Anger in Competition: How to Better Manage It

Athletes and coaches display of anger is becoming a repeated scene in sports. From youth leagues to professional athletes, the pressure to win at all cost or the fear of losing, leads individuals to become emotionally reactive, often characterized by an unacceptable display of anger, yelling, and even aggressive behavior. What is more concerning is the explicit permission and justification for displaying such a reaction. If anger leads to under-performance, what can be done to better manage those emotions?

An athlete who carries a lot of stress, continually focuses on must-win games, feels edgy, and repeatedly verbalizes angry thoughts to self or others demonstrates signs that must be paid attention as this pent-up mind-set can easily lead to over-reacting for apparently no good reason. Many athletes become so impatient or overly sensitive to casual comments that it becomes very difficult to interact with them. Also, the use of drugs, alcohol, or pain medication may exacerbate their ability to cope with stress, hence becoming more likely to overreact, especially if the athlete perceives the other person as having mal-intended behaviors. In this case, immediate rage culminates in aggressive behavior.

Teaching behaviors

The best way to address anger is by taking a pro-active stance where athletes, coaches, and even parents are made aware that they are having difficulty managing highly stressful situations. Hence, the first step is to name what the precipitants are thinking that lead to feeling anger. Rather that brush over all emotions as one, different situations lead to different emotions. “Feeling impatient,” “frustrated that my teammates are not understanding me,” “I want to have more playing minutes,” “my parents put a lot of pressure on me,” etc. are some of the thoughts that trigger upsetting emotions. The higher their level of awareness of the triggers that lead to becoming impatient or angry, the more likely they will be willing to use a strategy that promotes calming their frustration.

Also, athletes are more willing to live by the rules when:

  • They have a hand in formulating them
  • When determining consequences for rules violations
  • Focus on the team policy that was broken without degrading athletes to feel “in the dog house”
  • Use positive reinforcement to strengthen  team participation 

    The use of breathing relaxation has shown to ease tension. Bringing awareness to a slow, deep, and full in and out breathing takes the mind away from the racing thoughts. It helps to calm the arousal in the nervous system and reduces the respiratory rates.

    When addressing anger in a team setting, bouncing ideas about triggers and strategies that help bring arousal down helps teammates to incorporate new ideas. Often time, players who lose their temper tend to think that they are the only ones with an anger issue when there may be other players who feel equally angry but channel their emotions in a more productive manner.

    Self-awareness is the most important tool to own. It provides information which can be used to better manage your emotional responses.

    Alex Diaz, PhD

    Sports Mental Edge

Posted in Blog, Fitness and Health Articles.