From student-athletes to professional stars, all sportsmen and women appreciate the fact that tiny margins are often the difference between success and failure. While training the body is essential, it is equally crucial to develop a strong mind.

However, a winner’s mentality isn’t solely defined by confidence on the playing field. Emotional intelligence is an integral feature, often referred to as the “game within the game”. Without it, physical strength, speed, and coordination will only take you so far.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is defined by experts at verywellmind.com as the “ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions”. It can relate to virtually all aspects of our lives, including business and relationships, while experts may use several tests to examine an individual’s rating.

In addition to reasoning, understanding, and managing emotions, EI helps individuals make calculated responses to an array of situations while simultaneously showing a better understanding of those around them.

basketball player in wheelchair

The role of emotional intelligence in sport

Every great coach and supportive parent should know that a strong mental game covers several key components. Athletic identity, finding the zone, motivation, mental toughness, and an ability to handle stress will all play important roles. However, emotional intelligence is something that often gets overlooked despite a clear impact on performance.

Like many aspects of mentality in sport, studies are ongoing to determine the true level of impact. Despite being a topic of conversation since the mid-1980s, the detailed analysis only started in the last 10-15 years.

However, significant research into over 3,400 individuals suggests that there is a correlation of 0.16 between EI and sporting performance, thus underlining the significance it plays in allowing athletes of all ages and experience levels to unlock their potential.

Emotional intelligence and the ability to manage emotions on the track, court, or field is one of the greatest tools any athlete can possess in their arsenal. After all, sports can deliver some of the most emotionally charged moments in our lives. Whether it’s the elation of scoring a late touchdown, the frustration that a teammate has let you down, or the anger linked to poor officiating doesn’t matter. An athlete’s ability to process the emotions will encourage a range of benefits, including but not limited to;

  • Promoting intrinsic motivation and the desire to improve,
  • Promoting integrated motivation and the alignment of personal values,
  • Staying positive, which is statistically shown to influence athletic performance and can even reduce the risk of injury,
  • Supporting mental toughness and other aspects of a “winner’s mindset”,
  • Supporting an athlete’s technical understanding and interactions with teammates.

Conversely, as explained by experts at physcologytoday.com, “emotions are often strong and can be troublesome when they linger and hurt your performances for a long period of time” when an athlete displays a lower level of EI and can cause individuals to lose their “prime intensity”.

How to encourage emotional intelligence

While there has been significant debates about nature versus nurture in relation to Emotional Intelligence, most sports coaches will tell you that it is possible to help athletes develop increased EI for the sporting arena – whether that can subsequently support athletes away from a sporting environment is another question altogether.

The importance of EI and a strong mental mindset is clear. There was once a social stigma attached to mental health, particularly in sporting circles. However, as per apa.org, there has been a growing demand for psychologists in the professional ranks with 27 of the 30 MLB franchises hiring them in 2018. Since then, the growth has been reflected in MLS, the NBA, the NHL, and the NFL. While EI isn’t the only reason, it is one of the important factors.

Even if sports psychologists are unavailable, coaches and parents can support student-athletes. The key factors to consider are;

  • Developing a greater understanding of emotions before, during, and after a game. This can be achieved with support from the Mood Meter App by Yale.
  • Processing and expressing emotions. Journaling is a great starting point. Over time, athletes can learn to process the information in real-time rather than after the event.
  • Actively learning to listen to feedback from players, coaches, parents, and even opponents. Retaining the info without being emotionally affected is vital.
  • Practising self-awareness to the point where they are also aware of how their actions impact teammates and others. Only 15% have this, so it can give them the edge.
  • Visualizing success through goal-setting but additionally making mental preparations for bad decisions and potential setbacks.

Emotional Intelligence will help an athlete engage with situations and their surrounding teammates. When combined with talent and hard work, greater success is assured.

“The mental game is the entire game. The physical is only an extension of what you’re capable of doing mentally.”

 Phil Davis. Former UFC Fighter