Emotional feelings are fundamental aspects of human experience. In sport, emotions have powerful influences on athletes’ thoughts and actions. The study and explanation of emotions in sport is difficult because there are many ongoing controversies and disagreements. Most theorists would agree, however, that emotions have motivational and regulatory functions, and that there is an interface of emotional feeling with cognitions and behavior in many adolescent and adult experiences. Psychologist Carroll E. Izard has forwarded a theory of emotion, called differential emotion theory (DET), which attempts to explain how emotional feelings and cognitions interact to influence the self-regulation of plans and actions. In DET, Izard proposed there are clear distinctions between basic or primary emotions and emotional schema. Basic emotions require only minimal lower order cognitions, whereas emotional schemas involve both emotional feelings and typically higher order cognitions in a dynamic interaction.
To understand emotional schema, which Izard believes involves most emotional experiences, it is necessary to briefly discuss emotional feeling of basic emotions. Basic emotions arise in infancy and are modified throughout childhood, adolescence, and adult development. These basic emotions, such as joy and happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear, are thought to be principally a product of specific neural circuits in “old brain” systems (e.g., amygdala, basal ganglia, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula) that support a distinct feeling. These feeling states have distinct properties that serve to motivate behavior. Basic emotions occur primarily in infancy and are triggered rapidly and automatically by evolutionary meaningful stimuli.
Emotion schemas occur when the motivational and cue-producing emotion feeling interacts with cognitions to influence thought, actions, and sometimes other emotions. Emotion schemas may be triggered by simple or highly complex cognitive evaluation (appraisal) processes and always involve higher order cognitions, such as memories and thoughts connected to self-concept, values, and beliefs. As such, the developments of emotional schemas are highly influenced by the acquisition of language and social cognitive development.
Specific emotional feelings are associated with specific emotional schemas within a person. For example, feelings of fear activate fear-related cognitions and actions but not cognitions and actions related to joy. However, the actual thoughts and actions of an emotional schema in a particular context can vary widely across individuals because of individual differences in personality, culture, learning, and self-concept.
Emotional schemas help explain the great variety of emotional reactions seen within and across sport. Emotional feelings are often triggered by the athlete’s appraisal of the personal and social meaningfulness of the situation. Although personal and social meaningfulness may be shared by athletes, there are differences among athletes even within a team because of their different social histories. The emotional feelings triggered within a particular context interact with higher order cognitions to produce plans and actions. The emotional feeling and associated emotional schemas can also trigger a cascade of physiological responses associated with the emotion process. However, the emotion schema can create a number of emotion-specific experiences that have the same core emotion feeling but have different thoughts and actions. Because of individual differences, culture, and learning, the same situation may activate an emotion feeling state in one athlete but not another. Even if the same emotion feeling is activated in two athletes, differences in higher order cognitions, such as evaluations of consequences, values, expectations, and coping options, will result in a qualitatively different emotional schema.
The complexity of emotional schemas is revealed in the example of a fear-related emotional schema in a high-performance gymnast attempting to perform a difficult routine on a balance beam. The routine involves two back flips on the beam followed by a double back somersault dismount. Years of skilled training has allowed the athlete to overcome the initial fear feeling state often associated with performing a potentially dangerous skilled action. High self-efficacy for the specific task allows the athlete to appraise the skill as challenging. However, a bad fall resulting in pain, but no serious injury, results in many of her teammates telling her of their surprise that she was not seriously hurt. She freezes upon mounting the beam the next time she attempts the routine, with the memory of the fall, pain, and comments of her teammates triggering a very rapid and automatic emotional feeling of fear. The emotional feeling is associated with high arousal and the urge to flee. The emotional feeling is quickly integrated with higher order cognitions, such as the importance of being a high-performance athlete, beliefs of overcoming fear, evaluations of skill, but also the consequences of falling and images of other gymnasts being seriously injured. These conflicting higher order emotions result in continuing experiences of fear and a less than desirable action plan. She begins the routine but bails out after the first back flip and dismounts. Successive attempts produce similar fear emotional schema, resulting in either freezing behavior or incomplete routines.
Sport-specific culture and social learning also help explain why some participants within a sport may share similar emotional schemas to a specific emotion-provoking situation. For example, some professional baseball managers emotionally react to perceived poor calls by umpires in a very sport-specific ritualistic manner, such as standing toe to toe and arguing with the umpire or kicking dirt over bases. These actions would seldom, if ever, be demonstrated by coaches in a sport like volleyball.
It is rare in the sport psychology literature to see any distinction between emotion and emotional schema. Many sport researchers have investigated joy, pride, interest, anger, anxiety, guilt, and shame but seldom examine the integration of emotional feeling and higher order cognitions. From a DET perspective, it is important to distinguish basic emotions from emotion schemas. Basic emotions typically only occur in infancy and motivate rapid actions that are in response to evolutionary defined survival situations. These emotions are of short duration and highly adaptive. After infancy, emotional experience is increasingly defined by emotion schemas. Schemas may have a brief duration or continue for a longer time course. Schema can continue through a long duration because of the role of higher order processes like reflection and rumination that continue to trigger emotional feelings. The interface of emotional feeling and higher order cognitions is critical to athlete functioning since the cognitive component is intimately part of the emotional experience and is involved in formulating plans and actions. From an applied perspective, understanding the interacting features of emotional feelings and higher order cognitions within an athlete will allow practitioners to develop effective emotional utilization and emotional self-regulation strategies.
- Izard, C. E. (2007). Basic emotions, natural kinds, emotion schemas, and a new paradigm. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 260–279.
- Izard, C. E. (2009). Emotion theory and research highlights, unanswered questions and emerging issues. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 1–25.
- Izard, C. E., Woodburn, E. M., Finlon, K. J., KrauthamerEwing, E. S., Grossman, S. R., & Seidenfeld, A. (2011). Emotion knowledge, emotion utilization, and emotion regulation. Emotion Review, 3, 44–52.