Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Feeling bad? Change the label

It was fantastic at the weekend to watch the Ryder Cup victory by the Europeans. The whole competition was an illustration of sport at it’s most intense. Some players, like Justin Rose and Rory McIlory seem to just thrive in these situations and others just find it completely overwhelming.

Have you ever had that feeling when you’ve gone into a competitive situation or even done something out of your comfort zone like making a speech when you feel ‘nervous’? Unless you are devoid of emotion, we have all experienced this feeling at some point. Interestingly, according to psychologists  Shachter and Singer (1962) we don’t experience a particular emotion such as ‘fear’ or ‘nervousness’ immediately.  According to their Two Factor Theory of Emotion they state that we actually experience a level of physiological arousal and then take in our environment and only then put a label on the emotion. So when Webb Simpson stood on the first tee to play the very first shot of the Ryder Cup, he would have been experiencing high levels of arousal and would have then taken in his surroundings (large noisy crowd, 1st tee, European and US flags etc) and quite possibly would then have given this arousal the label of ‘nervousness’ or even ‘fear’ (which would certainly have accounted for the bad mis-hit that followed).

Initially, the physical manifestations of ‘nervousness’ and ‘excitement’ are identical. The head spins, the heart beats fast, hands get a bit sweaty etc. It is only when one of the labels is put on it that we respond accordingly. So, if we call it ‘fear’, we will then put ourselves into a negative spiral which can be quite hard to undo. If however, we describe it using labels such as ‘euphoria’, ‘pumped up’ or ‘buzzing’, then we tend to greet the racing heartbeat as being a good thing. Great sports performers don’t necessarily need to calm themselves down, very often they just need ride the wave of excitement.

When Rory McIlroy was asked how he felt about being drawn against in form US player Rickie Fowler for the Ryder Cup singles, his answer typified his mental approach.

“I’m really excited. It’s going to be a great match.”

When you are feeling strong emotions make sure you pick the right label!

Have a thrilling day!

Andy Barton
Performance coach

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