Post By: Jeff Ruser, M.A. | Monday, April 20, 2020

anger sport psychology

Raise your hand if you have ever felt irritated, frustrated, and or angry while competing, performing, training, or even in your daily life? Everyone raising their hand? I thought so. Feelings such as these listed are all related to anger, a normal and natural human emotion, that many of us come across on a regular basis. In addition to anger, athletes, especially in physical or contact sports, will know that aggression plays a role in your performance and preparation. At first glance, anger and aggression tend to get a bad rap. Typically, we experience or see anger and aggression acted out and immediately think: BAD. But, I want to challenge that notion as we examine how to dominate the anger and aggression that we are faced with in elite sport and performance… and quite possibly while quarantining with folks who may (or may not) get on our nerves once in a while.

First, let's differentiate anger from aggression and violence: commonly interchangeable words with far from interchangeable meanings. Aggression and violence are associated with behaviors and reactions that sometimes stem from anger, but will both involve physical contact and sometimes intent to harm another. Anger is separate. It is the presence of a normal human emotion. When we try to suppress it, or deny that we experience it, we also deny part of what it means to be human. Being angry is normal and not necessarily bad. Anger can be motivation to train harder, run faster, and lift more weight or fuel to make the big play, shed a block, get through a screen, or explode off the blocks. Physically, anger also reduces our sensitivity to pain and helps us push through uncomfortable positions. While anger, itself, isn't bad, the reactions and behaviors that we act upon can sometimes lead to less than ideal outcomes. Therefore, in order to dominate anger in sport, performance, and around our friends and family, we need to train our reactions to anger. The key to dominating and thriving through moments of anger is multi-faceted. First, it requires that we recognize anger, the emotion, rising in ourselves. This isn't always easy, but luckily it can be taught and trained. Next, we can learn, train, and enact strategies to best respond to the emotion that are healthy, productive, and beneficial.

In order to respond to anger in ways that help us, boost our performance, and grow our personal lives, we have to recognize anger as it starts to build within us. When we recognize anger solely through the reactions it causes in us, or after it is too intense, it can feel untamable. Luckily, psychologists have determined that any emotion we feel, including anger, also has corresponding physiological or physical cues. The physical cues for anger are different than the cues for anxiety which are different than apathy, and so on. When we start to feel anger build up, most people will experience some ‘cocktail', so to speak, of these typical physical cues:

  • Feeling hot
  • Clenching your fists or jaw
  • Increased or rapid heart rate
  • Increased or rapid breathing
  • Staring off in to space
  • Shaking or trembling

These are just a few of the cues that you may relate to. By recognizing these cues, you get a hint or a signal from your body telling you, “Hey! You're getting angry!” With practice comes success, just like the physical and performance endeavors you have taken on as an athlete or performer. You won't recognize anger 100% of the time after reading this. Maybe not even 10% of the time, but with practice and reflection your prowess for recognizing your internal state will strengthen and become more dependable. When you have a situation in which you get angry and act on it in a sub-par way, and you didn't recognize the cues, go back and think about or write down what you felt as the anger rose within you and recognize the cues in retrospect. Learning can still happen in our failed attempts! Keep in mind – knowing that anger is not always bad, your definition of a successful outcome reaction to anger will vary. If it helps you train harder, run faster, and perform in your sport… use it! However, if it makes you defensive, hostile, or less personable during business meetings and interactions, you may want to find a different way to channel the anger. (Notice: I haven't mentioned ignoring or suppressing it…. That typically doesn't work.)

Once you have recognized anger, then you act on it. The action can be helpful or unhelpful. I'm sure we all have incidents that have been unhelpful or productive for us like lashing out at a friend, slugging your teammate on the arm, or yelling at the official and costing your team. So, let's chat about some helpful and healthy ways to channel this anger whether you are competing or even social distancing with your family members and find yourself angry.

Route #1:“Energy transmission”

Anger heightens our nervous system – a lot! You might have noticed a boost in your nervous system based on cues above like increased heart rate, breathing, and tension in your muscles. Anger enacts energy stores in your body by your brains releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that kick your bodily energy systems in to high gear. This means that we need to create a place for all of the energy to go. To release energy, consider doing something physical right then and there. Crank out some push-ups, sit ups, jumping jacks, or take a couple trips up and down the stairs. This allows for the energy to be acted upon in a way that isn't harming you or others. It's a win-win!

Route #2: “Calm down”

If you are like me, few things are more irritating than someone else telling you “just calm down!” It can seem demeaning and dismissive of what you are actually experiencing in that moment. Not to mention that “just calming down” isn't easy to do. Yet, by specifically practicing and preparing mental skills to calm down and self-regulate, calming down can get easier. Mental skills that help us calm down by settling the nervous system include:

  • Deep diaphragmatic breathing (1:2 ratio – breathe in for 2 second, out for 4 seconds. Move up to 3:6, 4:8 and so on as best you can.)
  • Talk to someone who you trust and name the emotion that you feel. Naming allows us to take the power back.
  • Write down your frustrations. Hold on to the note, or crumple it up and throw it over your shoulder to signify moving on.
  • Pray or meditate if religious or spiritual practices are something you might normally engage in.

These skills will help you regain control and calm, which would allow you to make clearer decisions and act in ways that are most in line with your ideals, morals, and values.

By learning to recognize the common and natural emotion of anger, you can start to become a master of your inner-state. Add in these new strategies and set times to practice them, and you will be on your way to dominating anger as a performer, athlete, and human being. Anger is an emotion. It isn't who we are or what we do. Take the power back through continued and dedicated practice. Although it isn't a walk in the park, it's worth it.