The science of emotions in sports and how it affects performance

Feelings are natural instinctive state of mind that often overlooked especially within the professional context. When it comes to the design of athletes’ well-being, too many coaches fail to step back and address this fundamental question of what the players are thinking, feeling and experiencing. In competitive sport, the difference between being a world champion and ranked fifth in the world can be as little as 1%.

Human emotions are real and they impact a wide range of quality metrics, from social engagement to work performance. It is essential to ‘program’ both physical and mental well-being of athletes to set them on the path to the good health of mind and body.

Emotional contagion is the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in other people. Generally, when a coach has a positive mood, it can be transferred to the athletes and affect their moods and well-being positively as well. Indirectly, the performance of athletes will be affected greatly.

Contrary to deviant behaviour, negative vibes can influence behaviour greatly. Common negative attitudes and pressure to win from a parent, coaches, surrounding and athletes themselves tend to deviate athlete’s behaviour in inappropriate actions like uncontrolled anger, emotional breakdown, performance slumps, burnout, injury, dropout; which may lead to deterioration of athletes performance.

As the saying goes, “Emotion is temporary states of mind; do not let it permanently destroy you”, negative emotion can hurt athletes’ physical and mental strength. It starts off with losing prime intensity, with full of frustration and anger, the intensity will amplify and leads to muscle tension, breathing difficulties, and loss of coordination. It causes athletes to feel exhausted and tire quickly. By the time, having poor stamina cause athletes to experience helplessness and hopelessness until their intensity drops drastically and they no longer have the physical capabilities to perform well.

When your emotion conquers your body, eventually it will hurt you mentally too. Along with negative emotion, negative thoughts will affect athletes’ confidence level until they tend to have difficulty focusing on what will assist them to perform well and lead to a lack of motivation and enthusiasm.

Anxiety is one of the most important and interesting areas of focus in sports psychology that has attracted many researchers who have mostly considered athletes and coaches anxiety experiences. Competitive anxiety can affect athletes’ feelings, thus it can impair athletes’ performance and function.

A study was done to look at how emotion can affect mental effort and concentration in adult sport performers. Athletes reported greater levels of concentration disruption when experiencing high levels of anxiety and happiness, however, they experienced fewer disruptions in concentration when experiencing high levels of excitement. Therefore, it is essential for athletes to learn to master their emotion.


A study was performed to survey the relationship between coaches’ and athletes’ competitive anxiety, and their performance and suggested that source of anxiety, not only involved the mind but also affected the whole body by the reactions resulting from it that lead the person to express special behaviour; which highlights athletes’ misperformance.

Coach-athlete relationship is an important factor that can minimise the impact of sports performance. Succeeding in such an uncertain and intensely contested sporting environment demands great relationship and communication skills. However, there is a gap in research on coach’s behaviours leading to athlete’s negative emotion; not all coach-athlete relationships are positive and effective due to the experience of incompatibility between people.

Although no sports psychology research has directly considered relationship maintenance within the coach-athlete relationship, some research appeared to address issues related to maintenance strategies. The way to deal with conflict is maintaining the relationship as suggested it can be a good strategy for coaches and athletes to remain focused in high-pressure competition and training.


Taking the best athletes in the world, sport must be very important to them because it is their life and livelihood. Some may get very upset when they perform poorly or even lose. But overall, most great athletes are able to handle and face their mistakes professionally. As a matter of fact, one reason why the best athletes in the world deserve the glory is because they have the capability to control their emotions rather than allowing their emotion to make the decision. Therefore, it is vital to acknowledge that the level of performance and function of athletes in competitive sports can be influenced by some psychological factors such as personality traits, competitive anxiety, coping strategies and dispositional emotion.

By Siti Safiah


References for the more interested:

Allen, M. S., Jones, M., McCarthy, P. J., Sheehan-Mansfield, S., & Sheffield, D. (2013). Emotions correlate with perceived mental effort and concentration disruption in adult sport performers. European journal of sport science, 13(6), 697-706.

Dindia, K., & Canary, D. J. (1993). Definitions and theoretical perspectives on maintaining relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 163-173.

Jowett, S., & Cockerill, I.M., (2002). Incompatibility in the Coach-Athlete Relationship. In. I.M. Cockerill (Ed.) Solutions in Sport Psychology, 16-31. London: Thomson Learning.

Mottaghi, M., Atarodi, A., & Rohani, Z. (2013). The relationship between coaches’ and athletes’ competitive anxiety, and their performance. Iranian journal of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, 7(2), 68.

Serpa, S. (1999). Relationship Coach-Athlete: Outstanding Trends in European Research. Portuguese Journal of Human Performance Studies, 12, 1, 7-19.

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