Emotional Performance: Athletes’ Emotion and Mental Attitudes and their Relationship with Performance



The world of sports has always wondered whether emotion can enhance or hinder athletes’ performance in competition. While multiple studies regarding this relationship between emotion and performance have been conducted, researchers have been unable to pin point the cause of this relationship. This paper will discuss the different types of emotions that athletes experience during a competition, as well as the effects on performance due to an athlete’s mental attitude and the reasons behind this relationship. This examination of previous research on athletes’ emotion will show the conflicting results from previous studies and suggest a new theory to why these variables coexist with one another.

Emotional Performance: Athletes’ Emotion and Mental Attitudes and their Relationship with Performance  

Emotion, undoubtedly, have been associated with sports since its creation. Traditionally, athletes are scouted on the level of their skills and talents. However, sports have progressed to a new generation where athletes are now measured on their mental attitudes and personality traits.  Today, scouts consider these characteristics equally important to overall performance as his or her physical gifts and talents. But, can an athlete’s mental state be the main driving mechanism to why he or she has a good or bad game? Could emotion override skill and talent? In the past, researchers have found data suggesting that emotion can influence the main mental qualities that are essential for successful performance in sports. These qualities are athletes’ ability to maintain focus, their confidence or belief in their respected abilities, the ability to maintain emotional control, and their ability to eliminate distractions and continue working to accomplish set goals.  Hypothesis 1 – There is a strong relationship between emotion and overall performance for athletes. This study will identify the type of relationships that exist between athletes’ emotion and mental attitudes. Studies regarding the effects on performance by emotional attributes point to motivation and fear as being the strongest indicators and will be discussed first. Additionally, I will detail the role of peers and coaches in shaping athletes’ mental attitudes, and consequently their overall performance. The active self-hypothesis (Wheeler & Petty, 2001) serves as a reference as we examine the positive relationships that exist here. Previous studies, Gavin and Russell (1992) have suggested that an athlete’s psyche is dependent on six different constructs and their mental toughness will either elicit positive or negative performance. Leading to Hypothesis 2 – A positive mental attitude will elicit higher performance.

At the end of this study, a conclusion will be reached if such a relationship exists and if the correlation is positive or negative for athletes. Lastly, I will determine if the relationship with emotion and performance are a result of an involuntary effect, whereas mental attitudes are believed to be voluntary.



 The Correlation between Mental Attitudes and Performance

To explore the role of mental attitudes in athletes’ performance, (Duda & Nicholls, 1992) developed a questionnaire to measure sports enjoyment by performance. A sample of 200 athletes was assessed for the one-on-one questionnaire, which asked: is it important to perform well, is it more important to do better than others, and is the main motivation to avoid doing worse than others? All the participants completed the questionnaires in groups of four or five. The questionnaires consisted of the duration of twenty-five to thirty minutes. The responses were on a scale ranging from absolutely false (1), to very true (5). The results consistently detailed that the athletes who ranked highly on the “importance to perform well solely for themselves” were also the athletes who had the best performances. Interestingly, the athletes who ranked highly on the “importance to avoid doing worse than others” elicited the most effort but not as great of a performance. This coincides with the question in Hypothesis 1, whether the role of emotion, in this case, the fear to not meet fellow teammates’ expectations, played a factor in the athlete’s overall performance. The results of this investigation were consistent with other studies (Mondale, Hodge & Jackson, 2007) that supported the theory that a positive mental attitude where the athlete solely focuses on performing well will not elicit negative emotions, as fear, and will ultimately enhance their own overall performance.

Over the years, multiple studies have set out to explain this correlation by examining the effects of athletes’ different mental attitudes when in-competition. The majority of these studies have been focused on the self-talk hypothesis (Micheal & Wortham, 2002). Michael and Wortham (2002) examined the imposed methods as the construction of the athletic identity and how athletes manage those internal voices that affect their in-game mental attitude. Athletes’ mental attitudes are their values, beliefs, feelings and their disposition to act in a given situation. These attributes make up the athlete’s overall mental state before and during the performance. He found his hypothesis strongly supported the idea that athletes use internal polemic to construct or reconstruct their experiences during a challenging competition, in turn, intrapersonally and interpersonally will construct their own mental attitude. The athletes construct and maintain the dominant values of the culture of sport, where “winning, ” being in control,” and “persevering” are treasured in their mental cognition, and ultimately elicit a positive mental attitude. Whereas, “losing,” “being irrational,” being “out of control,” and “giving up” are ultimately discouraged. Athletes who are subject to these mental attitudes are considered to have low levels of mental toughness. The researchers hypothesized that the level of mental toughness associated with a given athlete will play a role in the type of performance the athlete will exhibit. Similarly, Gavin and Russell found this same correlation was dependent on their distinct cognitive constructs, their competitiveness, emotional control, mental toughness, positive attitude, insecurity, and confidence. The highest correlations were between competitiveness, a positive attitude, and strong mental toughness. A strong mental cognition that embodies these constructs will ultimately benefit an athlete and enhance performance.

Therefore, can positive emotions as motivation be the driving force behind these correlations?

Consequently, can negative emotions as fear illicit characteristics of insecurity that will drive a low level of mental toughness, and in turn hinder performance?


Reasons for the Emotion and Performance Relationship

A large portion of studies has focused on giving a possible explanation to why the relationship between emotion and performance exists. One study, (Fediuk & Combs 2010), uses data from the situational crisis communication theory, which measures athletes’ performance when their reputation is in crisis. Fediuk and Combs hypothesis is that a positive reputation prior to performance does not necessarily improve an athlete’s performance. However, a negative reputation prior to performance can indeed harm an athlete’s performance. Anecdotally, the fear of having decreased support and punishment expectations from their peers is what causes the athlete’s performance to drop. Athletes may be cognizant of how their current play may affect their long term reputation during live game action. As a result, this study supports Hypothesis 1 but not Hypothesis 2, overall performance is affected by negative emotion, but a positive mental attitude (confidence by a positive reputation prior to play) does not, in fact, elicit better performance.

Black and Weiss (1992) further explored the correlation between athlete emotion and performance by examining the role of coaches’ use of verbal and physical aggression. Black and Weiss, pointed to instances where coaches’ tactics had an effect on performance. Their findings supported the theory that coaches’ use of verbal or physical aggression to induce athletes to exert more effort and perform at a higher level, in turn, affected athletes’ cognition. The athletes were found to experience a higher level of fear of their coaches, but consequently, the athletes displayed less sportsmanship, less enjoyment of their sport, and poor overall performance.

In a similar study, Turman and Schrodt (2004) determined that coach reactions in competition impacted athletes’ overall feelings, well-being and eventually their performance. The coaches’ effects on emotion were both positive and negative. Coach reactions that the athletes considered to be positive included: calm and collected communication, congratulating the athletes, showing positive appearance, and providing encouragement. Ultimately, positive reactions by coaches’ elicited emotions as motivation to drive the athlete in performance. However, coaches’ reactions that were considered negative included the expression of negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, aggression, and blame towards the athletes. Positive coach reactions lead to improved mental state that was driven by focus and confidence. On the other hand, negative reactions led to negative emotions drive by fear and self-doubt in the athletes. The study is a strong indicator that athletes’ who are praised/encouraged by their coaches during competition are more focused, and confident in their abilities, thus allowing them to react without fear of failure.

Richmond and McCroskey (1984) took a deep dive into how coaches’ behavior can influence an athlete’s satisfaction of a sport. Can enjoyment illicit a better in-game performance? Coaches’ reward and power behaviors were considered as significant predictors. Richmond noticed that when autocratic leadership was moderated by high levels of positive feedback, athletes reported higher levels of effective learning.  Therefore, the notion of ‘‘tough love,’’ can induce a better performance, as long as the athlete conceptually believes the coach has his or her best interest at heart. McCroskey identified instances where an emotional connection was created between the coach and athlete. This bond was found to motivate the athlete, and lead him or her to exhibit higher levels of effort to not let the coach down.



The findings strongly support Hypothesis 1 – the role of emotion had significant effects on overall athlete performance. The research concluded that positive emotions, such as motivation, enjoyment, and happiness can elicit higher performance for athletes in competition. On the other hand, the role of negative emotions, such as fear and embarrassment were found to inhibit athletes’ overall performance.

With regard to Hypothesis 2, it was mostly supported. However, discrepancies existed when the athletes’ reputation was in crisis. Overall, the individuals who believed in their abilities as an athlete were liberated and transformed. They exhibited more self-confidence and experienced more success. Results indicated that the athletes with the highest levels of mental toughness were the ones who were most confident. Positive cognition is found to be the strongest indicator for success. When positive behavior is practiced by coaches and peers, it will prompt the athlete to experience high levels of focus/confidence/enjoyment, leading to a successful outing.


These studies have suggested that a definite relationship exists between athletes’ mental attitudes and performance. A call for further research is advised to examine how individual personality traits may play a role. Not every athlete has the same characteristics, and biological makeup can cognitively affect athletes in different ways. However, this investigation has proven the power of positive thinking when it comes to athlete performance. Positive thoughts can improve cognitive function, and is the most important variable for success. Therefore, I conclude that athletes should equate as much time to developing their mental toughness as they spend developing skills and talents.



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