What truly explains the significance of control than the lack of it? Emotions, positive and negative, are a predisposed challenge all athletes must deal with; we can’t simply underestimate its influence on our performance.
Sports psychologists, coaches, teammates and parents often remind us to control our emotions. But what does that really mean? Does emotion regulation pertain to suppressing emotions?
A resounding no!
It involves formulating and optimizing a strategy whereby an athlete mentally and physically tunes him/herself to adopt positive thinking.
Emotions aren’t necessarily good or bad. How one chooses to tackle them is what really indicates the impact they will have on one’s performance. Victim to the impeding consequences of (over)indulgence in positive emotions, I can vouch for the importance of striking a balance between your emotions and actions. Malaysia, 2013—“last twelve meters till I land the 100m breaststroke gold medal!” I thought to myself during my race. That joyously overwhelming soon flipped into a twinge of disappointment even as I found myself drowning in a pool of thoughts and emotions while my competitors actually increased the frequency of each pull and plunged to the finishing wall.
Sure, a certain amount of stress is incumbent to elicit optimal arousal which ensures good performance. However, the problem with not being able to control your emotions could prove to be detrimental as emotions directly affect muscle contraction and stiffness.
The Emotional-Regulation Toolbox:
Attentional Deployment- A great way to hold yourself together is choosing to focus on (or ignore) factors that lie within your locus of control in a particular situation. For instance, you should focus on how you could capitalize on your personal strengths before your race rather than worry about the diving block being wet.
Breathe. Perhaps the only time you will be reprimanded for doing so will be during swimming practices/races. Other than that, controlled, deep breaths alleviate stress and enables us to gather our thoughts.
Channel your thoughts and emotions in a positive manner. For instance, if you are feeling extremely aggressive before a meet, redirect that aggression in a way that will benefit your performance. Maybe use that aggression as a source of explosive strength before you dive into the pool.
Daydream: Visualisation and imagery are proven to be really helpful especially while trying to gather your thoughts and emotions. Close your eyes and imagine yourself. Focus on your mental state before your race, picture your entire race, you making it to the finishing wall within your target time, feeling accomplished even as you accomplish the same.
Pre/post a race, you can also calm your nerves by listening to a particular playlist you’ve prepared just for the race.
More importantly, talk to yourself, affirm yourself and believe in yourself.
Before my races, I always stand in front of the changing room mirror. As I wear my cap, I look myself in the eye, confident and yet, hopeful, and tell myself that “I’ve got this!” The locker room is my place of both solace and power. That’s where I really test and improve my mental game before the actual one!
Positive self-talk transcends the sports arena. It could be applied almost in every field where you have to yield efficient results.
Skipping straight to “I”....
It’s all about the body language- The mind-body connect. We’re all familiar with the phrase “fake it till you make it.” In fact, social psychologist Amy Cuddy even emphasizes the importance of doing so in one of her Ted Talks. Your mind reacts to what your body does and vice-versa. So chin up, feel the adrenaline flow and swim yourself to victory.
Practice practice practice! Like I said, emotional control is something that you need through all spheres of life. The more consciously you indulge in it now the more naturally and automatically it will come to you when you really need it. This can be juxtaposed to the mechanisms of muscle memory too.
All in all, each emotion has the potency to either compel you to swim on or sink. The good thing here is that you get to steer exactly how you want these emotions to affect you. The choice is in your hands!