Leadership in Athletics: Emotional Intelligence in Sports

Sports bring a wide range of emotions and feelings. Athletes are faced with a constant stream of them that change drastically in and out of competition.  Emotions vary a lot, but they all stem from five main feelings: happiness, sadness, anger, fear and shame. Athletes often face all five during a single competition.

Emotions are even more prevalent in sports where the stakes are high and physical contact is required. These feelings provide increased energy and power to push through difficult situations and circumstances — but only when handled correctly. During my playing career, I experienced all five emotions nearly every game, and if not, the reason was the game was never in the balance or had any significance.

It’s easy to experience these five main emotions during the course of a whole game, but it can even happen during the course of a single play. That’s why it’s so important to be able to compartmentalize each event to prevent any spillover into the next play or opportunity.

Imagine immediately after the conclusion of a play, there is going to be some transfer of feelings. Either there is a happiness from making a tackle, a great pass or a shot. The positive energy is flowing through your body. Conversely, there could be anger from a play that wasn’t that should’ve been. There were times that I prepared all week and knew the exact play that was about to happen and failed to execute. Sometimes that play was a critical one in deciding the game.

Many times during my career I gave up a pass on a third down that prolonged a drive — which led to points. There was some shame in letting my teammates down or even sadness of knowing that the opposition might simply be better and it was going to be tough to win.

Those can all be felt immediately after a play, good or bad, and they are hanging in your mind. The trick is to remember how the play went and why the result occurred without conjuring up the emotions again during the game . . . because if they do fear can set in.

As the next play comes into the huddle it could initially be happiness, if it featured me, or anger if I didn’t like my role to play. Given the importance of the play, the happiness can convert to fear. What if I don’t get it done? Doubt can creep in and lead to fear.

While with the Detroit Lions, I played my former team, the Dallas Cowboys. The homecoming was not going as planned. We were down big early on and I was disappointed because this isn’t how my return was supposed to go.

That disappointment quickly turned to anger, which led me to make the biggest play of my career. While dropping back into coverage I knew the play Dallas was about to run. The ball was thrown my way and I was able to intercept it and return it for a score. That play changed the entire game and we came back and won. I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a little fear at the ball was traveling through the air. I knew what to do and was in the right spot, but would I ultimately make the play?

In your mind, it’s simply you versus you and understanding and embracing the emotional rollercoaster is the toughest task. But if you can compartmentalize each situation and move past both the good and the bad, then the game becomes a whole lot easier.

Everyone is able to improve their ability to compartmentalize their emotions. Over the next four weeks, we will discuss emotional intelligence and how it can be applied to sports.



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