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Referee keeping football players from fighting

Managing Anger During a Sports Competition

By: Mary Bayonla Banks, PT, DPT, ATC, VATL

A player throws his helmet in the dugout with disgust after striking out. The quarterback gets into the wide receiver's face because he did not run the right route on 4th down and 2. A forward shoves an opposing defender because that player has been all over her every time she dribbles the ball down the field before she can shoot on goal. The center throws an elbow as he comes down with the rebound and hits the opposing center in the face.

There are so many of these types of scenarios played out when watching sports competitions. Especially seen in the college and professional level, these behaviors are often on display in the national media spotlight. Even at the high school, middle school, and youth level, we are not immune to seeing this kind of behavior played out in front of us. But does it really have a place in competition?

Athletes are, by nature, powered by intensity and emotion for the sport they are passionate about. But, at times, this emotion and intensity can get out of hand.

When we think of this type of intense emotion, there are three words we can associate with it: anger, aggression, and violence. In sports psychology, we use these following definitions:

  1. Anger: A normal emotion … neither good nor bad, and with no judgment attached to it.
  2. Aggression: Has harm to another person as a goal. This can be broken down into various categories, such as instrumental and reactive.
  3. a. Instrumental aggression: Goal-directed aggression in which harm to another is not the primary goal, although it can be a secondary result of the action.
    b. Reactive aggression: Sometimes referred to as hostile aggression. A behavior that has as its goal to do harm to someone.
  4. Violence: Harm to another is the planned result.

There are several ways to deal with anger before it escalates into either aggression or violence in sports. Here are just a few:

  1. Keep things positive. Repeat affirmations that keep a positive perspective on your competition. When you get angry at yourself or at another player, take a brief moment and remind yourself that you are a good player, you are a team player, and you are a smart player.
  2. Take a deep breath. Sounds too easy, but deep breathing elicits a relaxation response in the body that can reduce the stress response that may be brought on by anger during competition.
  3. Visualization. This is a practice that can be done before competition in which you visualize a stressful, anger-filled situation and see yourself successfully manage the situation without getting emotional. You can visualize yourself being in control and being in a relaxed mood.
  4. Reminders on the field. When on the field, have some cue words or phrases to say to yourself. When you feel yourself getting angry, concentrate on these phrases before your emotions get the best of you. For example, a soccer player might say to herself, "Take a deep breath; get to the ball first." This allows the player to concentrate on the appropriate action versus retaliating against an opposing player who may have taken her down in an earlier play.
  5. Write or talk about emotional situations after the game. It may also be helpful to sit down and talk with a teammate, coach, parent, or friend about situations during the game when you felt your anger rising. Talk through how you reacted or how you were feeling during those situations. Talk about how you could have done things differently. Or, if you are not the talking type, write it down. Write out your thoughts and feelings about situations that occurred and how you could handle them better in the future.

These are just a few techniques that can help de-escalate an anger-filled situation or help manage emotions felt during competition. Remember, sports are supposed to be a fun and exciting outlet that keep our bodies and our brains healthy and active. And, we don’t want to let the emotion of the game negatively affect our performance. As the cliché goes: "It's not if you win or lose; it's how you play the game." Although it’s always nice to win, knowing that you played your best, your hardest, without incident or anger, is the best "win" there is.

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