Sportsmen and women who want to win need to let their feelings out, according to new research.
In the first study to examine the effect in endurance sport of suppressing emotions, Dr Chris Wagstaff, of the University of Portsmouth, has found strong evidence that burying feelings results in poorer performance.
The research is published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.
Dr Wagstaff said: “Sports people frequently have to control their emotions in the run-up to and during competition, but this appears to significantly reduce the level at which they perform. Their thought processes are diminished, they put in less effort and they feel more tired than when they aren’t asked to hide what they’re feeling.
“We all know the feeling of having to sometimes hide our thoughts and feelings. It can make us feel exhausted, and because sportspeople operate in a result-driven goldfish bowl, the demands for suppression are particularly high.
“To protect sporting performance, it’s important that those who manage and organise sportspeople should avoid exposing them to tasks which demand emotion regulation close to competing.”
Some of the activities likely to put a heavy emotional load on a sportsman or woman include media interviews, meeting fans, or trying to suppress feelings of anxiety, anger or disgust.
The findings have implications beyond sport, and are likely to be relevant to in any profession which requires emotional regulation and physical endurance, including the military, medical and emergency services and manual employment.
Dr Wagstaff said: “Sports organisations impose chronic expectations and requirements for emotional suppression on performers, such as being overly optimistic about chances of success, being supportive of under-performing leaders, or being friendly to fans and forthcoming with media, but there is a cost in terms of performance.”
For the study, researchers studied 20 sportsmen and women. They were asked to watch a three-minute video in which a woman throws up and then eats her own vomit. It was chosen to provoke a strong feeling of disgust.
Dr Wagstaff said: “We needed to elicit a strong emotional reaction. While there is huge variation in what individuals find happy or sad, most people agree on what is disgusting.”
In one condition participants were told to suppress any emotions evoked by the upcoming video. They had a camera trained on their face to record their reactions and they had to try and hide whatever feelings they had throughout the three minutes. In a second condition participants watched the video but were not told to suppress their reaction to it. In a third, condition, the control, participants did not watch the video. All then cycled 10km as fast as they could.
Those who had suppressed their feelings watching the video were measurably less able to think clearly and performed the worst. All participants were tested in all three conditions and after just three minutes of having to self-regulate their emotion, they were slower at cycling, generated less power, had a lower heart rate and thought they had worked much harder than they actually had compared to when they were not asked to control their emotions or when they hadn’t watched the video.
No differences were found between the conditions where participants watched the video without being told to suppress their emotion and where they didn’t watch the video.
Dr Wagstaff said: “It is notable that those asked to suppress their emotions had a significantly lower maximum heart rate. This appears to indicate that people who are suppressing emotion are less willing or less able to put their all into the task. They also feel more tired, even though they had put in less effort.”
The findings support and significantly extended previous research on the impact of self-regulation on physical action.
Dr Wagstaff said: “It appears to be possible that increasing demands on sports people to suppress their emotions leads to an overload. Those forced to suppress their emotions become less able to control their emotions and the end result is someone who has poor personal relationships and who is not good at managing conflict. To compound the problem further, a failure to self-regulate is linked to violence, doping, substance abuse and cheating.”