Emotions are a crucial part of sports. It is the perfect feeling that accompanies scoring a game winning goal, making the perfect tackle, or saving a penalty kick that drives athletes. Emotions can be beneficial by motivating players to push themselves to new heights and take risks on the field. Unfortunately, an emotion like anger is a precarious one. When controlled, anger can be the difference between a win and a loss, success and failure, joy and agony. However red cards, benching, and mistakes are likely to ensue when anger is left unchecked.
I recently came across the terms hot and cold cognitions. They refer to the influencing power emotions have over our thinking. Hot cognitions are the thoughts that arise when one is emotionally charged. This happens when a referee makes a bad call and you think about the unfairness. This happens when the opposition “cheap shots” you after the play and a spontaneous thought about revenge pops up. This happens when a coach pulls you from the big game and you think about the coach’s stupidity. These hot cognitions are automatic, rapid, and lead to low quality decision making. In the previous examples these initial hot cognitions might lead to cursing at the referee, punching the opposition, or flipping off your coach. Conversely, cold cognitions lack emotional influence. These thoughts are logical, critical, and lead to high quality decision making. If anger is managed and players experience cold cognitions they might have a calm conversation with the unfair referee, gain revenge over the dirty opponent by scoring a goal, or talk to the coach after the game.
I share these terms with athletes and coaches to help them overcome one of the biggest therapeutic hurdles in sport psychology, poor insight. When players and coaches begin to A) recognize their thoughts are a driving force behind their actions B) Develop greater awareness of automatic thoughts, then they can begin to behave in a desired fashion. This might be the hot-tempered player who begins to ignore bad calls in a game, the player who better understands the thoughts behind pregame anxiety which leads to a panic attack on the sideline, or the coach who recognizes the negative self-talk that leads to anger and out of control sideline behavior.
Anger tends to have a negative stigma in sports, especially in light of all of the domestic abuse concerns in the NFL. However, when controlled and used with a purpose, it can help players gain an advantage over the competition.