Emotion During Play – How Much Do I Need and What Do I Do with the Rest? -NYC Grind
By NYC Grind Contributor, Dr. Jan Mohlman
Experienced billiard players often tell me that the game is as much about managing emotion as it is mental or physical skill. A player’s mood undoubtedly adds a dimension to the game of pool. Even after mastering mechanics and strategy, every player is still faced with the difficult task of finding his or her own optimal level of emotion to maximize play.
Accordingly, some billiard players may strive for very little emotional arousal during matches, while others are more expressive. In fact, it is often differences in emotional displays that inspire billiard players’ nicknames, such as “The Iceman” and “The Lion”. Mika "The Iceman" Immonen in the 2011 World Tournament in 14.1 (Photo by NYC Grind contributor Charles Eames)
Alex "The Lion" Pagulayan at the 2011 World Tournament in 14.1 (Photo by NYC Grind contributor Joei Huang)
Subjectively, many people tend to view emotions and moods as amorphous, abstract, all encompassing, even debilitating at times. Contemporary emotion theory, on the other hand, emphasizes the concrete elements of moods. For example, a popular model from clinical psychology1 argues that any emotion can be viewed as the interaction of three characteristic components: thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors (see Figure 1). These three parts are intimately linked such that a change in one of the three brings about similar changes in the other two. In other words, when one or more of the components changes in a negative manner, the others will follow suit. Thus, if your thoughts become pessimistic during a match then your body will start to feel uncomfortable and your actions will become less productive. This pattern can just as easily begin with a negative behavior or unpleasant bodily sensation. Regardless, the end result is a negative mood, which takes place within just a few minutes unless steps are taken to stop the cascade of negative changes. Better news is that this model of emotion also applies when one wishes to improve his or her emotional state; one can simply 1) change thoughts to be less negative, 2) improve the way one’s body feels, 3) change behaviors to be more goal-directed, or 4) any combination thereof. Figure 1. Lang’s Three Part Model of Emotion
Both the type and intensity of emotions are worth considering if one is trying to improve in playing pool. Although it is believed that there are a number of emotions that are universal to all humans,2* including anxiety, anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise, those most often discussed in the literature of competitive sports are happiness, anxiety, and anger, with very little written about the others. Happiness – Positive emotions such as happiness are not known to impair performance. Rather, they bring about flexible and efficient processing of situational details, and lead to natural, automatic, goal-oriented movement.3* It may therefore be worthwhile to bring about feelings of happiness intentionally just before starting a match to see if your playing improves. This can be done by focusing on happy memories or engaging in pleasant events. Feelings of happiness can also result from a high level of task involvement, (also known as the experience of ‘flow’) in which a comfortable balance of task demands and available resources is achieved. The state of flow is characterized by total and enjoyable absorption in the activity.4* Task involvement (the goal of learning and mastery) but not ego involvement (the goal of demonstrating ones superiority to others) has been known to predict positive emotions in golfers, especially when one perceives that he or she is playing well.5* In one of the few prospective studies of emotional experience during play, happiness and excitement showed a positive relation to concentration and self-ratings of performance among players of various types of sports.6* Because feelings of hope also facilitate effort and performance during competition, it is best never to fall into a defeated state of mind, even when one is trailing far behind his or her opponent in a game of billiards.7 Anxiety – Strong anxiety has been known to impair athletic performance, even when concentration is effectively maintained.3 This is likely to be due to the rush of adrenaline that we feel when our nerves take over. So what should we do in the case of a nervous flare-up? The reduction of anxiety occurs most efficiently as the result of repeated exposure to the anxiety-provoking situation. If specific shots or opponents make you nervous during billiards, then you should practice those situations over and over again until they become mundane. However, this type of practice must often be done well in advance. If you experience anxiety during a match and did not have an opportunity to use exposure ahead of time, then one effective way to manage mood is to re-frame the anxiety as “excitement.” Try to trick yourself into feeling better by reinterpreting your emotional state in a more positive way. Also, while playing, increase efforts to focus visually and mentally on the details of the game without becoming distracted by irrelevant cues or negative thoughts. This should allow you to proceed with playing despite feeling a bit over-aroused due to nervousness. I also recommend vigorous aerobic exercise to my therapy clients who are anxious, which may be an effective strategy for nervous pool players as well. Add a run or a bike ride on the morning of your match, and observe the resulting effects on your mood and performance. Anger – Anger may be more likely to impair concentration than performance.3 Like anxiety, the best way to manage anger is to prepare well in advance of the match. One of the most important parts of dealing with anger is to prepare thoroughly how you will respond to frustrating situations, such as missing a crucial shot. We have to plan responses in the rational part of the mind, but if we wait until we are in a state of strong emotion to do this planning, the rational mind loses control. So, you should plan and practice (even in your imagination) how you will respond ahead of time and immerse yourself in what it will be like to respond in a calmer way. Over time, if you do this often enough, your planned response will indeed become your dominant way of responding and your anger will also reduce. What About Emotional Intensity?
Interestingly, negative emotions such as anxiety and anger are not considered to be unequivocally harmful to one’s game. It may be the intensity, not the type of mood you are in that matters most. Central to all sport psychology is the Yerkes-Dodson Law,8 a longstanding principle arguing that the relation of emotional arousal and performance can be plotted in the form of an inverted-U. At lower levels of emotional arousal, performance is on the upswing and is likely to be facilitated by the increased attentional focus and energy spike that the emotional state brings. Figure 2. The Yerkes Dodson Law
However, at some point, arousal moves past its optimal level and becomes a detriment. This occurs when a player’s attention becomes more focused on his or her own body and thoughts than it is on the table (see Figure 2). Generally speaking, we tend to express emotions when the demands of the situation exceed the available resources or our perceived coping abilities,9* which may also tend to occur when arousal reaches higher levels. Managing Moods and Emotions – There are at least two known strategies for dealing with negative moods in competitive sports: cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression. Cognitive reappraisal is when one interprets a situation differently in order to change its emotional impact. Thus, you are changing the fundamental quality or intensity of the mood through a process of re-framing. For instance, a player might think of a match against a strong player as an ‘opportunity to learn’ rather than a ‘chance to lose.’ Cognitive reappraisal is associated with positive consequences even when one’s actual performance is sub par. Players who received failure feedback showed faster response times and better performance on the second trial of a task as compared to those who received feedback that was more neutral; and as compared to expressive suppressors.10 Thus, even in the face of poor performance and negative feedback, cognitive reappraisal has tangible benefits.
Expressive suppression involves the willful inhibition of the expression of an emotion, without necessarily modifying the emotional experience itself. Therefore, when we suppress, we feel the same intensity of a negative mood, but we effortfully refrain from demonstrating any overt emotional cues (facial expressions, gestures, postures). Suppression is more taxing than reappraisal because the body is already in a state of physiological arousal when the technique is used. Thus, suppression requires a willful resistance to the hard-wired verbal, facial, and bodily responses associated with the natural expression of the mood state.
The majority of research in psychology tells us that it is generally not beneficial to suppress or inhibit emotions. Instead, it is far more desirable to learn to reappraise and re-frame the situation before or during playing. Both suppression and reappraisal require effort, and the involvement of the frontal lobes of the brain. However, only suppression is associated with harmful downstream effects such as excessive cardiac reactivity and increased pain perception.11* Suppression can also lead to an ironic ‘rebounding’ of the very emotion one is trying to suppress. This is because if we are trying to inhibit something, we must keep monitoring it to assess its presence. The process of monitoring can effectively maintain the mood by keeping it alive in our conscious awareness.12 Furthermore, if we habitually suppress certain emotions, they might not emerge when we most need them. This could deprive us of the essential decision making information provided by various mood states.13* Because of the high costs of expressive suppression, players might try an intermediate form of suppression known as emotional postponement. To use this technique, a player can think, “Right now, my job is to finish this game. After that, I will deal with this mood,” or something similar. In this manner, a player can bring down the sense of urgency in dealing with an emotional upswing. Ways to Regulate Emotion and Moods While Playing – The fact that athletic performance and emotion is bidirectional must also be considered.* A player may experience many brief mood states over the course of a match, and the optimal study of billiards would need to take this fact into consideration. An investigation of professional table tennis players showed that the more games per match a player lost, the more likely he or she was to experience negative emotions. The more games per match a player won, however, the more likely he or she was to alternate between positive and negative emotions. Thus, even when a player is ahead of his or her opponent, it is still possible to experience moods such as frustration and discouragement.7* It is thus beneficial to know and practice different strategies for regulating your emotions. Based on the limited information on emotion during competitive sports, here is a summary of strategies that could help players manage moods during billiard matches: 1. Try to evoke pleasant, happy, or hopeful feelings before a match. This can be achieved through focusing on happy memories and engaging in pleasant events in advance of playing.
2. While playing, maintain a sense of hope, even if you have fallen far behind your opponent in the match. Remember: in billiards, “anything can happen!” 3. Whenever possible, strive for ‘task involvement’ rather than ‘ego involvement’. This will help maintain positive moods. 4. Reduce anxiety ahead of time by repeatedly confronting those situations that make you nervous. If you cannot recreate them in the real world, then use your imagination. It is best to imagine your ‘worst fear’ unfolding when you do this, as opposed to imagining ‘winning despite your fear.’ The idea is to experience and tolerate strong anxiety ahead of time until it reduces, by maintaining a focus on the most anxiety-provoking aspects of the situation throughout practice. 5. If you are prone to anxiety during pool, try vigorous exercise on the morning of a match even if you are not feeling particularly nervous ahead of time. This could enhance your sense of physical calm and well-being. 6. Some players find that breathing and relaxation exercises can help to reduce or control arousal during a match. This is likely to be true when arousal is in the mild to moderate range. However, at some point on the arousal curve, the exercises may no longer be potent enough to offset strong moods such as frustration, anger or anxiety. This can then put a player at risk for the unintended effect of mood worsening, if the techniques fail. Therefore, if you prefer to use breathing and relaxation, you could also assess the intensity of your mood and re-strategize if necessary. 7. Trick yourself by re-labeling your anger or anxiety as “excitement,” should it emerge during a competition. 8. If playing in an anxious state, increase efforts to focus visually and mentally on the details of the game without becoming distracted by irrelevant cues or negative thoughts. 9. Prepare responses to frustrating aspects of a match well ahead of time. Do not leave yourself unprepared to deal with an anger-provoking situation. If you do this, then your anger will derail your logical mind and produce a response that you could regret later on. This takes practice, but it can be done. 10. Try emotional postponement, in which you say to yourself, “Right now, my job is to finish this game. After that, I will deal with this mood.” This should bring down the feeling of urgency that sometimes accompanies an emotion.
Emotion can undoubtedly be an asset in playing billiards, especially if you can master some effective mood regulation techniques. Remember the three-part model of mood discussed earlier, and don’t let negative emotions take you hostage. After all, a mood is merely the interaction of some thoughts, some physical feelings, and some behaviors. This model affords a blueprint for controlling your emotions. All you have to do is make a slight adjustment to your thoughts, bodily state, and/or behaviors to achieve a more positive mood, and hopefully, improved billiard skills.
… Click here for the references used in this article. Note to Readers: This information is intended for general education purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional and/or medical advice. While Dr. Mohlman cannot provide psychological advice to NYC Grind’s readers, we are happy to post and respond to comments, suggestions, and questions about her columns.