How Emotional Intelligence Can Be An Athlete's "Secret Weapon"

How Emotional Intelligence can be an Athlete’s ”Secret Weapon”

By Sarah Kivel,

“The need to succeed is greater than the need to breathe,”  my 11 year old daughter (at the time) tells me on our way home from her synchronized swimming practice.  I knew she was a committed athlete, but “wow”, I thought to myself.

Many of us are in awe over accomplished athletes like Mia Hamm, Maggie Stephens, and Stephen Curry.  They show their passion for their sport on the court, field and in the pool, respectively. We hear about the countless training hours they put into a day and their dedication, commitment and passion for their sport.  It’s not just in the professional world that we see exceptional athletes. They are everywhere.… on the local soccer fields, in the high school swimming pools and neighborhood basketball courts. But what separates these peak performing athletes from the rest?

As an athlete and parent to highly competitive athletes, I have learned that it takes more than talent and physical fitness to achieve peak performance.  It takes things like focus, drive, and commitment. And, it takes something that we don’t hear often in the athletic world. It takes emotional intelligence.  

Reaching peak athletic performance requires Emotional Self Awareness, Emotional Self Control, and Positive Outlook, which are three of the 12 Competencies Daniel Goleman’s research has determined comprise Emotional Intelligence.  

Here are three reasons why Emotional Intelligence can be an athlete’s secret weapon:

  1. Winning gold depends on self awareness and interoception

An Emotionally self aware athlete has the ability to understand their own emotions and the effects these emotions have on their athletic performance. They know what they are feeling and why and how it might or might not help them in competition.

When emotions are activated, they are often accompanied by changes in the body like breathing rate, heart rate, and muscle tension. In our brain, it is the Insula that detects these bodily changes and transmits the information to the other parts of the brain.  Interoception, the ability of the athlete to sense these sensations in the body, is then key to responding in a way that is advantageous.

Let’s look at synchronized swimmers.   Synchronized swimmers must have the grace of a ballerina, the strength and flexibility of a gymnast, the skills of a speed swimmer and water polo player, the lungs of a pearl diver, and the endurance and stamina of a long distance runner. Add to that the requirement for split-second timing and a dramatic flair for musical interpretation and choreography (Walnut Creek Aquanuts, 2018.  FAQs about Synchro. Viewed November 15, 2018, < This sport requires focus, discipline, dedication and passion. Typically, there are 8 athletes working together as a team in competition. What happens when one of the 8 have an anxiety attack and can no longer stay under water? The competition is over. There’s no chance for gold medal.  The 20+ hours per week of physical training all season no longer matters. And, the team is incredibly disappointed.

When a swimmer can recognize and notice what it feels like in the body before an  “anxiety attack” happens, they can better manage what comes next. Maybe they notice that their heart starts to beat faster whenever they get nervous.  By noticing and really paying attention to these sensations in the body, the athlete can learn to respond to the faster heartbeat and, with practice, learn to naturally calm themselves.   They may learn to do things like focusing on the breath or maybe the music tempo instead of allowing the body and mind to be swept away by the faster heartbeat and panic attack that comes with it.  With practice, the self aware synchronized swimmer can learn to respond to the faster heartbeat and maintain control over what happens next instead of mindlessly reacting. This is how gold medals are won.

2.  Emotional Self Control can mean the difference between winning and losing

When an athlete displays emotional self control, they are able to manage their disruptive emotions effectively, staying clear headed and calm.  On the flip side, an athlete lacking emotional self control might get triggered by something and fly off the handle at their teammate or the competition.   Sometimes coaches lack emotional self control. They get triggered by a mistake made by their athlete or a bad call by the referee. In science, this is sometimes referred to as an “amygdala hijack.”    

When the amygdala is triggered, it sends out an alarm. As a result, all sorts of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body to prepare for “fight or flight.”  At the same time, it shuts down the ability for the prefrontal cortex, our rational, decision making part of the brain, to make sense of the trigger and gives us no chance to respond in an effective or meaningful way.  What results then is an inappropriate response to the initial trigger that we might regret when we finally calm down. This can be the difference between winning and losing.

Competitive soccer has been a an influential and important part of my life.  I first started playing in the late 70s-early 80s, when there really weren’t many opportunities for girls in organized sports.  I quickly fell in love with the game and continued playing into my college years at University of California, Davis. One game from my senior year in high school stands out so clearly to me still, over 30 years later!  I was one of the top scoring offensive players on my team. I had played all four years on varsity. Now it’s my senior year and we have a freshman on our team. In the middle of the game as we are out on the field, I remember this freshman, I’ll call her Lucy, directing me and suggesting that I move and get into my position.  Hearing her words, my focus went from playing the game, to directly and sternly telling her, “don’t tell ME what to do.” We ended up losing that game.

How quickly things can change when we get triggered by someone or something someone says.  Our amygdala can take over and it ruins any chance that the outcome of the situation will be favorable.  I reflect on my poor behavior and wish I could find Lucy to apologize, as my ego centered self at the time never did apologize.  I share this story with my own competitive teenage athletes and hope that they can learn from it and understand the importance of developing their own emotional self control.

3.  Having a positive outlook takes the whole team to the next level

Positive outlook is having a glass half full outlook on people, situations and events.  Athletes with positive outlook persist in achieving their goals, despite obstacles and setbacks they encounter along the way.  A coach with positive outlook can inspire the team to work hard and get through tough situations and losses.

There is scientific evidence that shows that people with a positive outlook have more activation on the left side of their prefrontal cortex.  Further research shows that this area of the brain is closely associated with positivity. We also have mirror neurons in our brain that reflect the mood of others around us.  For instance, when someone smiles, we often smile back without thinking about it. Similarly, a leader or coach’s attitude and outlook can be very contagious. When a coach has a positive outlook, there’s a great chance the rest of the team will too.

Maureen O’Toole Purcell, is an Olympic silver medalist, she’s been inducted to the International Aquatics Hall of Fame, and has a sportsmanship award named after her at USA Water Polo’s Champions Cup, to list a few of her athletic accomplishments.  She knows firsthand the benefits of positive outlook. “There are times when things are tough, but just know that good will always come out of it.” Maureen is also a coach. One of her players says, “Mo motivates us to want to work hard. When we make a mistake in a game, she doesn’t criticize us.  Instead, she helps us understand what we could do different next time. “Mo’s coaching led us to win Champion’s Cup and get a silver medal at Junior Olympics.”

A positive outlook not only helps the athlete as an individual get through tough obstacles like injuries and losses, but it helps the team as a whole. It creates an environment of positivity that is contagious for the team.  Positivity inspires an athlete and team to want to work hard. This hard work and motivation brings the athlete and team to the next level of success.

It’s clear then that Emotional Intelligence is a huge factor in athletic performance.  We can all learn to become more emotionally intelligent. Here are three ways:

  • Notice how your body is feeling.  You can take a short body scan.  Close your eyes and bring you attention to the top of your head.  Slowly work your way down to your toes, noticing as you go how each part of the body is feeling.  Repeat daily.

  • Pay attention to what triggers you.  What are those things that come up in daily life that bring up negative emotions?  When, where and with whom do these triggers occur? Take some time to think about these questions and write your answers in a journal.  

  • Practice gratitude.  Keep a gratitude journal.  Write down three things each day you are grateful for.  Write a note or even better, tell your coach or teammate what in them you are grateful for.  This practice is like training the mind to look for the good. The more we practice looking for the good in our lives, the more likely we will develop a positive outlook.

Sarah Kivel