How Emotions Can Destroy Game Day Performance

Let's face the facts...all the private lessons you can afford, and all the ground balls, batting cages swings, free throws or dribbling in the world won't matter a lick if your athlete folds under the pressures of the game.

I have seen countless players look fantastic in practice only to come unraveled during pivotal moments on game day. Why is that? There are certainly a number of contributing factors, all found between the ears. However, in today's post, I want to focus on how your athlete's emotional state can and will destroy their game day performance.

girls softball player losing her poiseIf you are a parent or a coach we all grapple with the weekly emotions of our teenage sons/daughters/players, don't we? Teenagers in general can be a handful, but add the stress, pressure and expectations of game day into the mix and these young athletes can quickly become their own worst enemies in a heartbeat!

The diagram below illustrates the impact your athlete's emotional state has on their performance. Your athlete has the choice of how he or she reacts to a "game event" by their "thoughts." Their thoughts (positive or negative) will trigger an emotional reaction. This emotional reaction will have a direct impact on the quality of their overall game day performance.

If the "chain reaction" of event / thoughts / emotions (feelings) is a positive and healthy one a domino effect of high performance will ensue. However if that "emotional" chain reaction is negative and limiting the domino effect can create a continual stream of poor performance during subsequent game events (or plays).

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Here is an example of a negative emotional "chain reaction" that can destroy game day performance:
  • An athlete makes a crucial error in the field and immediately engages in negative thought patterns that question his or her ability to succeed. They start internal dialogue like, "I can't believe I missed that ball. I suck at shortstop."
  • As these negative thoughts continue and compound the emotional reaction ensues. The athlete feels frustrated, angry or sad based solely on their reaction to the game event and the negative thoughts that bombard his or her head as a result.
  • Now their emotional state is heightened in a negative and destructive way, including the inability to focus on the present moment and the task at hand.
  • The athlete, as many do, takes their mistake in the field and carries it over to his or her next at bat. Unfocused with diffused energy and "can't do" thinking they strike out and walk away with an even more elevated emotional instability as his or her frustration may now turn to anger. His or her failure at the plate only serves to reinforce their own conclusions in their head that he or she "can't do it."
  • For the remainder of that game (and perhaps several games that day or weekend) the athlete's emotional state prevents them from playing at an optimal level nor from enjoying the game. His or her game day performance is dismal...far below their true baseball or softball potential.
Let's look at an example of a positive emotional "chain reaction" that can propel game day performance:
  • An athlete strikes out with the bases loaded at a pivotal time in the game. Rather than engaging immediately in negative thought patterns he or she recognizes the pitcher made a great pitch and they can't wait for the challenge of hitting against him/her next time.
  • These positive and healthy thought patterns lead to a healthy emotional reaction whereby the athlete is still disappointed in their strikeout but the overwhelming feelings are ones of excitement and determination to do better next time.
  • Because of his or her positive and constructive emotional state they are able to remain focused in present moment awareness and are ready to attack the next task at hand.
  • Any future game events will likely be approached with a "can do" attitude, minimizing the chances for adversity.
  • For the remainder of that game and likely many more to follow this athlete will perform more near his or her true baseball/softball potential, while greatly enjoying the process of playing the game.
The solution to insuring optimal game day performance for your athlete lies in their ability to properly frame the results of a game event. If he or she expects perfection or is burdened by excessive external expectations (from parents or coaches), or simply lacks self-confidence a less than optimal game event can cause their emotional state and game performance to spiral downward rapidly. If he or she can frame the same game event positively and productively (as in "mistakes are part of the game and opportunities to learn" and "I see that opportunity as a challenge") then the potential negative impact from the game event will be minimized and game day performance can be optimized.

Simply stated your athlete's emotional states can expand or limit their game day potential for success. Here are three steps he or she can take to turn that frown upside down after a mistake:

1. Recognize how he/she is responding to the game event (what are their emotional habits?).

2. Acknowledge that he/she has a choice as to how their reacts to the event (taking responsibility for their emotions).

3. Frame the event more positively, focusing on the effort and process rather than simply the results (keeping it all in perspective).

Remember, how your athlete responds to adversity is always their choice. Help him or her to develop the mental tools they need to dominate on game day!