The Impact of Emotions on Athlete Decision-Making

Athlete dealing with emotional stress during performance.

“Emotion drives sports.” This phrase resonates widely, but how do these emotions truly influence an athlete’s brain and decision-making skills? Delve into the compelling interplay between human emotions and sports performance, as we navigate through groundbreaking research and gripping anecdotes.

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The Tangible Power of Emotions in Sports:

Sports psychology has consistently spotlighted the paramount influence of human emotions on various athletic aspects, including attention, perception, decision-making, goal-setting, and physical prowess. Intriguingly, a significant portion of these studies zeroes in on the detrimental emotions athletes grapple with, such as stress and fear. Research reveals that athletes battling high stress levels suffer from compromised concentration, diminished perception, escalated heart rates, muscle fatigue, and even rigidity.

Real-world Observations:

Cottyn’s 2012 study, in collaboration with his peers, exemplified this phenomenon. Their keen observations of gymnasts on balance beams indicated that with every incremental height, there was a surge in dysfunctional emotions. Consequently, this spiked negativity drastically impacted their performance. Their deduction? Tasks become increasingly difficult or intense, thereby amplifying negative emotions.

The Silver Lining: Positive Emotions:

Fortunately, it’s not all gloom. Positive emotions, like joy and pleasure, can bolster an athlete’s attention and focus, which is a boon for performance.

Emotions in Action: A Closer Look:

But, what role do emotions play in influencing an athlete’s cognition, perception, and actions? A captivating study conducted on ice climbers by Seifert and his team in 2014 sheds light on this. Novice climbers predominantly opt for safer, albeit inefficient, ice positions, contrasting starkly with expert climbers. The latter’s strategic efficiency ensures they scale ice walls rapidly. The underlying inference? Novice climbers’ performance and energy management, driven by icy fears, play a significant role.

The Extreme Sport of Climbing:

Climbing is inherently risky, with fear being a consequential emotion. Most climbers wisely use ropes for safety. Yet, some audacious souls embrace free climbing, as seen in this breathtaking video from the film Free Solo.

This film chronicles Alex Honnold’s awe-inspiring journey to scale the renowned El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—without any safety ropes. While watching, one can’t help but feel an adrenaline rush. Surprisingly, Alex seems devoid of fear, a sentiment echoed in his enlightening TED Talk. What the clip doesn’t reveal is Alex’s rigorous preparation: repetitive climbs with a rope and extensive mental visualization. His mantra? Preparation and self-belief are vital to mitigate fears.

In Summary: The Takeaways:

Although these scientific revelations might not seem earth-shattering, their implications are profound from a practical perspective. Preparing meticulously, fostering positivity, and building self-belief are crucial. My aspiration with this piece is to offer you a glimpse into the complex realm of emotions in sports. For a deeper dive, I recommend this captivating TED Talk.



Cottyn, J., De Clercq, D., Crombez, G., & Lenoir, m. (2012). The interaction of functional and syfunctional emotions during balance beam performance. ​Research Quartelry  for Exercise and Sport. 83(2), 300-307. 

Seifert L, Wattebled L, Herault R, Poizat G, Adé D, Gal-Petitfaux N, et al. (2014) Neurobiological Degeneracy and Affordance Perception Support Functional Intra-Individual Variability of Inter-Limb Coordination during Ice Climbing. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89865.

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