meet along the way. A coach with positive outlook can inspire the team to work hard and get through tough situations and losses.   

There is scientific evidence that shows that people with a positive outlook have more activation on the left side of their prefrontal cortex. Further research shows that this area of the brain is closely associated with positivity. We also have mirror neurons in our brains that reflect the mood of others around us. For instance, when someone smiles, we often smile back without thinking about it. Similarly, a leader or coach’s attitude and outlook can be very contagious. When a coach has a positive outlook, there is a great chance the rest of the team will too. 

 Maureen O’Toole Purcell is an Olympic silver medalist.  She has been inducted to the International Aquatics Hall of Fame, and has a sportsmanship award named after her at USA Water Polo’s Champions Cup, to list a few of her athletic accomplishments.  She knows firsthand the benefits of positive outlook. “There are times when things are tough, but just know that good will always come out of it.” Maureen is also a coach. One of her players says, “Mo motivates us to want to work hard. When we make a mistake in a game, she does not criticize us.  Instead, she helps us understand what we could do different next time. Mo’s coaching led us to win Champion’s Cup and get a silver medal at Junior Olympics.” 

 A positive outlook not only helps the athlete get through tough obstacles like injuries and losses, but it helps the team as a whole. It creates an environment of positivity that is contagious for the team.  Positivity inspires an athlete and team to want to work hard. This hard work and motivation bring the athlete and team to the next level of success.  

 It is clear Emotional Intelligence is a huge differentiator in athletic performance.  We can all learn to become more emotionally intelligent. Here, are three ways: 

  • Notice how your body is feeling.  You can do a short body scan. Close your eyes and bring your attention to the top of your head. Slowly work your way down to your toes, noticing as you go how each part of the body is feeling. Repeat daily. 
  • Pay attention to what triggers you.  What are those things that come up in daily life that bring up negative emotions? When, where, and with whom do these triggers occur? Take some time to think about these questions and journal your response.  
  • Practice gratitude.  Keep a gratitude journal. Write down three things each day you are grateful for. Write a note or, even better, tell your coach or teammate what about them you are grateful for. This practice is like training the mind to look for the good. The more we practice looking for the good in our lives, the more likely we will develop a positive outlook.  

Building emotional intelligence will not only help you to become a peak performer in your sport, it will also help you become a peak performer in all parts of your life.  Make Emotional Intelligence your secret weapon!

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