June 2019
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Performance Psychology Isn't Just for Athletes

Performance Psychology Isn't Just for Athletes

Perform at your best by mimicking what elite athletes do to regulate their emotions.

We all have days when we are in a bad mood or have things on our mind. Maybe someone has annoyed you, or you're excited about going out after work. But are those days still productive, and are you still able to perform at your best? The reality is that most of us have not learned how to effectively regulate our emotions to do this.

For elite athletes, their sport is their job—a job that is mainly focused on training and preparation for competition. Indeed, athletes spend about 90 percent of their time in training and 10 percent in competition. What if we took a similar approach in business, where we spent 90 percent of time developing not just the technical skills but also the human skills such as regulating emotions that have a direct impact both on performance and well-being? What if we took notice from the sporting world and in business placed more focus on the emotional side of our human experience?

The importance of emotion regulation

Emotions not only include our thoughts and feelings but our behaviors and physical sensations too, so it follows that emotion regulation involves intentionally deploying skills to regulate three components—the thoughts we have, our behaviors, and our physical experiences—so that we can reach our goals and perform well.

The intentional use of skills to drive optimal performance requires a basic understanding of how emotions—and their three components—affect our performance and, more specifically, which emotions are most functional for us to reach our goals.

It is a misconception that people must be happy to perform well. For some individuals, anger or anxiety helps them to function well; for others, the need to feel relaxed, centered, or even happy is key. It is unhelpful to think of emotions as negative or positive. Rather, to reach optimal performance in whatever setting, you need to find the emotions that are functional for you.

Besides driving optimal performance, another reason for regulating emotions at work is emotional contagion, which is the idea that the emotions we experience may be infectious and positively or negatively influence others' emotional experiences.

Take a board meeting, for example. If a colleague running the meeting is late and arrives flustered and stressed, then these emotions may be infectious to the rest of the people in the room, setting a tone that is not conducive for a successful meeting. If the individual is aware of the emotional state he is in and how that may negatively affect others, he can then proactively place himself in the optimal mental and emotional state for that meeting and, as a consequence, have a positive impact on others.

Given the highly pressured environment in which athletes and sports teams perform, we can learn a lot from the sporting world on emotion regulation. To understand how high-performing athletes go about regulating their emotions to consistently perform at their best and determine whether some of these techniques can help us in business, Insights Learning and Development interviewed sport psychologists across many different sports globally to gather their insights.

Know thyself: Self-awareness

Before anything else, high-performing athletes develop self-awareness. They know and understand how they respond in pressurized situations, what kinds of emotions arise, and how this affects their performance.

Sportspeople can also identify which emotions they need for success and those that are harmful, often by working with a sports psychologist to identify the emotions associated with best and worst performance, so that they can understand which triggers cause a functional or dysfunctional emotional state.

Workplace application: Consider what performance is for you. It may be presenting, attending a meeting, writing a blog or article, or getting through all the appointments you have to make. The key to performance for you is that you have a desired goal you want to achieve. Now that you have that in mind, think about:

  • Which emotions enable your success, and which are harmful to your performance?
  • What may trigger these harmful emotions for you?

Tip: To help answer those questions, it may be helpful to reflect back on when a performance of some kind went really well and compare it to when it didn't.

From sports field to boardroom: Emotion regulation strategies

Once athletes have begun to develop awareness of their emotions and the impact on performance, they then adopt emotion regulation strategies. These enable athletes to not only get themselves into the best emotional state for performance but also to manage emotions as they arise so that performance isn't negatively affected. How they do this varies from person to person, but in general, the Insights research revealed that athletes broadly regulate their emotions by learning to:

  • Accept; emotions are a natural part of being human, and it is OK to experience unwanted emotions.
  • Alter their perspective or redirect attention; this means either stepping outside of the situation and looking at it in a different way or redirecting attention toward something other than the emotion itself.
  • Amend; reflect on the situation, the techniques they've used, and whether they were helpful for performance and amend accordingly.

While there are plenty of techniques that help athletes to do this, here's a selection from the Insights research.


Mindfulness. In its truest form, mindfulness is about being present in the moment with your experience and accepting it. This mindful acceptance does not mean changing your perception about emotions as they arise. Rather, accept emotions in whatever form you experience them.

Mindfulness enables you to deal with emotions and move on. Athletes will first spend time learning and developing the skill of noticing what is going on for them away from any emotional situation. This noting, as psychologists call it, is more of a dispassionate curiosity where athletes pay attention to thoughts and physical sensations in a nonjudgmental way. Once athletes have practiced this in a comfortable setting, they then try to notice the other scenarios in which their stress levels may increase.


Meditation is also a common technique that athletes use. It could involve focusing on the breath, counting while inhaling and exhaling, or simply calling out in their mind everything they can see or hear. Another method that athletes used when emotions are manifesting physically is progressive muscular relaxation. This involves tensing and relaxing muscle groups for 20 minutes a day in a quiet location where they can let go and clear their mind of worry. Athletes will then use this for much shorter periods of time to generate the same effects. Not all these work for everyone, and as highlighted from the Insights interviews, athletes will try various techniques to see what works best.

Workplace application: Have a go at it. Search for "progressive muscle relaxation" online, and you'll find audio scripts that will guide you through a 20-minute session of relaxing and controlled breathing. Put your phone on silent, find somewhere quiet where you won't be disturbed, and see what happens. You can also try out many other different meditations using apps such as Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm, or even YouTube.

Emotional gratitude. This approach is born from the field of positive psychology and the broaden-and-build theory of emotions that is associated with it. The method suggests that positive emotions such as gratitude can create increased brain function and essentially lead to enhanced performance. Research shows this is linked to higher levels of optimism, well-being, and prosocial behavior. Specifically in sports, prosocial behavior has been linked to improved team cohesion and life satisfaction.

An example from the interviews was a soccer player who struggled with anxiety before matches. He tied emotional gratitude into his pre-performance routine; as he put his uniform on, he asked himself, "What do I appreciate about my opportunity to play soccer? What am I grateful for?" Reflecting on these questions enabled him to consider his fortune and focus on the positives associated with playing soccer. It helped focus his mind and put things into perspective, with thoughts along the lines of "How lucky I am to be able to do something I love to do."

Workplace application: Maybe you travel frequently for work and you often feel grouchy because you'd rather be at home. When you've traveled so much and then have to work, consider, "What am I grateful about where I am right now in this moment?" Again, this is not for everyone, but give it a try.

Self-talk. Athletes use self-talk statements combined with a physical action to emotionally prime themselves for performance. For example, a goalkeeper in ice hockey may prime himself for a penalty shot by hitting the goal posts and saying something such as "Let's do this" to evoke a functional emotional response to perform at his best.

Of course, this isn't the same for every player, and as the Insights research shows, what one person finds emotionally charging, another person may not. The key is to use self-talk in a way that primes you emotionally for performance and gets you into your optimal zone.

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

Combining techniques. Athletes will often combine techniques. Below is an example of this, where an injured athlete experienced regret that he didn't warm up properly and blamed himself for getting injured because of this. The athlete coped with this emotion in three steps:

  1. emotional awareness and mindfulness—mindfully noted his thoughts, feelings, and sensations in his body
  2. cognitive reappraisal of the situation—changed how he evaluated the situation to change the emotional impact
  3. self-talk—said to himself, "It's OK I'm experiencing regret; it's normal. Emotions, just like this injury, are something I have, not something that I am. It's something I'm going through at the minute, but it's not something I'm going to go through forever."

Can you think of a similar example where you could use more than one technique for something you're experiencing right now?

Primed for success

Emotion regulation is critical for success and well-being in any performance setting, including the workplace. Even though we may not be stepping out into the Olympic arena, what connects us as humans is that we all experience emotions that at times makes it challenging to achieve our goals. We can implement tools to help us deal with these emotions, ensuring that these strategies are integrated into our daily working lives and not completed as one-off training programs.

From the sporting world, you can learn that it is possible to regulate difficult emotions, but to do that, you first need to be aware of how your emotions affect you physically, mentally, and behaviorally.

Armed with this knowledge, you can find ways to optimize your emotional and psychological state for performance, as well as react to situations as they unfold.

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About the Author

Hannah Prince is a business psychologist with a background in sport psychology and a passion for understanding the underlying psychological factors required for high performance and general well-being. She applies this understanding and learning in her role daily to key organizational issues, providing expert advice to form the basis of solution design intended to solve those key issues. She has a bachelor’s degree in sport science, a postgraduate diploma in psychology, and a master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology.

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Great topic, and very useful for applying in the workplace. Thanks Hannah!
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Fascinating topic - thank you Hannah! Professional sports has a realistic, front end approach to embracing the challenges and pitfalls that the 'traditional' workplace can learn lots from if they are brave enough to go through the process.
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Great piece, Hannah. I've always been fascinated by this. As an executive coach with 20+ years of experience coaching former athletes, I've learned that "self-awareness" doesn't necessarily equate to high S+EI levels. Competitively, they learn to tune out mechanism to regulate emotions and focus. However, in the executive suite, this comes across as cold and disengaging to peers and teams. We've had to fine tune that thermometer to build/rebuild relationships with those who find it excessive.
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