Emotional Intelligence in Sports

Emotional intelligence is a crucial skill for athletes to develop. Learn what emotional intelligence in sports is and how you can build emotional intelligence as an athlete.

Do your emotions control you? Would you say you understand why you feel anxious during some games but confident during others? How about the kinds of thoughts you have during games? Do those seem in or out of your control?

When your thoughts and emotions aren’t in your control, and even worse, when you don’t understand them, this can lead to incredible amounts of frustration for you as an athlete.

Which is why you want to work on understanding and managing your emotions as an athlete. To do so, you want to focus on developing higher levels of emotional intelligence as an athlete.

What is Emotional Intelligence in Sports

In the simplest terms, emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient (EQ) refers to identifying and managing your own emotions and the emotions of others.

To fully grasp emotional intelligence in sports, we want to break it down further.

While the concept of it is pretty simple, actually becoming skilled in emotional intelligence takes time. And in all honesty, it can seem pretty scary if your thoughts run wild during games and your emotions seem to control you.

There are four areas that make up emotional intelligence in sports. Each is as important as the other to accomplish a well-rounded emotionally intelligent athlete.

The areas are as follows: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

4 Attributes of Emotional Intelligence in Sports

  • Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize your thoughts, emotions, and actions and understand how they influence one another.
  • Self-Management: Being capable of regulating/managing emotions, behaviors, and thoughts in a positive and healthy way. This usually comes after self-awareness, because we must recognize and understand thoughts and emotions before they can be influence.
  • Social Awareness: Similar to self-awareness, it is the capability of recognizing and empathizing with the emotions of others. This is a very powerful skill if you’re a leader on your team because you can understand the needs and concerns of other people.
  • Relationship Management: The ability to create, manage, and maintain strong relationships. It also means inspiring others, communicating well, and working efficiently in a team environment.

Signs You Have Low Emotional Intelligence as an Athlete

When athletes are lacking in emotional intelligence, there are certain behaviors that are exhibited. By recognizing these, you can work on changing the behaviors and improving your EQ.

Clinical psychologist, Seth Gillihan, outlines 8 signs of low emotional intelligence in his article on webmd.com.

I have taken his signs, along with my own developed as a sport psychology consultant, and compiled a list of the 6 biggest red flags of low emotional intelligence in athletes.

6 Signs of Low Emotional Intelligence:

  1. Uncontrollable racing thoughts. This is one I see a lot in athletes I work with. To start, the racing thoughts may not be recognized, you just kind of know they’re there. It may also feel like you’re powerless to control the many thoughts you have during a game.
  2. You’re not sure why you feel a certain way. While you may be able to recognize that you’re anxious before a game or fearful, for example, you may be frustrated because you aren’t sure why you feel that way. And you’re even less sure what to do to change.
  3. Difficulty with emotional management. Building on the previous sign, not understanding your emotions means little to no control over them. Without knowing what you feel, a cause cannot be pinpointed. So, there will be great difficulty in managing emotions that you are unsure of where they come from. This can be especially true after you make a mistake.
  4. Low empathy. Empathy refers to understanding and relating to how other people feel. It is basically the meaning of the phrase, “Walk in someone else’s shoes.” If you have low emotional intelligence then this will be very difficult to do. You will not be able to relate and empathize with people’s emotions. In terms of sports, this will make it difficult for you to be as strong of a leader as you can be.
  5. You struggle in relationships. Relationships are crucial to you as an athlete. When you lack self-awareness, along with social awareness, it will be difficult to cultivate and manage the relationships that are a key element to your success. These include relationships with your coaches, teammates, family, and trainers.
  6. You are emotionally unstable. With emotions going uncontrolled and misunderstood, instability takes hold. One second you may feel confident, and then the smallest mistake can send you on a downward spiral of frustration and self-doubt.

4 Ways to Build Emotional Intelligence in Sports

Much like any lasting change, increasing emotional intelligence as an athlete can be a long process. The best way to do so is to break down each of the four areas. Then, work to improve them one by one.

Pay Attention to Your Thoughts

The first way to build emotional intelligence as an athlete is to become more aware of your thoughts.

Self-awareness is the building block of EQ. So, a good place to start is observing your own thoughts.

Since thoughts directly influence feelings, they are what you want to focus on.

When you have negative thoughts, this will lead to you feeling negatively (likely doubting yourself or feeling anxious), which then leads to you underperforming in games.

However, if you have positive and productive thoughts, these will lead to you feeling confident and performing better during games.

An actionable way for you to begin observing what you’re thinking is by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is the statewhere your awareness is completely centered in the present moment.

When you train mindfulness, a key aspect is observing your thoughts. As you do so, you become more aware of the thoughts you’re having which then increases your self-awareness.

Ways to Practice Mindfulness

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Go for a Long Walk
  • Journal Daily
  • Go for a Jog
  • Reflect on Your Day
  • Go for a Long Drive
  • Take Pauses to Think “What am I thinking right now?”

Here is an article that goes into more detail on training mindfulness as an athlete.

Start Taking Responsibility for How you Feel

This one isn’t going to be easy…but it’s worth it!

As an athlete, do you want the power to control how you feel to be in your hands or someone else’s hands?

I imagine the answer is in your hands. Unfortunately, the truth is that the majority of the time we hand this power over to other people.

For example, I used to feel very anxious around a certain coach. I used to think that he made me feel anxious and fearful. The truth is that I let him make me feel that way. I wasn’t taking ownership for how I felt so I was handing my power over.

Something very similar was happening with an athlete I was working with. She had this one coach who made her feel anxious as well and she would always worry about what that coach was thinking of her.

I talked to her about how she was handing over control of how she felt to that coach. That flipped a switch in her mind and made her realize that was not a power she wished to give away!

Other examples include teammates who intimidate you or opponents who lead you to feel insecure and less confident when you’re playing.

The truth is outside factors do influence how we feel. But they will do so less and less the more responsibility you take for how you feel.

A simple way to do this is by using the words, I chose instead of, they made me. It’s a subtle change but takes back control of how you feel as an athlete.

Empathize with Yourself & Others

Psychologytoday.com describes empathy as the ability to recognize and understand the thoughts and feelings of another.

However, we can also have empathy for ourselves. By understanding our own thoughts and feelings, we display personal empathy.

It’s a fairly simple concept to explain, though a difficult one to master. Some people are naturally more inclined to be empathetic.

So, how do you go about building empathy as an athlete?

By focusing on specific techniques.

Empathy Building Techniques:

  • Learn to Listen-by listening more, both to your own thoughts and what others are saying, you will gain a better understanding of them. This will lead to a higher level of compassion and empathy.
  • Pay Attention to Body Language-we say a lot with our bodies. Noticing people’s body language can help get a better understanding of how they are feeling. Also, begin paying to attention to your body language while you’re playing.
  • Help Others-once you begin to help others more, you will become more aware of when they are in need. Then, you will become more perceptive of such needs in the future.
  • Cultivate Patience-having patience with yourself and others is a great way to build empathy. First, be patient with yourself when cultivating the skill. In turn, you will begin to understand yourself better and build personal empathy. With others, practice being patient with them. It will allow time for you to understand their perspective and how/why they think a certain way.

Begin Consciously Responding

One of the ultimate goals of emotional intelligence is to have control over your emotions. This means you get to choose to feel confident before a game, and you get to control your emotions after a mistake instead of having them control you.

To accomplish this, you must first learn to recognize why you feel a certain way.

That was covered in the first section on observing what you’re thinking, because what you’re thinking is leading to how you’re feeling.

We now come to the second part of that, which is to begin consciously responding.

It’s not a realistic goal to say be conscious of every action, all day every day. That would be a little ridiculous.

Instead, what you want to do is begin by choosing one part of your day to start practicing with. Such as, choosing how to respond to mistakes.

Come up with a set strategy you will use following mistakes, either in practice or games. Then, set the goal to respond consciously following mistakes rather than having your emotions take control of you.

As time progresses, this will start to feel more and more natural.

The goal is for you to become completely in control of the actions you do and words you say. That is a powerful skill to have as an athlete.

Final Thoughts

Emotional intelligence is a key skill for athletes to develop.

By understanding yourself more you can control yourself better. This means you can control what types of emotions you have while competing.

Emotional intelligence also provides you with stronger communication skills, allowing you to build better relationships and become a higher quality leader on your team.

To work on building your emotional intelligence there are four steps you can take.

Start practicing observing your thoughts, taking responsibility for how you feel, empathizing with yourself and others, and consciously responding.

By following these, you will begin to see improvements in your emotional intelligence, and, consequently, your performance on the field or court.

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

Contact Success Starts Within Today

Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

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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