Ambivalence: The 5-Second Rule & Cognitive Control in Sports

Athlete pondering a decision, symbolizing the internal conflict of ambivalence in sports.

Ambivalence plays a critical role in decision-making both in our daily lives and in the realm of sports. In a prior post, I touched upon the “5-second rule” and its impact on ambivalence. As summer approaches, coaches often worry about their players’ commitment to fitness during the holiday. While many are dedicated to their routine runs, some grapple with the allure of relaxation. This internal conflict is not limited to our leisure choices; it permeates into the sports field as well.

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Understanding Ambivalence in Sports

In sports, especially soccer, players and coaches alike frequently face conflicting thoughts. For instance, a coach with a 1-0 lead might ponder whether to maintain offensive pressure or focus defensively. Similarly, an opposing coach might debate escalating risks or maintaining the current strategy. This state of inner turmoil is scientifically termed as ‘ambivalence’.

Ambivalence: The Battle Between Conscious and Subconscious

Scientifically, ambivalence represents a condition where both positive and negative associations are concurrently present. Often, this leads to a tussle between our subconscious (System 2/Zoogdierenbrein) and conscious minds (System 1/Mensenbrein). A striking example is beautifully illustrated in a short documentary titled “Ten Meter Tower” by Swedish filmmakers Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson. The film showcases individuals deciding whether to jump from a daunting 10-meter platform – a clear depiction of the conscious vs. subconscious battle.

Everyday Examples of Ambivalence

Outside the sports realm, we all face ambivalence in our daily lives. The high-dive platform analogy resonates with many, while others might relate to the fear of spiders. In essence, ambivalence can be visualized as a scale weighing the pros and cons of change versus maintaining the status quo.

Addressing Ambivalence: Strategies & Recommendations

Dealing with ambivalence, especially in athletes contemplating continuing their sports careers, requires a delicate approach. Conversations rooted in understanding and empathy are paramount. Motivated statements from players often predict future actions. Hence, encouraging such affirmations is essential for coaches (Miller & Rollnick, 2002).

Ambivalence Beyond Sports

Ambivalence is not limited to sports; it’s a ubiquitous human experience. This post merely serves as a brief introduction to the concept. For a deeper dive, consider exploring academic literature in the fields of addiction and youth care.


In closing, revisiting the “5-second rule” from my previous post highlights its effectiveness in navigating ambivalence. Counting aloud from 5 to 0 and springing into action helps to deter undermining thoughts, preserving our initial motivation.


Hannah U. Nohlen,1,2 Frenk van Harreveld,1 Mark Rotteveel,1 Gert-Jan Lelieveld,2,3 and Eveline A. Crone1,2,3 1 Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2 Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, The Netherlands, and 3 Department of Psychology, Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Baer, J.S. & Peterson, P.L. (2002). Motivational interviewing with adolescents and young adults. In W.R. Miller & S. Rollnick (Eds.). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change. New York: Guilford Press (pp. 320-332).

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