Sports, Motivation & Psychology

Agg Heart, brain or muscle: What role do emotions play in soccer?

Soccer matches often resemble a witch's cauldron of emotions. But what does the term emotion actually mean? The word comes from Latin, from ex: "out" and motio: "movement" or "excitement", literally translated "energy in motion". How can emotions be understood in sport and especially in football - and used to achieve group success? Franzi Lautenbach, expert in sports psychology and doctoral candidate at the Psychological Institute of the Cologne Sports University, in conversation with journalist Mirjam Bauer.


Style PASS: How do you define the term emotion?

Franzi Lautenbach: Emotions arise through the perception and evaluation of a situation. It comes to a personal emotional experience, which is followed by a change in behaviour. If we see a good friend, we feel happiness, if we are facing a competition, we may feel fear or joy. There are "basic emotions" like fear, joy, anger, surprise, hope, pride or sadness. All are related to physical and emotional reactions and indicate a state: We are calm or tense and feel pleasant or unpleasant.

There are different theories about the origin of emotions. For example, one theory assumes that physical reactions are followed by emotional ones, another says that stress-inducing stimuli trigger physical reactions. For a better understanding one can imagine two scales: On the one hand there is a "stressor", in football for example the penalty kick. On the other side are the "coping resources" - i.e. the mental assessment: "What abilities and skills do I possess to turn the shot into a goal? If the shot is very important and the shooter feels that his or her resources are not sufficient, he or she feels anxious - the media often write about stress or pressure in this context. In this situation, another player feels above all a kind of challenge to turn the penalty kick into a goal: So far he has always hit the goal, he knows that he has a good command of the technique - and the goalkeeper often jumps into the left corner. This shows that people in identical situations do not necessarily have the same emotions.


Style PASS: Can emotions be measured?

Lautenbach: Due to different mental and physical reactions, emotions are best measured on several levels: on the one hand, on the subjective level - where the footballers usually answer questionnaires and assess themselves, on the other hand, on the objective level - where physical reactions such as stress hormones and heart rate are measured. The player cannot influence the last variant, but the first one is open to cheating.

Competition anxiety can be measured well using a well-known questionnaire. This describes three variants of anxiety: There is somatic anxiety, which is characterised by the perception of physically perceptible signs such as palpitations, damp hands or a sinking feeling in the stomach. Anxiety, on the other hand, measures the perception of self-doubt, worry and negative expectations. Confidence describes how well prepared a football player is to go into the game and accept it as a challenge.


Style PASS: What role do emotions play in sport?

Lautenbach: Emotions play a decisive role, as they do everywhere in life. If I did not enjoy sports, I would hardly do any sports. Children first do sports because they enjoy them. Later, the idea of competition and the pressure increase, which can then lead to a fear of competition. My mum always said: "Sport should be fun, but success is of course more fun". In sport, in addition to emotions of joy, we often experience anger and fear, sometimes even sadness or shame - both among players and spectators - when we remember Bastian Schweinsteiger's missed penalty kick at the Champions League final against Chelsea 2012, for example.


Style PASS: How do emotions influence the team's performance?

Lautenbach: Some players seem calm before a game, others seem nervous. Nobody knows what it looks like inside a person. Unfortunately, there are no general statements because everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. The following applies to a football team: the coach must not lump all the players together - and the team members must not draw conclusions from themselves about others when they think of the emotions before or during the game. Respect is an important basic requirement here. However, if the players notice nervousness or anxiety in themselves and judge it to be detrimental to their performance - or if emotions change during the game and performance therefore deteriorates - this can be addressed with the help of "sports psychology experts".


Style PASS: Are there differences in the effect, for example before or after a game?

Lautenbach: Roughly speaking, I would say that emotions before the game are more decisive for athletic performance than afterwards. After the game, on the other hand, they are relevant in top-class sport when the athlete faces the press. Furthermore, it is always necessary to prepare for the best possible condition for the next game. After a win, this may be easier - after a defeat, a footballer should check off the game and perhaps just admit when the other team was better. By analysing mistakes and reviewing the content of the game, coaches and players can find out what might have been the reason for losing - and thus process any negative emotions more quickly by setting clear tasks for the next game.


Style PASS: How do you regulate emotions - which strategies can be used to control or integrate them?

Lautenbach: Emotions can be regulated well. Everyone who wants to work on it should take advantage of this opportunity, for example if they are nervous or do not feel really "awake" in the first ten minutes of a game. There are physical or mental techniques, they can be long-term or short-term. One example of a primarily mental technique is self-talk regulation. These are formulas: I challenge myself to an action, loudly or softly. In doing so, I say what I am thinking about and how and what I am concentrating on - but not the other way around. I can also tell myself that I should breathe calmly, for example for short-term relaxation, to reduce my fear of the game. Then of course I should follow these instructions. In the latter case, the physical approach of this technique becomes clear, in addition to the mental approach.

Often routines before and during the game also help - also for the whole team. Routines are composed of thought processes and behaviour, take place, among other things, shortly before the sporting task and prepare optimally for this task. Rehearsed routines can be used well under pressure and in "standard situations" such as the penalty kick.

Other techniques include visualization or mental training to introduce movements. An example of visualization is illustrated by an earlier commercial with Manuel Neuer: The national goalkeeper stands on a chair, holds a glass of Nutella in his hand and when he looks at it, the glass becomes a cup.


Style PASS: How can emotions be regulated or integrated in terms of group success?

Most people in the team want to concentrate on themselves and are happy about positive reinforcement - the "valence", which means the valence of the emotion for the positive. However, the individual in the group must be given enough space. If the trainer wants to influence from the outside, it is best to increase the coping resources, for example by increasing control over the opponent with the help of video recordings. From this, he derives clear instructions on what the players should do in certain cases, for example, man coverage, building the game over the wings, "closing" the defensive line, etc.


Style PASS: What personal suggestions do you have for combining emotions with success?

We know from research that evaluating a stressful situation as a challenge leads to better performance. We also know that better performance more often leads to success. I am personally interested in emotions in the context of sport, because in my opinion, in addition to top sporting performance, emotions are the reason for doing or watching sport: joy, sadness, anger, fear, pride, hope.

Questions: Mirjam Bauer

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