Controlling emotion

AFL umpire dealing with conflict
Author:  Angie Calder
Issue: Volume 3 Number 2

Developing the ability to control emotions and mood states through the application of a few simple psychological skills is beneficial for all sports persons.  In particular, improving self-awareness and motivation, and decreasing reactions to stress are essential life skills. 

Recognising the complex interaction and strong relationship between physical and mental states is important for recovery training.  This is evident when muscle relaxation is complemented by lowered heart rates and blood pressure, and improved mood states. 

The term used to refer to the techniques and skills employed to aid an individual’s emotional and psychological state in this way is psycho-regulatory training (PRT).  Relaxation techniques, meditation, autogenic training, breathing exercises, music, relaxation massage and flotation are the most frequently used PRT techniques.


Although passive rest is an important component of recovery practices, the time spent during passive rest can be used to include one of several PRT techniques.  Meditation trains the athlete to relax by controlling the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system through reducing noise or stimulation to the brain.  By controlling this system an individual  can lower blood pressure, heart rate, slow down breathing rates, relax muscles and calm the sympathetic (excitatory) nervous system. 

This technique is useful for controlling stresses after training or competition, particularly for an official who has had to control a very explosive game.   Meditation skills take some time and plenty of practice to acquire and they are most readily learned by younger individuals.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation can be done at the end of training or before going to bed.  The technique involves tightening and relaxing specific muscle groups so that the athlete identifies the sensations of muscle tension and muscle relaxation in that body part.  This results in a reduction in muscle tension and helps to improve body awareness so the individual can recognise muscle tension and focus on reducing this.  When this skill is used regularly in training it can lead to significant improvement in training and match-day abilities.

Autogenic training

Autogenic training is similar to progressive muscle relaxation. This is a self-applied technique in which the individual focuses on producing sensations in specific muscle groups.  The two sensations most commonly used to promote relaxation are warmth and heaviness.  Warm sensations indicate a relaxed state, which many individuals find useful after stressful situations.

Imagery and visualisation

All individuals have an imagination that can be developed to contribute to their training potential.  Imagery relaxation and visualisation involve using the imagination to create a vivid scene.  Four senses are used to generate the image: sight, smell, hearing and touch.  The image created by the individual should evoke feelings of comfort and relaxation.


Breathing exercises are used frequently in the martial arts.  Learning and applying breathing techniques and focusing on relaxing tense  muscles can lead to a more relaxed state.  Exhaling while applying static stretches also helps produce a relaxation response in the body.

REST and Flotation

Other psychological techniques revolve around the concept of REST (restricted environment stimulation therapy).  Some techniques are as simple as closing the eyes to reduce stimulation, while others require training (meditation) or specialised equipment (flotation).  Reducing the amount of stimulation to the brain enables the individual to focus more effectively on relaxing and becoming emotionally calm. 

Flotation tanks provide an environment with minimal stimulation by reproducing weightlessness, and removing the stimulation of sight and sound, unless the individual relaxes to music or to an affirmation tape.  It usually takes two or three trials to learn how to relax completely when using this technique, but it is remarkably effective for reducing stress and preventing burnout particularly during or after stressful sporting activities.


Music is underutilised as an adjunct to training.  Although it is sometimes used in the weights gym to provide a motivational atmosphere conducive to hard work, it is equally as effective in evoking a relaxation response if an appropriate style or piece is selected. 

Officials may find it useful to create a bank of tapes that generate a range of emotions and atmospheres, either stimulating or calming.  These can be used in training and because tape decks and CD players are quite portable, they are an excellent tool for use before and after games and competition. They can also be used to induce relaxation when the individual is in an unfamiliar environment and finding it difficult to relax.  With practice, anyone can learn to manipulate mood states for optimal arousal or relaxation.

Apart from flotation all of these techniques can be practised daily without the need for any specialised equipment or facilities.  An ideal time for rehearsing these skills is the  immediately before going to bed.  Learning how to switch-off from the day's events will also promote a good night's sleep.

Emotional recovery

At key times during the year, such as competitions and tournaments, school or university exams and Christmas, individuals are often very stressed.  If the  game or tournament was very intense, or an official’s performance was below their expectations, considerable benefit can be obtained from emotional recovery techniques.  Mood-lifting activities can include watching an amusing video or comedy show on television, reading an escapist or adventure novel, or going to a fun park, zoo or light entertainment centre.  During periods of extended competitions such as overseas tours, planning these activities as part of training is essential.


(This article was originally published as part of Fitness & Recovery Training for Sports Officials, Australian Sports Commission, 1998)

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