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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