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Emotion and Execution In Sport

Among the Lakedaemonians, it is considered a matter of indifference of whom and in what the enemy consists. The Spartans are schooled to regard the foe, any foe, as nameless and faceless. In their minds it is the mark of an ill-prepared and amateur army to rely in the moments before battle on what they call pseudoandreia, false courage, meaning the artificially inflated martial frenzy produced by a general’s eleventh-hour harangue or some peak of bronze-banging bravado built to by shouting, shield-pounding and the like. In Alexandros’ mind, which already at age fourteen mirrored that of the generals of his city, one Syrakusan was as good as the next, one enemy strategos no different from another. Let the foe be Mantinean, Olynthian, Epidaurian; let him come in elite units or hordes of shrieking rabble, crack citizen regiments or foreign mercenaries hired for gold. It made no difference. None was a match for the warriors of Lakedaemon, and all knew it.

This quote, taken from Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a fictional account of the Battle of Thermopylae, speaks to the professionalism for which the Spartan military is commonly lauded.  As Pressfield would have it, their skill and high level of execution, not bravado and fury, is what differentiated the Spartans from less professional soldiers.  The Spartans did not have to personalize their enemies to artificially create a sense of purpose because the profession of soldiering was intrinsically meaningful.  In sport, however, athletes are often celebrated for “playing with emotion” or “playing with passion”, an appealing albeit incomplete narrative.  This concept likely resonates with us because like grit, discussed here, it suggests that the more we care, the better we’ll perform.  Athletes who display little emotion during games are often assumed to be disinterested or unmotivated.

Emotion is concentrated in particular regions of the brain that act in concert with other areas of the brain, not in isolation.  Neuroscientists reason that our superior capacity for emotion affords us an evolutionary advantage over other organisms.  Emotions facilitate learning and memory formation.  One is more likely to recall the details of his/her wedding or the birth of a child relative to a less emotionally charged event.  More importantly, emotions allowed our ancestors to associate environmental triggers with danger or reward, thereby developing pattern recognition.  Pattern recognition allows us to make rapid decisions during stressful situations where the cost of indecision can be catastrophic or even grave.  Pattern recognition can be prejudicial because we often stereotype the environment to expedite decisions at the expense of accuracy.  As crazy as it sounds, prejudice and bias are adaptive even though they compromise relatively recent human concerns like social justice.  The adaptive value of emotion enabled us to optimize our biology and our behavior in an evolutionarily productive manner.  Uniquely human cultural phenomena like literature, film, and dance are also heavily influenced by our ability to capture and recreate emotion.

There is no creativity without emotion.

However, the way that emotion is described and encouraged in sport is often inconsistent with this evolutionary framework.

In sport, “playing with emotion” is frequently maladaptive and interferes with sound decision making.  In the context of high performance (e.g. any field in which specific outcomes are desirable relative to others), there is nothing unique about the influence of emotion in sport.  Since, in sport, the concept of playing with emotion is more intuitive than scientific, it can be difficult to operationally define.  We can identify playing with emotion when we see it even if we can’t articulate it very well so however unsatisfying, our intuition must suffice for discussion’s sake.  In sport, reacting emotionally disproportionately to events that occur during a game can result in tangible harm to the team, like a technical foul in basketball or an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in football.  This harm is something we can quantify in the form of points, loss of possession, changes in field position, loss of down, and the like.  Often, athletes who commit these types of infractions are repeat offenders but their poor behavior is justified by the assumption that these players need to arouse themselves to the point of irritability to perform well.

Personalizing one’s opponent and the pseudo honor culture that permeates the sporting world likely contribute to emotional overreactions in sport.  Imagine a scenario during which an offensive player in football is hit out of bounds while the defensive player utters a slur synonymous with weakness.  If being a “football player” is what it’s advertised to be then surely the construct is not so fragile that it can be invalidated by a few words.  There are a number of ways the offensive player could react to the late hit out of bounds by the defender but physically retaliating or verbally escalating the situation in an effort to preserve one’s sense of honor or to save face are among the least constructive options.  This scenario is not theoretical but one that occurs time and again in sport.  We have no way of demonstrating that even a proportionally physical or verbal response from the offensive player is needed to motivate him to perform better.  We do know, however, that such a response would likely squander 15 yards in field position from what would have been strictly an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the defense.

We often hear that (insert sport of choice) is an emotional game and while that may be true, it doesn’t mean that some athletes wouldn’t benefit from a little restraint.  Sometimes, restraint is necessary to maximize the potential for favorable outcomes.  An emergency room physician trying to resuscitate a child in cardiac arrest does not have the luxury of succumbing to his/her emotional whims.  A military or law enforcement tactical team should not overly personalize an adversary from which it is attempting to free a hostage.  A pilot who must make an emergency landing to salvage the lives of the crew must adhere to procedure despite great emotional duress.

If only Sully were more emotional on the radio…

If the emergency room physician, tactical operator, and pilot can maintain their composure when lives are at stake so too can athletes who play sports they deem to be emotional.

Restraint is trainable.  During urban marksmanship training in the military, instructors sometimes create a paper target scenario during which an innocent looking woman points a gun to the head of somebody who looks like a “terrorist”.  Early on in training, it is not uncommon for even highly skilled operatives to shoot the person whose appearance conforms to our bias of what a terrorist is supposed to look like.  Western cultures typically associate women with innocence.  In a hostage rescue situation, the decision to shoot or not shoot the women can’t occur on a conscious level because time is of the essence; there is no “thinking”, just reacting.  In this hypothetical scenario, associating woman with innocence, something that may have been adaptive in many other contexts, contributed to a fatal error.  Through training, military and law enforcement tactical teams learn to “focus on the hands” instead of personalizing the threat.  The location of the firearm itself becomes the basis from which a new memory pattern can be formulated.

Focusing on execution and preparedness need not diminish the joy of the game.  On the contrary, intrinsically meaningful fulfillment is undermined by unnecessarily contentious behavior that can adversely affect outcomes.  Winning is always more fun than losing.  The conflict that really matters is the one that occurs between two teams within the field of play.  The concept of emotion in sport is too complex to suggest that the answers can be found here.  However, sporting professionals should recognize that playing with emotion isn’t always something that should be heedlessly encouraged.  Like any physiological parameter, emotion is probably something that works best inside a range that remains within homeostatic reach.  Allowing oneself to end up too far rightward is no less dangerous than the opposite condition.

The Excellence of Execution, Bret “The Hitman” Hart,
​surely had fun finishing his opponents off with a Sharpshooter…