Monday, October 4, 2010

Education and Deep Breathing to Control Emotional Irregularity

What:  Matt, a talented junior tennis player in my tennis camp, is displaying many emotional ups and downs during his matches, and they are inhibiting his overall potential.  The behaviors include getting upset at calls, his own personal errors, and even when he’s doing well he appears to be “on edge,” especially in big matches.  As many of us have seen portrayed in the media, and in real life, young athletes may be especially hard on themselves when they are expected to be exceptional.  It is crucial for Matt to overcome these emotional ups and downs in order for him to become a more competent and skilled tennis player and to avoid burnout and injury.

So What:  Gill and Williams (2008) discuss the importance of emotional control and managing ones stress in their textbook.  If Matt’s emotional ups and downs are not soon addressed his potential for a successful career could come to an abrupt end very soon. According to Gill and Williams (2008) physiological arousal and cognitive worry go hand in hand, and along with increased cognitive worry comes lower self-confidence.  Things associated with physiological arousal include: a focus on rapid breathing instead of a focus on performance, high anxiety in which unnecessary muscles and energy are used, and perceived stress which leads to poor coping behaviors. In Matt’s situation it is unclear whether his high physiological arousal causes his cognitive worry to increase, or if the cognitive worry causes his physiological arousal to increase.  What is important is that if one is decreased (physiological arousal), there is a good chance the other will decrease as well (cognitive worry).  If Matt is able to control his physiological arousal and his cognitive worry, this may lead to higher self-confidence, he will be less distracted on his arousal and more focused on his performance, and hopefully Matt will be able to play to his potential.  If Matt continues to display the behaviors previously mentioned, he will continue to have stress and the risk for injury will be increased, or burnout may occur; both of which may end his career prematurely. 

Now What:  Goodger, Gorely, Lavallee, and Harwood (2007) state that “it is typical for athletes experiencing burnout to be characterized by motivational loss shown as reduced intrinsic motivation or amotivation, a lack of enjoyment, possession of poor or ineffective coping skills, high perceived stress and anxiety…” (Goodger et al. p. 143).  Many of these characterizations of burnout appear to be displayed by Matt so as one of his coaches I need to do what I can to address these behaviors and emotions before they get the best of him. 
I would first start by educating Matt on his current situation and what his behaviors could result in.  It would be important not to be too hard on Matt and further frustrate or upset him, but to simply sit him down and explain to him the detrimental effects that stress and increased arousal has on athletes.  I would first teach Matt the importance of “emotional intelligence,” defined as “the ability to process emotion-laiden information competently and use it to guide cognitive activities such as problem solving and to focus energy on required behaviors” (Gill and Williams, p. 191).  If Matt understands the consequences of his increased arousal, according to step 2 of Smith’s Cognitive-Affective Stress Management Model, Matt will understand the rationale of controlling his emotions, thus making him more susceptible to accept and fully participate in training. 

Once Matt understands the benefits of being under control while on the court I would teach him the most basic form of stress management; breathing exercises.  If I believe that Matt begins his matches by getting to “psyched up” I may encourage him to take part in meditation prior to taking the court.  This would be a proactive way to settle Matt down physiologically.  A major part of meditation is breathing technique.  Breathing technique, according to Gill and Williams (2008), emphasizes slow, deep breathing and might be an effective way to initiate relaxation.  When Matt becomes angered about a call or error, it would be important for him to utilize breathing exercises to initiate relaxation and avoid increased physiological arousal.  If this is unsuccessful, I may teach Matt a progressive relaxation technique specific to tennis to help avoid tension in his muscles, reducing the risk of injury as well. 

If these simple techniques are ineffective in improving Matt’s emotions on the court, it may be time to implement a cognitive-behavioral stress management technique.  In order to do this, a clinical psychologist, who is both well trained and competent in his or her ability, should work with Matt.  The three main cognitive-behavioral stress management approaches, according to Gill and Williams (2008) are: Suinn’s Visuomotor Behavioral Rehearsal Technique, Smiths’ Cognitive-Affective Stress Management Model, and Emotinal Control for Anger and Aggression.  All three of these techniques have shown to be successful at some level to calm one’s physiological arousal and control aggressive emotions as well as stress.

Conclusion:  Both Gill and Williams (2008) and Goodger et al. (2007) discuss the danger that high physiological arousal, perceived anxiety and stress, poor coping skills, and cognitive worry can have on an athlete, especially in regards to burnout and injury.  If I were Matt’s coach at a tennis camp I would first educate him on the threat his behaviors and emotions are posing on his career.  Once he comes to realize the importance of maintaining his emotions I would teach him how to do simple meditation prior to matches, including deep breathing exercises to use before and during the match.  Whether these are effective or not, progressive relaxation techniques could be beneficial to help keep Matt’s muscles from experiencing excess tension.  If none of these techniques are successful, it may be time for a trained clinical psychologist to work with Matt in developing a cognitive-behavioral stress management technique to address his emotional irregularity.

Gill, D. L., & Williams, L. (2008). Psychological dynamics of sport and exercise (3rd Ed.). Champaign,   IL: Human Kinetics.

Goodger, K., Gorely, T., Lavalle, D., & Harwood, C. (2007). Burnout in sport: A systematic review. The Sport Psychologist, 21, 127-151.


  1. Nice outlook on helping Matt with his struggles. I liked the way of you sat him down and carefully, step-by-step took him took him through why being able to control emotion is so important. Also, being able to teach him not only how to cope, but also why it is so important that an athlete understands why emotional control is so important and having that ability to not allow stress and arousal levels to control his performance.

  2. Very nice artice i like how you when threw the proccess. I think breathing exercises will really help him. as alex said it;s good to teach him how to cope. he needs to learn how to cope or stress will control his performance. It's good to have a back up plan to send him to the pcychologist for cognitive-behavior modification. i thought this was a well thought out artical.

  3. I enjoyed reading your responnse to the proposed case study. Like you, I would first start by helping the athlte identifying the current situation and how his behaviors may effect his performance. I think you made a great point when you said "It would be important not to be too hard on Matt and further frustrate or upset him". I think this is extremely important, especially when working with junior high athletes. Again great response!