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The Emotions of Sports: The science of emotions

The correlation between feelings and execution begins with experience

Posted: July 30, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 30, 2011 1:55 a.m.

The pulse quickens and blood pressures rises.

In a moment, the mind will trigger one of three responses: fight, flight or freeze.

That response separates the good athletes from the great ones - those that thrive when the game is on the line.

They clamor for the opportunity to shine in pressure situations and distinguish themselves from the field.

But when the athlete is standing at the free-throw line in the game's final seconds or is on the mound with one out left, what is happening within the body?

While emotions can seem unpredictable, the science behind them is anything but.

"The heart goes into a faster rate, and your body is ready for action," says Dr. Javier Quintana. "The muscles are loaded to perform."

Quintana is a professor at UCLA and a researcher at the university's Brain Research Institute. He is also a practicing clinician at the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare System.

"In addition, the mind is very alert, open for whatever's coming," he continues. "When the information arrives to those open channels, the brain quickly processes and compares it to situations that were similar and adds the success after them or the failure after them."

Quintana simplifies the correlation between emotions and response. The complexity of the brain's process would be too extensive otherwise.

The emotional attachment begins in the limbic system, particularly with the small, almond-shaped amygdala at the base of the brain.

When the athlete steps to the free-throw line with a chance to either win or clinch the game, his or her mind instantly begins recalling past experiences.

Every practice shot and in-game opportunity has been connected to a perception of success or failure.

Those feelings come up again as the athlete prepares to release the ball.

They move from the limbic system to the exterior cortex of the brain, where they are reviewed and processed against memorized patterns of behavior.

Finally, the action of shooting the ball, delivering a pitch or striking the golf ball, is at hand.

The frontal cortex coordinates the motion, drawing on the motor skills from different parts of the brain to execute the shot.

Hormones are released, most commonly adrenaline.

"In that moment, especially good athletes, extremely good athletes, they have created, through practice and playing, some symptomatic pattern," Quintana says. "They do almost automatically the pattern that they learned through performing in highly skilled situations."

The emotions of the moment could cloud the process and disrupt motor skills.

It's the athlete's mental fortitude that allows him or her to disassociate with the performance pressure.

Valencia graduate and Boston College basketball player Lonnie Jackson found himself in many such situations during his acclaimed prep career.

"Right before it happens, right before I hit the game-winner or before I miss a game-winner, when I'm in those situations, I'm kind of not really present," Jackson says.

Says sports psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais: "That's what it's all about, using sports as a way to experience a quiet mind and fluid movement completely connected to one's environment."

Gervais works with elite athletes at the collegiate, professional and Olympic level and is the Director of High Performance Psychology at the Pinnacle Performance Center, D.I.S.C. Sports and Spine Center and for Red Bull North America. His program - FOCUS - Mental Conditioning - is utilized at Velocity Sports Performance locations across the country, including in Santa Clarita.

"As soon as an athlete interprets an environment to be dangerous or hostile or threatening - missing a shot or looking stupid or not being good enough, our body goes into survival mode," he says. "Part of that survival mode is that we create tension in our muscles. Our breathing changes. There is a whole cascade of physical changes that take place, which affect performance. The better prepared an athlete is mentally for it, the more stress they can handle."

Success often rides on finding the right balance of emotions, adds Quintana.

He compares two sports - football and golf.

When a football game is winding down, and the player is racing for a touchdown, the fight response sparks an adrenaline upheaval that make the difference in breaking a tackle.

Conversely, a golfer on the 18th hole of a major championship is looking to remain calm and focused. He or she wants to draw on learned patterns solidified in the exterior cortex.

The consistency is crucial.

"I think I got too worked up in both directions," says Hart graduate and recently signed Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore of early struggles in his career. "I don't know why. Part of it is just being competitive. People push the competitive buttons, and you just want to win. I think that is human nature, especially playing quarterback.

"I learned that you just have to stay calm as much as possible," Moore adds. "Before games, I would get too worked up early in my career. Not that that is an excuse, but I felt better as a player going into it as calm as possible, with a clear mind, without putting all these thoughts in my head, predetermining situations in the game. It's all false advertising, if you will. If you go out and relax, and kind of be stoney, it's a lot better."

It is all logged in the brain.

Each action is recorded, and each thought and feeling is stored.

The next time the athlete finds itself in a similar situation, the brain recalls the experience.

Therefore, intentionality and control over one's thoughts could ultimately build and define his or her response in crunch time.

Fight, flight or freeze.

It won't be arbitrary.

It will be conditioned.



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