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Emotional Regulation in Sport: How to Surf the Emotional Waves

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Emotions are like waves, and our management of them is like surfing. As an athlete, sometimes you'll feel like a master surfer balancing expertly on the board and riding beautiful emotional waves. However, certain emotional waves are more challenging to surf, and when those waves meet resistance they can crash hard and cause us issues. If that sounds a bit like your experience of surfing your emotions, this blog can help you learn to surf them without ending up in the water all the time.

A man surfing underneath the crest of a wave

Sport can bring us the highest highs and the lowest lows. As an athlete, you've probably experienced your fair share of both. Improving, winning, and playing the sport you love with great people are all experiences that can bring about the emotions we love to feel. These waves are usually really fun and easy to surf. However, sport and life love to throw challenges in our way that churn up waves that we try to struggle against. Whether it's down to an injury, a performance you're not happy with, or an argument with someone you care about, we're designed as humans to feel some emotions that we don't want to feel too often. As a human and an athlete, it's completely normal to experience unwanted emotions, but without strategies to manage them you might not be getting the most out of your performance, or your your personal journey.


The Emotional Control Struggle

The issue a lot of athletes (and people!) have is that when they experience a difficult emotion they try to struggle against it. They get in a tiring fight trying to push that emotion out of their head, or try and avoid it altogether. If we think about surfing again, they might try and over-control the board, using up all their energy trying to stay on. Or, they might just bail out, avoiding the challenge of surfing the challenging emotional wave. Total wipeout.


Everyone has their own strategies that they use to try and control these difficult emotions. For example, an athlete feeling strong disappointment in themselves over some poor performances may start doing excessive extra training on top of what they are already doing. They might do this as they believe that extra training is 'productive' or 'goal related', and so it must be a good way will to 'get rid' of the disappointment they are feeling towards themselves, even if it might not be good for their physical or mental health. Following the extra training, the athlete will likely feel some temporary relief from the feelings of disappointment, but because they have not learned how to manage the disappointment itself the disappointment wave will keep coming back. When it does, the athlete might start doing even more extra training, believing they can outwork the emotion to get rid of it forever. In reality, they are in a tiring cycle of fighting with the disappointment wave, struggling to control their surfboard and causing the wave to crash against their resistance. Eventually, this tiring struggle of trying to control the emotion with training could lead to further issues, such as burnout.


Hopefully, you can see through the example that we can't control our emotions. But don't panic, we can still weaken their influence through effective emotional regulation so that we can still do the things that are important to us. This is where we surf the emotional waves, and through doing mindset training with Challenger Mindset you can learn how to do just that.

 

3 Ways to Improve Emotional Regulation as an Athlete

Managing your emotions effectively is a key part of being an athlete, due to the experiences you face on a daily basis that can cause fast and drastic changes in emotion. However, for a lot of athletes, it can be really tricky and they let their emotions pull their performance and behaviour in the opposite way they want it to go in. Fortunately, there are great ways you can learn to help with this:

1. Emotion Surfing

Imagine standing on a beach, watching the waves. What would you see them do? They begin to build, gradually getting bigger until they reach their peak, and then begin to gradually get smaller and subside. Our emotions are a lot like waves in this way. They gradually rise up, getting stronger and stronger until they reach their peak, then they subside and feel less intense.

Surfing your emotions means acknowledging them, opening up to them being there, and making room for them within you instead of trying to push them out. This is what we call 'acceptance'.
A view of small waves from a pebbly beach

As an athlete, you will often be experiencing the rise and fall of these emotional waves, and learning to surf them allows the wave to gradually subside without causing you further issues. Surfing your emotions means acknowledging them, opening up to them being there, and making room for them within you instead of trying to push them out. This is what we call 'acceptance'. On the flip side, struggling against the natural rise and fall of the emotional waves, or trying to control them, can cause you more issues and make your waves last even longer before they subside.


You will best learn how to do emotion surfing as an athlete if you are taught it in a mindset training session with a sport psychology practitioner that understands the technique (such as Ross at Challenger Mindset). Then, you can train your ability to surf emotions wherever and whenever you feel an emotional wave building. In a nutshell, learning how to emotion surf involves:

  • Noticing and naming the emotion you can feel.

  • Observing the emotion curiously - where is it in your body?

  • Breathing into the emotion - making room for it.

  • 'Watching' the emotion wave rise and fall within you.

  • Engaging in things that will make you a better athlete and person, instead of struggling against your emotions.

2. Viewing Emotions as Allies (even difficult ones!)

As humans in current society, we constantly prioritise experiencing positive emotions as much as possible, and for as long as possible. We prioritise these positive emotions so much that we often forget to prioritise the difficult emotions as well, even though we experience them just as much if not more often! ALL emotions have valuable roles to play in your life, and learning to make the difficult ones your ally, as well as the positive ones, can help you change your perspective and experience of your emotions. This can enhance your emotional regulation.


Emotions can alert you to things that matter

When you experience positive emotions, it indicates that whatever has caused that emotion is probably something you value or enjoy doing (e.g., feeling happiness following a win). Similarly, when you experience difficult emotions they can indicate a couple of really useful things to you. Firstly, they can show you that you care about something strongly. As an example, feeling sadness if your head coach leaves to get a new job is a perfectly natural emotional response that shows you valued and cared about the relationship you had with them. Having an awareness of things that we care about strongly is really useful for getting in touch with our values, and helps to guide you when choosing what actions to take to move yourself towards your goals. Difficult emotions can also show you something that you need to address about yourself or your life. For example, if you feel guilt over criticising a teammate in the heat of a game, then this emotion can serve as a useful sign to you that you want to apologise and repair that relationship.


Emotions communicate what you want others to know

Emotions prepare you to take action, and your actions will determine how the person you're communicating with will see you at that moment. Communicating an emotion through your body language, posture, tone of voice and facial expression is really useful when you want to express your true feelings and have that person respond in the way you want. As an athlete, if you're experiencing a difficult emotion it can be really useful to express that to someone you trust so you can receive good support to help you manage that experience. Through working with a sport psychologist you can discuss how, where, and when to express those emotions, and who with.


Alternatively, it can also be useful at certain times to know how to hide your emotions, if expressing them will not take you closer to being the person and athlete you want to be. I want to make it very, very clear here that I am not talking about bottling up your emotions all the time. What you need to consider in certain moments is whether it is the right time and place and whether you are with the right person to express your true emotions to. Basically, is it going to benefit you towards becoming the person and athlete you want to be to express your true emotions at that point? To give a useful example, you may feel high levels of anger towards your coach if they move you to an unfamiliar position or leave you on the bench one game. However, you may want to conceal that anger towards them and resist the urge to shout or argue if you feel that behaving in that way would make the situation worse. It could still be useful to show that anger slightly, as your coach may see it as a sign that you care a lot about your development, so you can see how these can be tricky choices for yourself as an athlete. Therefore, working through these choices with a sport psychologist can be a really beneficial experience for athletes that want to ensure they take steps in the direction they want to head in.


Emotions Can Remind Us to Be Kind to Ourselves

Difficult emotions can show up when you're going through something challenging in life or when you have a setback on your sporting journey. It's important in these moments to practice being kind to yourself so you can manage your mind when it's using its favourite methods to beat you up, such as self-criticisms or self-judgments. This is especially important when you are experiencing a difficult emotion due to something that wasn't in your control, such as an injury. Even when the reason is in your control, you can still be kind to yourself AND identify areas that you think you need to improve, as heavy self-criticism only saps your energy and makes your sporting journey less enjoyable. Being kind to ourselves is what we call self-compassion, and through engaging in mindset training with a sport psychologist you can learn strategies to practice self-compassion, using your emotions as a trigger to be kind to yourself.


3. Controlling Your Physical Actions

As mentioned before, emotions prepare you to take action, but you still have a choice to act on the urge an emotion gives you to do something. For example, if you feel anger towards a teammate you think is playing poorly, you may have the urge to shout at them, but whether you choose to actually do it is within your control. This is called your action tendency. Emotions are powerful and can pull you towards behaving in ways that don't align with being the person or athlete you want to be. So, it's crucial to be able to surf emotions so you can recognise when they're urging you to behave in a way you don't want to long term so that you can choose to act in the way you want to. For example, you might choose to hide your anger with a calm facial expression and tone of voice because you value supporting your teammates and good leadership. This would be an example of acting in a way that aligns with being the person you want to be, even when experiencing difficult emotions.

 

Difficult emotions don't have to be your enemy as an athlete. They can be surfed just like we surf positive emotions. Resisting or pushing your emotions away might seem like the easiest thing to do at the time, but this is likely to make your waves come back and last longer. Instead, learning to surf your emotions and exploring how they can help you can be a really effective way of improving your emotional regulation and managing the up-and-down experience of being an athlete.


If you're an athlete that struggles to manage your emotions or just wants to learn emotional regulation skills to enhance your mindset, we offer bespoke one-to-one sessions and workshops that focus on your needs and equip you with strategies to enjoy the highs and manage the lows. , Book a FREE 20-minute enquiry call here, or, get in touch via Whatsapp at 07950378048 or by emailing Ross@challenger-mindset.com. Take the first step in building a challenger mindset today!

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