Emotional Schemas

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.


  1. Izard, C. E. (2007). Basic emotions, natural kinds, emotion schemas, and a new paradigm. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 260–279.
  2. Izard, C. E. (2009). Emotion theory and research highlights, unanswered questions and emerging issues. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 1–25.
  3. 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.

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