Human emotions are a complicated matter. They can influence many important aspects of our lives, from our ability to focus at work to our ability to manage relationships. Thus, it shouldn’t be a secret that our feelings also play a big role in our physical abilities. If you’re as serious about training as we are, then you definitely need to learn more about how emotions influence athletic performance.
It is a well-established matter of fact that exercise has a positive emotional effect on humans. Our mood is lifted when we work out. In fact, rigorous exercise causes the brain to release endorphins and dopamine, both of which are associated with wellbeing.
Endorphins are released when we exercise, but also when we laugh, feel pain, or experience an extremely stressful situation. The feeling some people describe as “runner’s high” is a result of the endorphins released during distance running.
Endorphins have a number of functions, but one of the main effects is reducing the amount of pain we feel. In that sense, endorphins work a little bit like adrenaline—they help you push through the pain of running a marathon or competing in a triathlon and help you get to the finish line. Endorphins also help regulate our sleep cycle, which is another important benefit of exercise on our emotional wellbeing.
Dopamine, on the other hand, is a chemical released in our brains when we experience pleasure. Eating delicious food, drinking alcohol, having sex, and strenuous exercise are all activities that result in dopamine being released in the brain. The result is a euphoric feeling that leaves us content and relaxed.
While low dopamine levels are associated with low motivation and procrastination, high dopamine levels have been linked to productivity and proactive behavior. This might be why people who exercise regularly are often seen as more enthusiastic and energetic.
Now that we have a clear idea of how working out affects our mood, let’s have a look at things the other way around.
Over the last twenty years, a great deal of research has emerged about the link between emotion and athletic performance. At first, you may think that negative emotions worsen performance, but things are a bit more complicated than that.
A study published in 2013 found that people who have a ‘neutral’ mood—neither very happy nor overtly sad—were the most likely to engage in physical activity. The authors of the study theorize that this is because we are most likely to make cool, rational decisions when we’re in a neutral mood. We all know that exercise is good for our health and we exercise regularly. When we’re in a calm state of mind, we can logically accept this information and link that knowledge to action: specifically, the action of physical exercise.
If we’re in an abnormally good mood, we may feel we are already in good enough shape, thus we don’t really need to work out. We would have more fun if we stayed at home and watched TV or went out to meet friends!
On the other hand, if we’re feeling sulky and depressed, we may feel that going to the gym won’t actually have any benefit for us. Missing one day at the gym is no big deal, so what does it matter if we skip it?
However, both positive and negative emotions can have both positive and negative effects on athletic performance. Let’s have a look at positive emotions first.
It seems clear how positive emotions (e.g. confidence and self-assuredness) can have a positive effect on performance. But how can positive feelings result in a negative outcome. In a seminal essay aptly titled “How Emotions Influence Performance in Competitive Sports”, Prof. Richard S. Lazarus of University of California, Berkeley, explains that:
“Even positive emotions can, under certain conditions, have negative consequences for performance. For example, athletes may feel self-congratulatory about how they are doing in a match and let down, but they don’t see the danger until it’s too late. The lesson is that we have to be careful not to presume that negative thinking is always damaging and that positive thinking always facilitates performance.”
While confidence is a great thing, too much confidence can result in someone becoming cocky and boastful, which might negatively influence performance. Imagine a runner or biker with a big lead in a long race. If they let their guard down and begin celebrating too soon, the person in second place may have the opportunity to take the lead and win the race.
Now let’s move on to negative emotions. Again, it’s obvious that negative emotions can obviously have a negative impact on performance. But how might negative emotions have a positive effect?
Well, many great athletes are able to use their negative feelings to further motivate themselves. Perhaps a runner loses a half-marathon by just ten or fifteen seconds. Rather than getting angry and losing confidence, that runner may be able to channel those negative energies into productive behavior, such as training even harder and vowing to never lose such a close race ever again.
In fact, losing is a common motivator among people who are strongly competitive.
While negative emotions can sometimes influence performance in a positive way, they might not be a sustainable source of motivation. Darko Jekauc, a Professor of Sport Psychology at Humboltd University of Berlin, writes that:
“Negative emotions like dissatisfaction with our body shape or bad health status motivate people to start exercising… However, negative emotions are not enough to keep people practicing a sport for a longer period of time. At some point other emotions override these existing negative ones and people lose their motivation to continue doing sport.”
So what can we learn from all of this fascinating research? There are a few important things to remember.
Our emotions definitely influence our performance, but how they influence our performance depends on the individual. Some people benefit from negative emotions like anger or anxiety. These athletes perform better when they experience moderate stress and anxiety. Conversely, some athletes have decreased performance when they have positive feelings. These athletes may need to feel pressured in order to perform optimally.
So how do your emotions impact your performance? It’s good to stop and think about how we’re feeling, and what the most productive reactions to those emotions might be.
Ultimately, training and competing are all about being in the right state of mind, so try to discover when you maximize your athletic abilities. And if you want to have world-class sportswear with bold designs to keep you in the right mindset for training, check out the Jiakina shop.
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