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Posted: June 9, 2004

Athletics: Controlling Emotion and Thought

From Lore of Running-4th Edition by Timothy Noakes

Lore of Running

Controlling Emotion
It is well documented in psychology texts that there are seven basic emotions: joy, sadness, anger, love, fear, shame, and surprise. Other emotions are regarded as combinations of these basic seven. The emotions you feel in any situation and how you respond to them will depend on four factors: your basic personality, how much control you have over your emotions, your emotional reactivity, and your flexibility. Control of these emotions is achieved by controlling the thoughts that cause them.

Renowned sport psychologist Thomas Tutko, formerly a professor of psychology at San Jose State University, has developed a technique to identify a person’s emotional profile and to indicate how that person will react according to seven separate psychological traits—desire, assertiveness, sensitivity, tension control, confidence, personal accountability, and self-discipline (Tutko and Tosi 1976).

Desire is the measure of your intent to be the best or to do your best. Those with low desire express an “I don’t care” attitude; those with high levels of desire are perfectionists. Both extremes are problematic, but it is the perfectionist who is more likely to persist in sport. Because perfectionists set goals that are unattainable, they live with a constant anxiety. Since they never achieve their goals, they are never content with their performances. To overcome this, perfectionists need to reassess their (unrealistic) goals and to realize that they are the cause of their anxiety. In turn, they need to focus on short-term goals, not the final results.

Assertiveness is the measure of the extent to which you believe you can influence the outcome of what you do. Those with low assertiveness are easily intimidated. They feel inadequate when someone else succeeds at their expense and they tend to support underdogs. Those with high assertiveness are known as killers. They frequently see sport participation as a “savage battle rather than an enjoyable challenge” (Tutko and Tosi 1976, page 68). Such activity is usually defensive since it is a front to protect a low self-esteem and the fear of being threatened or humiliated.

Sensitivity is the ability to enjoy sport without becoming overly disturbed at the outcome. Those with low sensitivity are known as stonewallers. Nothing can influence how they respond to any situation. In contrast, the supersensitive respond inappropriately and consider each failure, however slight, as a personal affront. The supersensitive must learn to separate the event from the emotional response that each evokes. Consequently, they are the most in need of training in emotional control.

Tension control is the measure of your ability to remain calm and focused under stress. Those with poor tension control are the nervous wrecks. They are unable to control their physical responses to stress. Because their motor function is impaired, they become relatively ineffective in sports that require high degrees of motor coordination. Those with excellent control are known as icebergs. Excessive tension control is detrimental if it prevents athletes from taking risks, from enjoying their participation, or from undertaking efforts to improve.

Confidence is the measure of your belief in your ability. Those with little confidence are insecure. Those with too much confidence are cocky. People are cocky either because they use bravado to cover an inner lack of confidence or because they truly believe that they are so talented that they need not work to achieve success.

Personal accountability is the measure of the extent to which you accept personal responsibility for your actions. Those with low personal accountability tend to hide behind alibis. Those with high personal accountability act as if “sports means always having to say I am sorry” (Tutko and Tosi 1976, page 84). Like the perfectionists, they feel guilty for everything except a perfect result.

Self-discipline is the measure of your willingness to develop and to persist with a personal game plan. Those with low self-discipline are known as the chaotics since they are unable to stick with any plan. Those with high self-discipline are known as the lemmings since their mental rigidity prevents them from changing their plans.

By grasping the extent to which each of us expresses these different traits, we gain a better understanding of our personal foibles and, in turn, learn how best to control our specific personalities in the heat of competition.

Controlling Thought
The thoughts we experience in sport are influenced by our concept of or attitude toward our opponents and ourselves. Attitudes are collections of thoughts and emotions that we have concerning others and ourselves, and these attitudes help determine the emotions we feel at any time. This can best be exemplified by returning to our previous example. The arrival of another athlete at your shoulder 10 km from the end of the Olympic marathon could stimulate two possible lines of thought that would result in quite different outcomes in the race. Clearly, the athlete who thinks, “This year I really thought I had it. I have worked so hard and now I have blown it. I really am a loser . . .” will drop off the pace and fall back. However, there is a far greater chance of success for the athlete who thinks, “Well, here she is. The woman they call the best marathon runner ever. And she has only been able to catch me after 32 km. I will just tuck in behind the about-to-become ex-number one, let her do the work for a change, and see if I can break her later. After all, my 10-km time is as good as hers, and in a close finish I have the crowds behind me as they always back the upstart.”

The difference between a strong or weak belief system is determined by your self-concept (what you believe about yourself), which is, in turn, established by your record of past performances, your body image (what you honestly believe you can achieve in sport), and the attitude that the significant people in your life (such as your parents, partner, friends, and coaches) have toward you and your participation in sport. The self-concept can be further divided into what you really think about yourself (your real self) and what you would like to be (your ideal self).

How the significant others in your life influence your performance can be shown by extending the imaginary example a little further. Had you fallen off the pace in the last 10 km of the Olympic marathon, your coach or other important person in your life might have said the following to you, “You really were awful. We were sure you had it sewn up and then you let that overrated athlete beat you. How could you?”

This type of verbal abuse is likely to stimulate one of the following responses: “He is right. I really am a loser. I will never win a major marathon,” or, “No, he is wrong. I ran my heart out. But he couldn’t know. Now I am more determined than ever to show them what I can do.” (A third response may be to rid yourself of any persons who could be stupid enough to express themselves in that way.)

Our next step must be to analyze the self-concept and to discover how it is possible to improve those areas in which there may be specific weaknesses.

Posted with permission from Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.

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