How to Handle Anger in Sports

Is anger helping or hurting you? If anger is holding you back

There are many opportunities to get angry within sports – both during practices and games. From bad calls, to mistakes you make, anger and frustration can quickly form.

The question is, is this anger helping you or hurting you?

In this article, I’m going to go into how anger can help you, how it may hurt you, and a strategy you can use if your anger is getting the best of you during games.

How Anger Helps Athletes

Whether anger helps you or not is going to depend largely on your sport and the position you play. It will also depend upon your personality. But one thing’s for certain, if anger is helping you it will increase your performance.

There is no way for anger to help you, if after you get mad your performance level routinely drops.

If that’s the case, no matter how much you try to convince yourself anger is helping, the evidence speaks to the opposite.

But, there is the chance that anger is helping you and your game.

A great example is from a running back I worked with who used anger to drive him during games. His anger came from the other team. For whatever reason, if he didn’t like who he was playing and they had pissed him off, it motivated him to compete harder.

We actually used this as a way to get him in a better mindset going into games, by having him find reasons to be mad at the other team. That way, he leveraged the fact anger helped him, and used it to increase his level of play.

But you need to be very careful and honest with yourself as to whether or not anger is actually helping you. Through my work, I’ve come across more athletes who have had anger hold them back, rather than helping them perform well.

So, let’s take a look at some of the key characteristics of using anger to help you as an athlete…

The Anger Fuels You

This is the very reason the running back found anger as a strong tool. It fueled him to compete harder and gave him the edge he needed to perform his best.

This is why we often see anger help you as an athlete if you play a contact sport that thrives on aggression.

Another example is a pitcher in baseball, whose anger puts a little more speed on his fastball and gets him into an attacking mindset on the mound.

Or a basketball player who gets mad and uses the anger to drive her to make strong moves to the basket and play aggressive and hard defense.

All of those examples involve anger fueling you as a result of being angry at the other team. But anger can also fuel your play if you are mad at yourself for a mistake you made.

You could use that anger to drive you to really focus in and play better for the remainder of the game.

You are in Control of Your Anger

Going off the previous idea of anger fueling you, if anger is helping you play better, it is under your control. When anger takes over you, you can become blinded by your own rage.

Even if you play an aggressive sport, this level of uncontrolled anger can result in you playing recklessly and causing more harm than good. Think making unnecessary foul in basketball or throwing wild pitches in baseball.

If anger is helping you, you are in control of your anger. You do not allow your emotions to get the best of you. Instead, you use them to your advantage by fueling a better performance.

Think about a boxer who competes with anger. If that anger is not under their control, they can easily be beaten by a more clear-headed opponent. They may be punching powerfully, but it will also be wild and out of control.

So a key to using anger to your advantage is that the anger must be under your control.

How Anger Holds Your Back as an Athlete

You must decide for yourself, is anger really helping you? Or, is it holding you back and leading to you playing with less confidence or in an uncontrolled manner?

Even if anger is used to your advantage, there are still times when it can get the best of you. Going back to the running back I mentioned earlier, he still had to be careful not to get too mad at himself after a mistake or mad at the refs.

If he did, then the frustration he felt ended up distracting him.

So, while there may be times when anger is used to your advantage, you want to also have a strategy in place to manage your anger during practices and games.

But before I get into a strategy you can use, let’s take a look at some of the ways anger can hold you back and cause you to play worse.

Anger Distracts You

A big reason anger will lower your performance is because it’s a distraction. The anger itself will distract you, along with what you’re angry about.

Let’s say you’re mad at yourself over a mistake. The reason you will stay mad is because you are still thinking about the mistake. The more you think about the mistake, the less attention you are giving to the next play.

You may also get upset with yourself for feeling angry. This can happen if you get mad over a mistake, or mad at the ref or other team. But you may know that anger only hurts you, and so you then get distracted thinking about how you shouldn’t be angry.

Anger Can Make You Play Recklessly

Anger is all about energy. When that energy is uncontrolled, it can lead to reckless behavior on the field or court.

A great example is a hitter in baseball or softball who makes an error in the field, gets mad at themselves, and then carries that anger to the plate.

When at the plate, they try to make up for the mistake and take out their anger through big and forceful swings. Swings that only end up in them missing the ball and striking out.

Another example is a tennis player who gets angry at a bad call. Her anger takes over and she begins hitting balls too forcefully, resulting in bad shots.

Anger Lowers Your Confidence

This one is going to be especially true if the reason you’re mad is because of a mistake.

I was talking with a baseball player yesterday and we were discussing the anger he feels after a bad at bat. For him, this anger leads to self-doubt. He is thinking so much about the mistake that it leads to him questioning his ability to get a hit the next time up.

If the anger also leads to you playing worse for the remainder of the game (as it often did for him), this bad game can completely tear down your confidence moving forward.

A Strategy to Manage Anger as an Athlete

If you feel like anger is getting the best of you during practices and games, then you need a strategy to manage this anger in the moment.

While it’s difficult to stop yourself from getting angry altogether, what you can work on is reducing the impact the frustration has on you and how long you stay mad.

That’s where this strategy comes into play.

Step #1: Release the Anger if Possible

Now, this first step comes with a word of caution…I am by no means advocating for you to break anything, throw your equipment, or do anything else like that.

What I am saying, though, is that anger is energy. And sometimes you need to release the energy to help let go of the anger.

If steps two and three work well on their own, then I would suggest skipping this step. But the reason I include it is because sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to calm yourself down if you’re boiling over with anger…unless you first release a little anger.

An example of how this can work is an obstacle course athlete I’ve been working with. He tends to get mad when he fails on an obstacle or has a bad time on a run. What I suggested was for him to immediately go to the warm up area and get on another obstacle.

He does short, sprint obstacle course races, so he has time to go to the warm up area. By doing so, he’s able to release some energy on other obstacles, along with feeling better by doing them well.

Another example may be sprinting out to your position, sprinting down the court, clapping your hands, squeezing a stress ball…really anything that is a safe, non harmful way of releasing your anger.

Step #2: Work to Calm Yourself Down

Once you’ve released some energy (if that’s needed), your goal needs to be to calm yourself down. It’s important to realize that, when you’re angry, we aren’t going to shoot to the opposite end of the spectrum and try to get you feeling happy.

That’s just not very realistic.

Instead, your goal is to get more calm and relaxed. Because the calmer you are, the clearer your head is going to be. Making it easier to refocus – which we’ll go over in step three.

To calm yourself down, focus on taking deep breaths. Use count breathing (where you breathe in for a count of five and out for a count of five, for example) to take your attention off whatever it is you’re mad about.

Step #3: Refocus

One of the main reasons anger hurts your performance is because it distracts you. Knowing how easy it is to still think about the mistake, or whatever it is that upset you, your job is to work on refocusing.

Once you’ve taken a few deep breaths to calm down, it’s time to refocus on the next play.

To help refocus, try to pick out something simple to focus on. For example, really focus on watching the ball. Or think about keeping your hands up on defense, or think about how much you want to make the next play.

The idea is, you want to refocus your attention onto what’s next. But you don’t want to think about a bunch of stuff at once. So keep it as simple as possible with what you refocus onto.

FInal Thoughts

It’s easy to get angry as an athlete. Whether it’s due to a mistake you made, the other team, an official’s call, or anything else, frustration is common.

It’s your job to decide if this anger is helping you or hurting you. And even if it is helping you, it’s still good to have a strategy to manage the anger if you notice it getting the best of you.

Use the strategy outlined above to let go of your anger in the moment. Allowing you to refocus and play your best moving forward.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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