I was working with a professional athlete who, outside of the game, is one of the most amiable and gentle human beings you can meet. He is truly loved and respected by his family and peers. He is a tremendous athlete who often under-performs. I have watched him play and whenever something negative happens during play, he responds quite negatively, often berating himself. I have also watched him extensively outside the sport, and it is virtually impossible to make him mad about anything.
When I met with him last week, as I tried to decode him, I asked him when the last time was that he got into a “fight” when not competing professionally. I was not implying a fist fight, but more of a heated argument or contentious debate. He said he could not remember. To which I said, “It seems to me that you have taken all your anger and frustration out of your personal life and reserved it almost exclusively for when you play… and that keeps you from performing at high levels.” He seemed stunned by that comment.
I discussed this with some peers over the past few days and we’re all in agreement that every human being actually feels the entire spectrum of emotions from indifference and love to anger and hatred, and all the permutations of emotions in between. Feeling an emotion and expressing the emotion—I think we all can agree—are two separate concepts with the latter having significant variability and often dependent on our behavioral styles. But we all feel them, and we all express them.
This was not the center of our discussion though. The real question was whether we needed to express them all. Many of us clearly do not, because of the social and professional consequences. When feeling sad but need to be at work, most of us would dismiss our feelings, put our ‘game-face’ on and go to battle. We won’t be at our best, but we’ll perform. We discussed: if you had a place and time to express that emotion prior to performing, would that enhance your performance? Neurologically speaking, yes of course, because of the nature of hormones that would be circulating in your body. So we concluded that indeed, it is better to express our emotions, especially prior to times when we need to be performing our best.
In the case of my athlete, I gave him the following advice: To find ways to express negative emotions in his personal life. I was not recommending a character transformation from an amiable human being to a Type A personality. I was merely suggesting that when things occur in a parking lot, at a grocery store, while watching another sport, whatever… to go ahead and yell, or scream, or confront an issue, or get mad at himself the same way he gets mad while playing. I actually encouraged him to get respectfully confrontational outside his sport!
He started to do this and found an dramatic decrease in his frustration while playing this past weekend. At times when he would normally get frustrated, he actually smiled, recollecting his intentional and premeditated argument with someone else a day earlier. The sample size here is one and not enough to draw any scientific conclusions, but it seems to me that those who have a balanced expression of emotions—not overly expressive at either home or work—are likely to perform better more consistently.
This week, take inventory of your emotions and try to have that balance. Try not to save it all for your home, or all for your work.