Managing Impulse Control in Athletes: A Deep Dive into Response Inhibition

Athlete practicing impulse control during a game.

Sports enthusiasts often quip about certain players having a ‘short fuse’. But underlying this behavior is the essential executive skill called “response inhibition.” This piece delves into how athletes can develop and strengthen this vital ability.

Read more: Managing Impulse Control in Athletes: A Deep Dive into Response Inhibition

Understanding Response Inhibition:

In numerous blogs over the years, I’ve referenced “inhibition” repeatedly. Derived from neurology and psychology, inhibition refers to suppressing certain actions or reactions. A popular example I frequently cite is “motor inhibition.” Dutch researcher, Lot Verburgh, expanded on this concept, noting top talents excel in quickly adapting their motor skills. This adaptability can make all the difference, especially when unexpected situations arise in sports. Moreover, beyond merely suppressing movements, delaying reactions is paramount for athletes, especially in emotionally charged games or practices.

Inhibition in Action:

The footage familiar to most sports lovers demonstrates moments of impulse. Coaches often remind their players to “think before they act.” This is precisely response inhibition: resisting the urge to react until one has fully assessed the situation. Over time, athletes, due to painful lessons learned (like red cards and suspensions), understand the importance of this restraint. Colloquially, this is referred to as “losing it,” being “hot-headed,” or “flying off the handle.” Factors such as alcohol consumption, lack of sleep, or high external pressures can diminish this ability.

Early Signs of Impulse Control:

Response inhibition is a skill refined over the years. As evidenced in the following video featuring professional footballers, even they sometimes struggle to inhibit responses. However, this development begins much earlier – during childhood.

A renowned study by Mischel W illustrated this. Young children left alone with a marshmallow had a choice: consume the treat immediately or wait for the researcher’s return and get two. Those who successfully resisted the immediate urge displayed better academic performance and success in other areas as they grew older.

The Adolescent Challenge:

As children age, their executive skills, including response inhibition, improve. However, during adolescence, this development faces challenges. A disconnect between the lower brain centers (emotions and impulses) and the prefrontal cortex (rational decisions) means teenagers can be prone to rash decisions. The growing independence, coupled with peer influence and diminishing respect for authority, can further exacerbate their impulsiveness.

Guiding Athletes: Tips and Techniques:

In “Smart But…” by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, they offer insights into managing impulses:

  1. Understand that young children naturally struggle with impulse control.
  2. Delay gratification by introducing waiting periods for desired rewards.
  3. Reinforce the idea that poor impulse control has consequences.
  4. Prepare athletes for situations demanding impulse restraint.
  5. Provide timely reminders when they are about to face challenging scenarios.

A Fun Ending Note:

As a nod to the last tip, let’s view a humorous episode. Coach José Mourinho tried offering guidance to Mario Balotelli during halftime. Did it work? Find out here:


Dawson, Peg, Richard Guare, and Wouter Scheen. Slim maar… : help kinderen hun talenten benutten door hun executieve functies te versterken. Amsterdam: Hogrefe, 2009. Print.

Mischel W, Ebbesen EB, Zeiss AR. Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1972 Feb;21(2):204-18. doi: 10.1037/h0032198. PMID: 5010404.


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