Decoding the Complexity of Emotions in Sports

expressing an emotion during a match.

The saying “sport is emotion” is often quoted. However, have you ever wondered how our brains truly perceive these emotions? Every sport has its distinct emotions, mainly stemming from victories or defeats. But how universal are these emotions? Let’s embark on an enlightening exploration.

Read more: Decoding the Complexity of Emotions in Sports

To start, I invite you to view a snapshot from a YouTube video. Upon first glance, what emotion do you think is being portrayed? Frustration, anger, pain, or pure joy? The truth might surprise you. Watch the full video here: Link

The Serena Williams Example

In the video, Serena Williams scores a point and visibly exudes happiness. This emphasizes that emotions heavily rely on context, as discussed in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.” Your initial thought upon seeing Serena’s expression might lean towards anger or fear. Yet, with the broader context of a crucial tennis match, our brains adjust our conceptual knowledge, changing our interpretation of the very same facial expression.

The Intricacies of Emotion Perception

Typically, we encounter faces embedded in contexts, associated with voices, smells, and other surrounding cues. These cues encourage our brains to utilize concepts to stimulate and construct our perception of emotion. Consequently, upon viewing the entire Serena video, we see triumph rather than terror. In reality, our interpretation of emotions requires a conceptual understanding. For instance, the concept of ‘sadness’ is required to recognize sorrow, while the concept of ‘fear’ is needed to perceive wide eyes as fearful.

The Traditional versus Modern Understanding of Emotions

Lisa Feldman challenges the traditional view that emotions are universally recognized based on standardized facial expressions. Shows like ‘Lie To Me’ popularize this concept, where characters deduce emotions from a single facial expression. Feldman argues that emotions aren’t universal but vary across cultures. They aren’t predetermined but are constructed from more basic elements, influenced by one’s environment, culture, and upbringing. Emotions, in Feldman’s view, are as real as money, shaped by human consensus.

Embracing Context in Coaching

Barrett’s book, “How Emotions Are Made”, offers an illuminating perspective on emotions, rooted in rigorous scientific evidence. As coaches, understanding that emotions are context-dependent is vital. Just as we realized with Serena Williams, recognizing the context can be incredibly revealing. It’s essential to remember that athletes might bring emotions from personal or work-related incidents onto the field, unrelated to the game itself. While grasping the full context can be challenging, it offers profound insights for better coaching.


This exploration merely scratches the surface of the vast world of emotions. By delving deeper, we can better comprehend the intricate interplay of emotions, sports, and human perception.


Barrett, L. F. (2018). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Pan Books. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top