Sports Emotions


Emotion  is  a  central  feature  of  many  sporting events. Athletes, as well as supporters, can experience many emotions, including joy, sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, shame or guilt, and pride. Most emotion theorists argue that emotions have the power to motivate and regulate cognitions and behaviors in  sport.  To  understand  the  antecedents,  experience,  and  consequences  of  emotions,  theorists have  attempted  to  classify  emotions  into  various categories.  One  central  question  is  whether  some emotions should be considered basic. That is, are some emotions fundamental to human experience? To  answer  this  question,  it  is  important  to  consider  the  criteria  to  identify  such  basic  emotions, the functions of basic emotions, and whether basic emotions be modified by social learning.

The  discussion  about  basic  emotions  is  challenging because there is much disagreement among emotion  theorists  on  many  critical  issues.  Some theorists believe basic emotions are linked to evolutionary  development  (phylogeny),  whereas  others hold that emotions are social constructions and reflect only social learning through shared experiences across cultures and the past history of the per- son  (ontogeny).  These  views,  of  course,  influence the criteria used to identify basic emotions. There are others, however, who reject the notion of basic emotions all together. Rather than address all these competing  perspectives,  this  entry  will  attempt  to capture the key features of basic emotions that are common  to  several  prominent  theorists,  such  as Paul  Ekman,  Robert  Levenson,  Robert  Plutchik, and Carroll Izard. For alternative views, the reader is directed to publications by Andrew Ortony and Terence Turner, and by Jesse Prinz.

Criteria for Basic Emotions

sports-emotionsBasic  emotion  theorists  tend  to  agree  on  a  number  of  central  criteria  for  basic  emotions:  They have been shaped by evolutionary history; they are associated  with  subcortical  brain  structures;  they are  triggered  by  prototypical  evolutionary  meaningful  stimuli;  they  have  a  rapid  onset  with  limited higher order cognitive involvement; they have potentially adaptive functions based on evolutionary  needs;  and  they  have  specific  neural,  expressive, and physiological mechanisms. For example, Robert Levenson has argued that for emotions to be considered basic, they must meet three general criteria. First, basic emotions have distinct behavioral,  expressive,  and  physiological  responses. Second, basic emotions are hardwired in the brain, although the emotion systems are plastic, such that learning over the lifespan may modify and enhance the emotional response. Third, basic emotions have specific functionality, in that each emotion is triggered by an affect program that rapidly recognizes a survival-critical situation and produces an action to enhance survival. Paul Ekman, a leading figure on basic emotion theory and research, has identified numerous criteria that are generally consistent with  Levenson’s  three  general  criteria.  The  criteria for basic emotions according to Ekman include distinctive universal signals, distinctive physiology, automatic appraisals, distinctive universals in antecedent events, presence in other primates, capable of  quick  onset,  brief  duration,  unbidden  occurrence,  distinctive  thought  memories  and  images, and distinctive subjective experiences.

Identifying which specific emotions are basic is challenging because not all the criteria are readily testable  in  humans;  nor  do  theorists  agree  on  all criteria.  Thus,  it  is  not  surprising  the  number  of emotions and specific emotions identified by various theorists ranges greatly, and theorists may even add or delete emotions from their lists over time. Carroll  Izard  identified  seven  basic  or  primary emotions, for example, whereas Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions in 1972 (but expanded his list  to  15  emotions  in  1999).  Overall,  there  seem to  be  five  discrete  emotions—fear,  happiness  and joy,  sadness,  anger,  and  disgust—that  most  theorists agree upon and include on their lists of basic emotions.  Other  commonly  identified  basic  emotions are contempt, surprise, and interest. Ekman makes the argument that each basic emotion term should be viewed as being part of a basic emotion family; thus there are many emotions that could be considered basic in his view. For example, sadness would include terms such as distress and anguish within its emotion family.

Do Basic Emotions Have Adaptive Motivational Features in Sport?

To  determine  whether  basic  emotions  have  adaptive motivational features in sport, we need to con- sider if the behavioral and physiological responses associated with each emotion can be regulated by higher order cognitions and whether social learning can modify the antecedent triggers and behavioral  responses.  Most  emotion  theorists  believe that the emotion process can be modified by social learning and can be regulated by higher order cognitive functioning. Carroll Izard suggests that basic or  primary  emotions  are  only  present  in  infants and that most emotional experience in youth and adults is governed by emotional schema involving an interface between emotion and cognitive brain structures. Others such as Ekman believe that basic emotions exist across the lifespan but are modified by  the  life  experiences  of  the  person.  He  believes that  learning  can  change  aspects  of  the  emotion process  like  antecedent  triggers  and  behavioral expression,  and  that  cognition  helps  regulate  the emotion  response.  Ekman,  however,  believes  that such learning would be biologically primed by the basic emotions. Fear, for example, should be triggered  by  prototypical  stimuli  that  result  in  rapid automatic  appraisal  and  trigger  an  evolutionary response—specific  facial  expression,  high  physiological arousal, blood shunting away from hand and toward legs, urge to flee. Through experience and  observations,  athletes  can  learn  that  certain situations,  such  as  falling  off  a  gymnastic  beam, facing  large  and  powerful  opponents,  skiing  icy steep slopes with surrounding cliffs, or trying to hit a 95 mph fastball are dangerous. These stimuli can become  incorporated  into  the  evolutionary  affect program as prototypical events for fear, although the  way  in  which  this  occurs  is  not  clear.  Thus, these  stimuli  can  rapidly  trigger  a  fear  response. The  interface  of  the  basic  emotion  system  with higher level cognitive systems, however, can either enhance or inhibit the emotion response. The fear emotion  can  activate  fear-related  memories  and learned behaviors, thus increasing the strength of the fear response. Conversely, higher order cognitions can also activate a number of potential coping  strategies  that  help  regulate  the  fear  response as  well  as  formulate  solutions  to  manage  the  situation.  It  should  be  noted  that  the  fear  response may not be maladaptive, especially if it causes ath- letes to flee or avoid a situation that exceeds their resources and endangers their lives.

Basic  emotions  may  have  constructive  and destructive functions in sport. Emotions can influence short-term individual performance, as well as persistence and engagement over time. Basic emotions can be rapidly triggered with minimal aware- ness, so specific emotional responses might interfere with  effective  performance  through  disruptive effects  on  physiological,  motoric,  and  cognitive functioning. Moreover, the basic emotion response may  overwhelm  higher  order  cognitive  functioning  when  a  situation  is  extreme.  The  inability  to override  or  reduce  the  responses  to  specific  basic emotions may even cause the athlete to attack opponents, coaches, officials, or even fans. The news is replete with many examples of athletes losing emotional  control.  On  the  other  hand,  basic  emotion responses  may  facilitate  performance  under  some conditions  when  the  behavioral  and  physiological responses augment the necessary resources needed for  success.  Motivational  research  also  suggests that participation in sport is facilitated by positive emotions,  such  as  happiness,  joy,  and  enjoyment. Many motivational models used in sport consider the  impact  of  basic  emotions,  such  as  happiness and  sadness,  along  with  related  emotional  states, such as enjoyment and interest.

Basic  emotions  are  also  important  in  social functioning in sport because they can signal significant information to others. Repeated expression of basic emotions, such as happiness, joy, and anger, in specific sport situations, allows others to under- stand  what  sport  situations  are  important.  Social functioning in sport also depends on the ability to recognize  basic  emotions  in  others  such  as  team- mates, opponents, coaches, and fans. For example, when an athlete is angry, with corresponding facial and  bodily  (and  maybe  voice)  expression  signals, others are alerted to not only the potential reasons for  the  anger  but  also  to  potential  consequences. Others begin to regulate their behavior in response to the anger. Athletes can, however, learn to inhibit signals, as the demonstration of specific emotions may  not  be  socially  appropriate  or  may  interfere with sport performance. Athletes can also learn to send false signals. German sport researcher Dieter Hackfort  has  written  about  how  athletes  show, hide, or fake emotions for multiple reasons, such as to influence officials and fans, deceive or irritate opponents, and motivate teammates.

Research, as well as anecdotal evidence in sport, generally supports the basic tenets associated with basic  emotions.  Happiness  and  joy  are  associated  with  the  attainment  of  important  goals  and the  demonstration  of  competence.  When  happy, athletes are more likely to smile and embrace significant others. Loss is more likely to lead to sad- ness,  with  tell-tale  facial  expressions,  occasional crying,  initial  behavioral  isolation,  and  the  urge to  seek  comfort  from  others.  Anger  is  generated by the frustration of important goals. Expressions include flushed face, furled brow, lips curled back to  expose  teeth,  increased  heart  rate  and  blood pressure, and the urge to attack. Fear is triggered by  the  appraisal  of  impending  danger  related  to physical or psychological harm. Athletes are more likely to behaviorally freeze and tremble or engage in disengagement (flight) behaviors. Obvious physical reactions also can include increased respiration and perspiration, combined with facial expressions of eyes open, eyebrows raised, and mouth slightly open. In extreme cases of fear, bowel and bladder emptying may occur. For the last of the commonly agreed upon basic emotions (i.e., disgust), there is neither  much  empirical  research  nor  much  anecdotal evidence in sport.

Although basic emotions are likely to be hard- wired,  there  is  no  doubt  that  social  learning  and culture  (and  sporting  culture)  has  a  large  impact on the appraisal and expression of basic emotions. Anger  is  a  classic  example.  Anger  is  not  always triggered by goal frustration that threatens the self either  psychologically  or  physically  but  can  also involve rapid evaluation of whether the offending other  is  violating  normative  rules  and  has  control over the offending behavior. For example, an athlete  may  feel  anger  toward  an  opponent  who appears  to  be  cheating  and  violating  the  normative rules of the game. Even if the initial neural or physiological  components  of  anger  are  initiated, the  expression  can  also  be  modulated  by  higher cognitive  processes.  These  cognitions  can  include evaluation of who was to blame (self: internalized anger;  other:  externalized  anger),  coping  potential  (what  actions  are  possible?),  and  acceptable actions (determined by general and sport culture). The  influence  of  higher  order  cognitions  in  the basic emotion process helps to explain individual differences  as  well  as  differences  across  sports. These  higher  order  cognitions  explain  why  an athlete may try to ignore the cheating opponent’s behavior,  or  may  instead  tell  the  coach  or  the referee  about  the  opponent’s  apparent  cheating, resisting the urge to directly attack the opponent.


The study of basic emotions is full of controversy. For those who support the existence of basic emotions,  there  is  a  general  consensus  that  they  are rooted in evolutionary history, are associated with subcortical  brain  structures,  and  have  important motivational functions. Basic emotional processes are influenced over the lifespan by social learning, with higher order cognitions influencing emotional response and emotional regulation. Basic emotions can  facilitate  or  hinder  performance  and  social functioning in sport. Athletes can learn to regulate the  expression  of  basic  emotions,  but  such  regulation can be overwhelmed in extreme situations. Understanding  how  social  learning  is  integrated into  the  brain  mechanisms  regulating  basic  emotion has critical implication for emotional regulation interventions.


  1. Crocker, P. R. E., Kowalski, K., Hoar, S., & McDonough, M. (2004). Emotions in sport across adulthood. In M. Weiss (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective (pp. 333–356). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
  2. Ekman, P. (1999). Basic emotions. In T. Dalgleish & M. Power (Eds.), Handbook of cognition and emotion (pp. 45–60). West Sussex, UK: Wiley.
  3. Ekman, P., & Cordaro, D. (2011). What is meant by calling emotions basic. Emotion Review, 3, 364–371.
  4. Hackfort, D. (1993). Functional attributions to emotions in sport. In J. R. Nitsch & R. Seiler (Eds.), Movement in sport: Psychological foundations and effects. Proceedings of the VIIIth European Congress of Sport Psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 143–149). Sandt Augustin, Germany: Academic Verlag.
  5. Hanin, Y. L. (2000). Emotions in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  6. Izard, C. E. (2011). Forms and functions of emotions: Matters of emotion-cognition interactions. Emotion Review, 3, 371–378.
  7. Levenson, R. W. (2011). Basic emotion questions. Emotion Review, 3, 379–386.
  8. Ortony, A., & Turner, T. J. (1990). What’s basic about basic emotions? Psychological Review, 97, 315–331.
  9. Prinz, J. (2004). Which emotions are basic? In P. Cruise & D. Evans (Eds.), Emotion, evolution and rationality (pp. 69–87). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

See also: