Emotional Reactivity

Participants in sports and other performance settings routinely encounter emotionally salient cues or  stimuli  that  can  affect  the  quality  and  enjoyment of the activity. Given the emphasis placed on consistently  performing  at  a  high  level,  researchers,  coaches,  consultants,  and  practitioners  have sought to better understand how athletes and other performers  respond  to  various  affective  states. A  myriad  of  factors  contribute  to  successful  performance,  but  emotional  states  directly  influence motivation,  attention,  and  movement  execution. In some instances, emotional information must be attended to perform optimally. Other times, emotions precipitate internal and external distractions that should be ignored. In either case, the period of  emotional  reactivity  following  the  onset  of  a stimulus  is  critical  to  performance.  Information regarding  emotional  reactions  and  the  ability  to regulate  them  during  competition  is  ultimately used to develop practice and performance recommendations that ensure peak performance. In this entry  the  focus  is  on  reactivity;  other  entries  in this  encyclopedia  address  the  ability  to  regulate emotions once they are elicited.


Emotions  are  holistic  phenomena,  involving  both subjective appraisals of affective stimuli and overt physiological  changes  that  prepare  the  body  to interact  with  the  environment.  While  moods  can be  considered  a  general  averaging  of  affective states  over  a  period  of  time,  emotions  are  comparatively  brief  reactions.  By  preparing  the  body to move, emotions motivate behaviors and actions toward  desired  goals  and  away  from  undesirable situations.  In  sport,  these  motivations  can  be  to score a goal, win a championship, or avoid injury, among  others.  In  exercise  settings,  emotions  can motivate individuals to adhere to an exercise program, or to attain new personal records. Emotions can be self-initiated or externally generated. They can  also  exist  in  the  period  preceding  a  performance or spontaneously erupt during competition. Finally, emotional responses are influenced by situational demands and individual traits. Historically, self-report  indices  have  been  relied  on  to  assess emotional  reactivity  in  the  sport  psychology  literature,  but  a  more  comprehensive  assessment  of emotional  reactivity  can  be  obtained  through  a conjunctive  evaluation  of  three  primary  response systems: subjective feelings, physiological arousal, and behavioral indices.

Reactivity: Self-Reported Feelings

Self-reports  assess  an  athlete’s  subjective  feeling  states  prior  to,  during,  or  after  competition. Although  a  wide  array  of  emotions  can  be  experienced  in  a  performance  scenario,  anxiety  is  the most  commonly  measured  emotion  among  sport and  exercise  psychologists.  Anxiety  can  be  measured at a dispositional (or trait level) and a competition  (or  state)  level.  The  State-Trait  Anxiety Inventory (STAI) is a popular general measure of trait and state anxiety. Sport specific measures of trait  like  the  Sport  Anxiety  Scale-2  (SAS-2)  and state  anxiety  like  the  Competitive  State  Anxiety Inventory-2 Revised (CSAI-2R) are also common. General  and  sport-specific  self-reports  differentiate  anxiety  into  both  somatic  (bodily  symptoms) and  cognitive  (worrying  thoughts)  components. For  example,  the  CSAI-2R  assesses  the  degree  to which an athlete has bodily feelings of tension or stomach  sinking.  Additionally,  athletes  state  how concerned or confident they are about performing well. Such questionnaires provide a more detailed individual  profile  of  emotional  reactivity.  Sport psychologists also study specific emotions, such as anger, joy, and multidimensional concepts such as passion.  Self-reports  are  not  the  only  method  of determining  emotional  responses.  Questionnaires are often used alongside physiological measures to quantify the relative pleasantness and motivational direction of perceived emotions with physiological changes in arousal.

Reactivity: Physiological Arousal

Emotions  are  psychophysiological  phenomena, resulting  from  the  interaction  between  environmental  stimulation  and  neurochemical  communication  between  sympathetic  and  parasympathetic divisions  of  the  body,  such  as  circulatory,  respiratory,  integumentary,  nervous,  and  muscular. A  limitation  of  self-report  measures  is  that  they only  provide  subjective  perceptions  of  emotional arousal, and these perceptions do not always coincide with actual changes in arousal. Physiological measures  of  reactivity  are  aimed  at  quantifying  those  changes.  Sport  and  exercise  inherently increases  physiological  arousal,  explaining  why many athletes cannot accurately describe changes in their arousal due solely to emotional responses. The   most   common   measure   of   physiological arousal  is  heart  rate  (HR),  because  of  the  ease of  collection,  measurement  reliability,  and  being a  noninvasive  measure.  Additional  measures  of physiological arousal, such as electrodermal activity (EDA), electromyography (EMG), and electroencephalography (EEG), use surface electrodes to assess changes in voltage across or under the skin. EDA and EMG measure changes in voltage related to  skin  conductivity  or  motor  unit  activation respectively,  while  EEG  measures  the  frequency of  cortical  activity  across  the  skull.  EEG  activity  can  be  summed  to  relate  changes  in  emotion with  activation  of  brain  areas  known  to  involve arousal, attention, and cognitive processes. Finally, brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic  resonance  imaging  (fMRI)  are  emerging  as viable methods to assess brain regions involved in emotional reactivity and regulation.

Reactivity: Behavioral Modification

Self-report  and  physiological  measures  can  be used in conjunction to establish changes in arousal following  an  emotional  experience,  but  behavioral  responses  are  the  most  proximal  predictors of  overall  performance.  The  most  overt  index  of behavioral  reactivity  is  how  the  emotional  experience  manifests  in  athletes’  movements.  From  a movement  perspective,  emotions  can  impact  how quickly  we  perform  a  task,  the  amount  of  muscle  tension  or  cocontraction  in  agonist  muscles, the  smoothness  of  movement,  and  error  from movement   targets.   Another   behavioral   index of  emotional  reactivity  is  gaze  related  behaviors (eye  movements),  which  are  linked  to  changes in  attention  and  effort.  In  both  sport  and  other performance  environments,  attention  to  the  right situational information at the right time is crucial to  performance.  Emotions  alter  both  preferences in  the  visual  field  and  the  length  of  visual  fixations.  In  sports,  where  decisions  and  subsequent movements must be made in a quick and efficient manner, changes in gaze behaviors can have a significant  impact  on  performance.  Another  important  gaze  behavior  which  is  affected  by  emotion is  the  quiet  eye  period.  Quiet  eye  is  the  duration between  the  last  fixation  to  the  target  and  the onset  of  movement.  Longer  quiet  eye  duration  is associated  with  expertise  and  improved  performance,  but  emotions  have  been  shown  to  reduce this period, negatively impacting performance.


Emotions  affect  what  we  attend  to  and  the  way we move, which affects how well we are capable of  playing  sports  and  performing  other  physical  activities.  How  we  move  can  also  impact  the emotions  we  experience  and  our  motivation  to continue to participate in sport, exercise, and performance settings. Emotional reactions, therefore, play a critical role in sport performance and are a central focus of sport psychology interventions.


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  2. Cox, R. H., Martens, M. P., & Russell, W. D. (2003). Measuring anxiety in athletics: The Revised Competitive State Anxiety Inventory2. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 25, 519–533.
  3. Smith, R. E., Smoll, F. L., Cumming, S. P., & Grossbard, J. R. (2006). Measurement of multidimensional sport performance anxiety in children and adults: The Sport Anxiety Scale-2. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 28, 479–501.
  4. Spielberger, C. D. (1983). State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for adults sampler set: Manual, test, scoring key. Redwood City, CA: Mind Garden.
  5. Vickers, J. N., & Williams, A. M. (2007). Performing under pressure: The effects of physiological arousal, cognitive anxiety, and gaze control in biathlon. Journal of Motor Behavior, 39, 381–394.

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