Emotion and Performance

October 19, 2016


The red flag for emotion finally caught my attention when I was studying in New York City earlier this year at the Albert Ellis Institute. Becoming an effective practitioner is, of course, extremely important to me. My trip to the AEI in Manhattan, NYC brought the emotive to life more than any other thoughts or behaviors.


“Over concern with achievement normally results in your acquiring enormous fears of taking chances… and in turn tends to sabotage the very achievement for which you are striving”

Albert Ellis


When practising Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) we often start by navigating our way through the thing that causes all the “trouble” that we experience. The “trouble” is usually an undesirable emotion, shame, anger, anxiety and so on. I’m not sure if it’s my culture or experience of life but personally emotions for me are not for public viewing. Privately “dealing” with emotion and acting if everything is “great” through gritted teeth is how, in general, I think many people deal with adversity but this would never be the advice you would receive from me if you’re looking to achieve excellence.


REBT starts by understanding the A. The textbooks say that the A symbolizes the activating event. What was it or where were you when you started to feel a particular emotion? It’s usually easy to identify the A…. we ask “what problem would you like to work on today?” and we generally get the A in the first few responses. A performance psychology consultation, however, often begins with no A. There is no adversity. Things can be going just fine and what we want to focus on is how we get even better. We want to take a snap shot of our athlete as they are and a snap shot of where they want to be and through our investigation of their world we often/always identify that there is a need to understand how emotion works and what can be done with it as a performance tool. The adversities tend then to be emotions that have or can affect performance.


Another important point here is that there is more to A that meets the eye. We need to identify the critical A, not just the A- event. For example, “the match is making me anxious” but not all matches make all people anxious so what is it about that particular match that leads to anxiety do we (erroneously) think? If you imagine the match in your head which bit of it are you uncomfortable with? Which bit of it stirs up that emotional response? You might well end up with a range of emotions and thoughts/memories and behaviors all linked together.


For me this is where a little puzzle solving begins. Think about the range of emotion that you are given and the element that has stirred up these responses and ask yourself… does this emotion make sense? For example – I recently worked with a client who was extremely worried about an important football trial. He had played in a warm up test which he did extremely well in, scoring 2 goals. I asked him to recall the emotions that he felt when the game finished and he noted that he felt both happiness and surprise. Ok, I thought, happiness makes perfect sense here. You did very well… but where does the surprise come from? We both stopped for a moment because we knew we had hit upon something. If all the signs point to a talented striker, why would he be surprised by his performance? In this sense the emotion of surprise has become a doorway through which we can begin to access the core beliefs he held. As a practitioner I felt that surprise was more of an interesting emotion in this situation so I prodded around there to uncover that underlying there was a lack of self belief in the clients own ability. It’s one thing to say or to think that you believe in your ability, and we often do a rather good job of convincing ourselves. It is, on the other hand, an entirely different disposition to actually just believe in your capability to succeed.


“Worry gives a small thing a big shadow” 

-Swedish Proverb


I was recently reading a book about emotion, specifically it was around the biochemistry involved in the production of emotion responses. In the book the author identifies the neuropeptides associated with emotion response. She also describes the emotional experience as the gateway between thought and behavior. Yet many people go through life avoiding feeling emotions. When you feel an emotion it is, in part, a communication. It is a communication that you cannot access through the upper “cleverer” part of your brain. I hope this give you an insight into the importance of understanding emotion and some courage to feel and understand what your emotion responses are communicating. It is my view that those who understand emotion and furthermore utilise their energy in effective ways can dramatically impact their performance in productive ways.

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