Understanding Emotions in Sports

We all experience frustration in our daily life, especially in sports. Humans when dealing with difficult situations have a bad habit of judging themselves and others. It is helpful to know that the anger or frustration that is being experienced is an involuntary reaction and not our conscious doing. How can this be? The survival instincts for human beings referred to as fight-or-flight is governed by a gland in the mid-brain called the amygdala. The amygdala has zero intelligence in the form of thoughts. It does not require thoughts for the reason of protecting humans from outside threats. Think of the human body as a machine that was installed with default settings for survival. These default settings are hard-wired and cannot be changed for obvious survival reasons. The fight-or-flight survival instincts are factory-made and are there to stay. How does this affect sports or any human thought for that matter?  

The amygdala having zero intelligence does not understand that the most basic thoughts of fear, worry, anxiety or nervousness are not an attack on our physical being. We will refer to the mentioned above emotions as negative thoughts. The amygdala cannot rely on thinking for survival. Thoughts are too slow compared to the default setting that nature installed in the human brain which is fight-or-flight.
Knowing that humans come with a default setting of fight-or-flight hopefully will bring some thought of relief to mankind having less judgment of our reactions when we have negative thoughts. Having awareness or becoming a witness of our actions when having negative thoughts is evolutionary.  The sooner that a person can realize that the amygdala hijacked the rational frontal lobe of the brain, the more evolved the person is in their awareness of this default setting made by nature to protect us.  

How can this knowledge help an athlete? Taking away blame and judgment is key! When an athlete is performing a skill such as hitting a tennis ball, nature does not care about the result. The result is a thought and the amygdala does not care about the thought of successfully hitting a winning forehand. The amygdala is confused that the fear of losing or missing the tennis stroke is an attack on the well-being of the athlete, therefore, causing the amygdala to choke off the frontal lobe. This choking is to avoid the loss of time by thinking to get out of perceived harm or danger. We now know that our survival instincts are default settings. Good luck uninstalling a default setting. That is like asking a refrigerator to heat instead of cool.  

Nature did not install into human beings with what I call ‘finesse.’ Finesse in my definition is the ability to perform ‘recreational stress’, such as sports, without going into survival mode or fight-or-flight. Finesse is also the ability to strategize or think tactically in a high-pressure situation. The human body does not understand patience or waiting since the human default setting of fight-or-flight is to rush. The rush is to hurry up and kill or avoid being killed. How many times does a human feel impatient throughout the day? How often in a sporting event do we blame ourselves for rushing? Who rushed to begin with? Did you rush by choice or was it involuntarily controlled by nature’s default setting? So, whenever I miss a stroke, I refer back to my book and formula called the "iZone Formula.” The iZone Formula is designed to help us to avoid the blame of our tactics and technique in competition. I immediately realize that fight-or-flight hijacked my ability to perform in that particular moment with finesse. Nature assumes that if I ran down a tennis ball and struck it with a racquet that I was successful. Nature does not care if the ball went in. So, the ability to perform a skill successfully while competing in recreational stress that resembles nature is finesse and it has to be conditioned over time. This is the number one reason that makes sports challenging. Competition always has a winner and a loser which means in nature, something survived or died. No wonder why people avoid competing.    

Our instincts will always supersede finesse, but we can be mindful of every moment that we feel that pull towards losing oneself when the amygdala hijacks the frontal brain just by being more understanding of where this response comes from. Hopefully being more aware of nature’s default setting will bring more peace.  

Mike May
Racquet Sports Director