Suppressing emotions ‘significantly affects endurance’

Athletes who want to win need to stop bottling up their feelings, says new research

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Strong evidence suggests that burying your feelings before a race can affect your ability to think clearly and results in poorer endurance performance, according to a new study from the University of Portsmouth.

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“Sports people frequently have to control their emotions in the run-up to and during competition, but this appears to significantly reduce the level at which they perform,” said Dr Chris Wagstaff, one of the researchers involved in the project. “Their thought processes are diminished, they put in less effort and they feel more tired than when they aren’t asked to hide what they’re feeling.

“We all know the feeling of having to sometimes hide our thoughts and feelings. It can make us feel exhausted, and because sportspeople operate in a result-driven goldfish bowl, the demands for suppression are particularly high. To protect sporting performance, it’s important that those who manage and organise sportspeople should avoid exposing them to tasks which demand emotion regulation close to competing.”

Heavy emotional load

The researchers added that some of the activities likely to put a heavy emotional load on athletes include media interviews, meeting fans, or trying to suppress feelings of anxiety, anger or disgust. For the study, they decided to show test subjects a three-minute video designed to elicit a strong feeling of disgust, in which a woman throws up and then eats her own vomit.

The 20 test subjects were split into three groups, with one sample told to suppress any emotions evoked by the video they were about to watch, another sample not told to hide their feelings while watching the video, and a third test sample were not shown the video.

Participants then cycled 10km as fast as they could, with interesting results: those who had suppressed their feelings watching the video were measurably less able to think clearly, and performed the worst.

Triathlete practising transitions

All participants were tested in all three conditions and after just three minutes of having to self-regulate their emotion, they were slower at cycling, generated less power, had a lower heart rate and thought they had worked much harder than they actually had compared to when they were not asked to control their emotions or when they hadn’t watched the video.

No differences were found between the conditions where participants watched the video without being told to suppress their emotion and where they didn’t watch the video.

Dr Wagstaff said: “It is notable that those asked to suppress their emotions had a significantly lower maximum heart rate. This appears to indicate that people who are suppressing emotion are less willing or less able to put their all into the task. They also feel more tired, even though they had put in less effort.”

The research by Dr Wagstaff and his team has been published in the current issue of Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

(Images: British Triathlon / Jonny Gawler)

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