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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Managing your emotion

Below is what sports psychologists call an Inverted-U Graph.  The inverted-U's show the relationship between performance and emotional arousal.  Emotional arousal is a combination of things like blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate.  Here is what the chart is showing.  Whether you are golfing or weight lifting, if your emotional arousal level is too low, your performance will be low as well.  As the athlete's arousal level increases, performance increases up to a point.  After an athlete reaches the peak/top of their inverted U (optimal performance level), if their arousal level continues to increase, their performance level starts to drop again.  An easier way of saying this is that if an athlete's arousal levels are too low or too high, their performance will suffer.  

The key for any athlete is to find how high their emotional arousal level needs to be in order to be at peak performance.  As you can see by this graph, it is a very delicate balance.  The graph also shows that different types of sports require different levels of emotional arousal.  Let's apply this to baseball.

Starters like Greg Maddux thrive
in that role with their calm, relaxed
Hitting is like golf.  It requires a relaxed body and mind free of too much anxiety so the batter can focus on the complicated task of hitting a baseball.  This is why some hitters do much better when they hit in practice.  There is less pressure in practice so the emotional arousal level (heart rate, breathing rate, etc.) is relatively low as well.  However, in a game, the pressure rockets upward and a player's arousal level usually increases along with it.  Should it get too high, performance drops like the graph shows. 

Pitching is a bit more complicated.  A starting pitcher has to pace himself over 9 innings (actually more like 6 or 7 these days) and needs to have a calm, relaxed body and mind in order to do the more complicated thinking like remembering hitter tendencies, selecting pitches, and knowing where to be or where to throw the ball on various plays.  Therefore, a starting pitcher is like the golf example in the graph.  It's one of the reasons why starting pitchers are commonly pretty good at golf.  Their temperament fits well with that game also.  A closer is different.  A pitcher who finds himself in a closer role does not have to pace himself over many innings.  He also doesn't have to think nearly as much about pitches.  Most have either an overpowering fast ball or a nasty out-pitch.  Not much thinking needed there.  Just reach back and throw it.  Because of the more physical rather than mental nature of being a closer in comparison to a starter, a closer can afford to have higher arousal levels than a starting pitcher much like a weight lifter in the graph.  A weight lifter gets pumped up prior to the lift because he has to rev his body up for the intense, quick physical task.  Not much complex thinking there.  This is why closers tend to be the most animated and visually emotional pitchers on a MLB staff.  If a starting pitcher were like that, they would run out of energy by the third inning.  I may be wrong but I don't see Brian Wilson excelling in golf. 
The high energy, highly
emotion Jonathon Papelbon
fits well in the Red Sox
closer role.
(Photo by 
Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Many closers dislike coming into games that don't mean anything.  A non-save situation.  They are too relaxed for peak performance as the graph shows on the weight lifting side.  They thrive on that pressure involved in a save situation because the stress elevates their arousal levels to the peak performance a closer needs for the more physical demands of their role.

So, what can a player learn from this?  A player needs to determine how much arousal is needed for their role and find specific strategies to manage those levels to reach peak performance.  There are many books and online resources that can help with this.  It will take some time and practice but it's well worth the effort.

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