How to Help Your Athletes Avoid Costly Impulsive Reactions

If you are like most coaches, you’ve probably told your athletes, “Think before you act.” It is parental wisdom that applies on and off the field of play. Unfortunately, we continue to see athletes who react impulsively, rather than respond thoughtfully.

Avoid Impulsive Reactions, Respond, Control Your Response, Over-React, Athletes, Retaliation, Unsportsman-like Conduct, Sport Psychology, Mental Conditioning, Mental Toughness, Resilience, Mindset, Team Culture, High Performance

A Lifesaving Response

A few years ago my wife and I were on vacation in Alaska. While hiking we turned a sharp corner and found a large mama brown bear and her two cubs 40 feet away. The recommended safe distance is 100 feet.

We’d seen numerous warning signs aimed at educating people how to respond and how not to react to these beautiful beasts. The tough part was choosing the right response in that critical moment as anxiety and heart rate spiked. If we followed our instincts to turn and run, we’d likely initiate a game of tag that we could never win.

Fortunately, we kept our cool and responded calmly…and lived to tell about it.

Emotional Reactions

Too often athletes retaliate to an opponent’s actions and get called for the foul. Or worse, an athlete allows his emotions to “get the best of him” and overreacts to an aggressor when he’s out on the town.

When athletes let emotions drive impulsive reactions the results are never good.

The list of examples over the last few years is quite long. On the field, Jose Bautista’s controversial slide into second base sparked a clearing of the benches between the Rangers and Blue Jays last season. Bautista said it was in response to being hit by a pitch earlier in the inning.

Video of Ranger’s Rougned Odor and Bautista bench clearing brawl:

Off the field, the assault by NFL running back, Ray Rice, is one of the worst examples in recent years.

Respond Rather Than React

Help your athletes choose a thoughtful response, not an impulsive reaction. Here is a way to break it down for them:

1. Stuff Happens

Athletes can’t control everything that happens to them. Sometimes things happen they don’t like. An opponent calls them out on social media. Someone talks bad about their mom. Maybe a girl at a party is talking smack.

Regardless, things will happen that get under your athlete’s skin.

The point is that athletes don’t have control over what happens, but they can control how they respond.

2. Mental Time Out

Coaches call time outs to reset the team’s focus, make tactical adjustments, and set up the next play.

When adrenaline is running high, encourage your athletes to call a Mental Time Out. This is simply a momentary pause to give their brains time to do the next step – think.

During the time out, they need to take a diaphragmatic breath. It helps control emotions and improves problem solving, among other benefits.

3. Think

Thoughts drive performance and behavior. Athletes need to analyze the situation. They need to identify the high-road response.

Taking a moment to think is all about recognizing that the first impulse may not be the best. The Mental Time Out Helps bring athletes to their senses.

I often tell people “life is a bundle of choices.” By taking a pause and analyzing the options, athletes will be more likely to choose a thoughtful response rather than an impulsive reaction.

4. Respond

Now it’s time to live out a high-road response. Be the better person – the better version of yourself.

Walk away. Act unfazed. Let it go. It just isn’t worth it.

Acknowledge to your athletes that the high-road response may not be the most popular choice. Often peers antagonize athletes into impulsive reactions even though that doesn’t help the situation. It may be more entertaining in the moment, but when an athlete is ejected because of an impulsive act, no one wins.

Bonus Download

To help you remind your athletes that its how they think about a situation that will dictate their performance and behavior, download a copy of my Thoughts Drive Performance model.

It is a great visual to hang in the locker room or pass out to your team.

Promote a Better Response

Impulsive reactions get us all in trouble. Athletes are no different. Today’s athletes are under a microscope in our viral media culture and many people are simply trying to push their buttons or waiting for them to make a mistake on or off the competition surface.

Teach your athletes to take a Mental Time Out, breathe, think, and respond thoughtfully in the heated moments they face. You’ll not only keep them on the field, but be teaching them a valuable life skill in the process.


Question: What else can help your athletes choose a wise response in heated situations?

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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