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Why performance psychology isn’t just for athletes

10 May 2019 By Hannah Prince

Learning to regulate your emotions in the workplace can help anyone improve, says Hannah Prince

We all have days when we are in a bad mood or have things on our mind. Maybe someone or something has annoyed us. Maybe we are worried about something outside of the workplace. The question is whether you are still able to perform at your best under such circumstances – and most of us have not yet learned how to effectively regulate our emotions to do so. 

Emotion regulation involves intentionally or automatically deploying skills to regulate our thoughts, behaviours and physical sensations. Given the highly pressured environment athletes and sports teams perform in, business can learn a lot from the sporting world on this topic.

To understand how high-performing athletes regulate their emotions and determine whether some of these techniques can help us perform at our best at work, we interviewed sport psychologists across different sports globally to gather their insights. 

And while there are plenty of techniques out there, there are a few which can certainly help to heighten emotional performance at work.

Self-awareness

High-performing athletes understand how they respond in pressurised situations, what kind of emotions arise and how this affects their performance. 

Once an athlete has begun to develop self-awareness, they then adopt emotion regulation strategies to not only get themselves into the best emotional state but also manage emotions as they surface. 

In a workplace context, consider what performance means for you. It may be taking a meeting or getting through a packed day of appointments. Which emotions enable your success and which are harmful? What might trigger them?

Mindfulness and meditation

In its truest form, mindfulness is about being present in the moment with your experience and accepting it. Athletes will first spend time developing the skill of noticing what is going on, away from any emotional situation. Once they have practiced this in a comfortable setting, they have a go in scenarios which provoke more intense emotional responses.

Meditation is another common technique used by athletes to bring them to the present moment – it may involve focusing on the breath, ratio breathing or even imagining a flow of warm energy around the body. 

Why not have a go? You can try lots of different techniques using apps like Headspace, Insights Timer, Calm or even YouTube.

Emotional gratitude

Positive emotions such as gratitude can create increased brain function and lead to enhanced performance for athletes. Research shows this is linked to higher levels of optimism, wellbeing, improved team cohesion and life satisfaction.

An example from our interviews was an ice hockey player who struggled with anxiety before games. Every time he got his kit on, he asked himself, ‘What do I appreciate about my opportunity to play ice-hockey; what am I grateful for?’ 

Maybe you travel a lot for work and often feel miserable because you’d rather be at home. When you feel like this, consider, ‘What am I grateful about where I am right now in this moment?’ 

Self-talk

Athletes use self-talk statements combined with a physical action to emotionally prime themselves for performance. For example, a goalkeeper may prime themselves for a penalty by hitting the goalposts and saying something like “Let’s do this”, to evoke a functional emotional response. 

After you’ve identified what emotional state you need to be in to perform at your best or achieve your goal, think about what you may want to say to yourself to help experience that.

Optimise your emotional state

These examples from the sporting world reveal it is possible to regulate difficult emotions, but to do that we first need to be aware of how our emotions impact us. 

Armed with this knowledge, we can find ways to optimise our emotional and psychological state for performance, as well as respond to situations as they unfold. 

Hannah Prince is the business psychologist at Insights Learning and Development

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