How to Help Athletes Keep Cool When Emotions Run High

When emotions take over, it gets ugly. Golfers throw clubs. Football players back their teams up 15 yards. Basketball players swing elbows. If only everyone could keep cool.

Don’t Be a Head Case

I’m all too familiar with this. As a tennis player, I used to be a “head case.” That’s a label often given to athletes with a short fuse.

Early in my college career, I fumed when I missed easy shots. When I lost a set, my opponent didn’t have to guess what I was thinking. My body language shouted, “I’m frustrated, pissed off and a ticking time bomb.” The worst was when I’d lose to “less talented” players because I imploded like a 1920s apartment building marked for demolition.

The more I was expected to win (by myself or others), the worse it seemed to get.

Fortunately, I’ve since learned to keep my emotions in check and so can you or your players.

Create an Emotion Control Plan

Athletes can maintain composure using a 3 step game plan – what I call an emotion control plan.

Step 1: Identify Target Situations

Players should identify the situations when their self-talk, emotions or physiology become counterproductive. This is key because they need awareness of what gets their blood boiling in order to intervene beforehand.

Start by helping players identify the last situations in which they lost control. Coaches or parents may need to remind them.

Then specify the actions and/or consequences in each situation. What happened? Did the player lose focus, tighten up, foul out of the game, etc.?

To prepare for step 2, turn isolated incidents into general situations. For example, “an opponent calls me a cheater,” or “the referee blows a big call.”

Step 2: Script Your More Productive Response

Now that each athlete is clear on which situations tend to set them off, they can paint a new reality. How would the player rather respond? What would be most productive?

When I played tennis, I didn’t want to explode; it just happened. This was in part because I hadn’t thought through how else to respond.

Have players script what they’d rather be thinking in each situation. This is especially important because it’s our thoughts, in large part, that dictate our emotions.

Take for example, the player typically thinks, “That ref must be completely blind.” An expected emotion from that thought would be frustration or anger which often leads to acting out. Instead, the player could think, “No game is won or lost on a single call.” This thought helps the athlete keep his or her cool by keeping one bad call in perspective.

Players also need to script their reactive behavior, making it purposeful. Will they immediately hustle back to the line of scrimmage? Will they tense their fists and slowly release the tension? Some athletes find it helpful to focus their eyes on a single spot on a uniform or equipment as way to stay in control.

Regardless of the details, the point is to have an effective planned response for thinking and behavior.

Step 3: Plan Your Response Trigger

Thoughts direct emotions and actions. Therefore, players can trigger a more productive response to situations that set them off by creating a mental cue.

This is a word or phrase that is specifically designed to elicit the more productive response.

For example, when I lost serve in a tennis match, I began using the phrase, “Stay calm and play smart,” as a mental cue. It was instructive and helped me coach myself away from the frustration and anger I to which I was prone. This mental cue also helped me to stay in the present moment rather than focusing on the consequences of losing a game in the set.

Some athletes use cues like, “Keep cool,” “I’m poised,” or “Be calm,” to help them keep their emotions in check when things don’t go their way. Notice that each cue highlights the desired response (i.e., poised).

Let the Emotion Control Plan Work for You

When players start applying their emotion control plans, players will:

  • show more composure
  • be less susceptible to pressure
  • make better decisions
  • avoid repeated mistakes
  • perform better

If this “head case” can learn to control his emotions, I’m confident you or your players can too. It won’t happen overnight and it will take practice – just like sport specific skills. Players who control their emotions perform better regardless of the situation. Having an emotion control plan puts them back in the driver’s seat.

Click the Button to Download the FREE Worksheet:

Create An Emotion Control Plan

Use this post to guide athletes through the worksheet and help them better managing emotions.


Question: What’s your most memorable “hot head” moment in sports? Leave yours in the comments below.



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

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