Do Your Athletes Know the Risks of Frustration?

Athletes can have a short fuse. When the game doesn’t go their way they get frustrated. Unfortunately, this frustration gets taken out on opponents, teammates, fans, officials, and equipment in aggressive ways. Depending on the team, this may be okay. What isn’t acceptable is letting frustration degrade performance. Help your athletes keep their emotions in check to perform their best.

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Unglued On Court

I’ve shared before about my hot-headedness on the tennis court. At the time I wasn’t familiar with mental training and consequently lacked the mental skills to perform my best.

One aspect of this was frustration. I was very susceptible to losing my temper and imploding.

My attention became consumed by the uncontrollable factors of the match. These were mere distractions that I allowed to get under my skin. I came unglued emotionally, and so did my game.

Frustration is a Detriment

It turns out I wasn’t alone. Over the years I’ve seen it again and again. While the factors that lead to a frustration response can be quite complex, I want to hone in on the repercussions to your athlete’s performance.

Frustration is an obvious symptom of stress. Though competition is stressful, excess stress will deteriorate an athlete’s performance…fast.

According to the Inverted-U model of activation, too much stress (or too little) inhibits athletes from performing their best. Based on the graph below, activation improves performance, but only to a point. Once an athlete crosses the peak of the curve, activation starts to interfere with optimal performance.

Inverted-U Model, Activation Curve, Physiological Activation, Impact of Stress on Performance, Anxiety, Nervousness, Amped Up, Hyped, IZOF, The Zone, In the Zone, Optimal Performance State, Peak Performance State, Too Amped Up, Energized, Sluggish, Tired, Readiness, Heart Rate

3 Side Effects of Frustration

Frustration interferes with an athlete’s performance in 3 specific ways:

1. Increased Muscle Tension

As in most circumstances, moderation is good. Muscle tension is no exception and it interferes with performance in numerous ways:

  • Slower reaction time
  • Decreased dexterity
  • Decreased flexibility
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Interrupted fluidity of movement

This may be why a golfer’s swing path changes under pressure. It may be why a goalie is slow to react to a shot on goal. I’m confident you can identify many other connecting dots.

2. Decreased Cognitive Functioning

Frustration is an emotional reaction to what an athlete is thinking, how he or she is interpreting what’s happening in the game.

When highly stressed, the brain operates differently. The well-trained thought processes (i.e., sport IQ) go untouched. The mind and body’s fight or flight response system takes over, meaning that the more primitive parts of the brain take control. Self-preservation, both physical and psychological (i.e., saving face, protecting one’s ego), become the priority at an unconscious level. The executive functions of the brain, responsible for higher order processing, are left out.

Simply put, the athlete no longer thinks at a high level. Consequently, performance suffers because of:

  • Poor decision making
  • Slower information processing
  • Hesitation
  • Poor working memory
  • Misguided focus
  • Limited vision

3. Ineffective Communication

As you’d expect (and have likely witnessed), communication crumbles under stress. When frustrated, athletes (and the rest of us) don’t verbalize with clarity or listen for understanding.

Specifically, frustration impedes communication due to:

  • Increased volume
  • Increased rate of speech
  • Complaints, not solutions
  • Lack of listening
  • Me centered, not we centered

In a nutshell, frustration and stress disrupt your team’s ability to communicate effectively. This disrupts play calling, prompt tactical adjustments, chemistry, and much more.

If some of your athletes struggle with frustration (and getting over-activated), like I once did, here are a few resources to help:

Keep Frustration in Check

Educate your athletes about the 3 ways frustration degrades their performance. Show them examples of how this has happened on the competition surface. Then point them to tips, tools, and resources (like Mental Training with me or the links above) to learn to keep their emotions under control. The bottom line is to keep frustration from sabotaging your athletes on and off the field.

Question: What do your athletes get frustrated about the most?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.



Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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