Emotional intelligence and sport

I’ve been reading about emotional intelligence in sports organizations, not just because that’s an area I’m interested in as a sports coach but also because I think there are a lot of similarities between sport and performance roles like sales (my day job).

Emotional intelligence has been defined as the ability:

  • to perceive accurately, appraise and express emotion
  • to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought
  • to understand emotion and emotion knowledge
  • to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth

 I have added the italics to emphasize the bits I think are most important. This definition contains a hierarchy that progresses from a basic skill to a highly developed psychological process i.e.

  • perception, appraisal and expression of emotion – most of us can do that to lesser or greater degrees
  • emotional facilitation of thinking – and the consequences of the opposite of that
  • understanding and analysing emotion and using emotional knowledge
  • reflective regulation of emotion to promote emotional and intellectual growth

It is this last one that I think is most difficult and also the thing that I believe is one of the main reasons why learning through reflection is so effective.

So let’s look at the four skills in turn.


How do you know someone is upset? Some of us are better at this than others. I was in a meeting recently where I was sharing some news with people that I knew might upset them (a change to their bonus payment criteria). I asked them to tell me how they felt about the change honestly. They did express some concerns and I felt I dealt with them openly and tactfully. However, after the meeting another person in the room (the team’s manager) told me she had read the body language of the individuals differently. She felt they were much more upset than I had perceived. She went back to the group, without me, discussed the news again and got a much more open expression of upset and hurt from the individuals in the room. My asking for openness and freedom of expression did not seem to permit the people to express what they really felt. This ability to read ‘false’ expression of emotion is one of the key tests of emotional intelligence and is actually used by the researchers I read to generate a score for emotional knowledge perception (it’s called the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test(MSCEIT)) and in this case it’s pretty clear I fell a bit short in comparison with my colleague. I now have a desire to improve my skills in emotion perception and will develop a plan to do that.

Processing and comprehension

The second emotion ability is to do with processing emotional information. In the sports organization in the study I read (by the way I think it was UK Cycling; they’re quite good!) the most cited dimension of this was the ability to understand the other person’s emotional investment in a given situation. This was illustrated by this quote from a national manager in the organization being studied:

Some people you can read like a book when they are happy or sad or aren’t motivated, but others you need to build up an understanding over time. At the same time you can’t always use the same approach with every person. Someone who is upset one time, might not react the same way to your attempts at discussing ‘the bigger picture’ when they are upset at another time. You need to be constantly checking for how they react to what you are (or aren’t) saying.

Cripes, he could have been talking about my experience above!

If this seems like hard work, well it just is! The researchers call it ‘emotional work’ and we all do it to some extent. What I took from this was the realization that yes, it is hard but by being mindful of it, I can make better decisions about whether and how to do that work. If I’m not mindful of it I can’t make those choices. Reflection is the best way I have found to help me be more mindful of other people’s emotional investment and I can honestly say that I have got much better at this over the last couple of years, at work and in my personal life.

Management of emotional expression in self and others

This was the most cited dimension in the study and there were four main behavioural factors involved:

  • avoiding acting on impulse
  • influencing others by emotional expression
  • manipulating others’ emotions
  • masking emotions

The people in the study talked about two ways they regulated their behaviour:

  • emotional regulation (i.e. managing their feelings). In this case the most useful behaviour was sitting down with someone with whom you weren’t seeing eye-to-eye and working out a win-win situation for both parties. When you work through to a win-win situation the relationship becomes stronger and both parties feel better.
  • experience regulation. The most common ‘tools’ here was forward tracking (working through ‘what ifs’), back tracking (making sense of the situation) and trying to feel emotions you think you should.

Forward-tracking allowed people to process their emotional experience or thoughts before they had to play them out ‘for real’. It helped them consider and become more aware of other people’s emotional investment in a situation. It didn’t necessarily change their thoughts but it did help them change their behaviour. In particular, the people in the study talked about restructuring their thoughts to focus more on positive things (there’s a good example of this in the Goleman paper I posted last week).

For expression regulation the most commonly cited themes were not acting on impulse, expressing an emotion you think you should, and withholding emotions. The main point here was individuals becoming more mindful of the impact their emotional expression can have on others. By not acting on impulse people gave themselves time to consider both sides of a story or to get more information about the situation to better understand it. Withholding emotions also helped relationships sometimes but the authors warned against doing this too often and over an extended period of time. In fact, they cited some research which showed that some people who had undergone training in emotional intelligence actually expressed more negative thoughts and feelings but that their sense of well-being still improved. The inference being that the training helped them deal with those emotions more proactively rather then burying them and allowing them to ‘fester’. I have to say this is not something I would have bought into until quite recently but I have seen how people can feel much less defensive about their ‘deficiencies’ when they have been allowed to recognize and celebrate their strengths.

Finally, the researchers designed an intervention to explore whether emotional intelligence can be taught. They devised a training intervention that included workshops, seminars, and longer term coaching using reflective writing. They found that while the workshops and seminars were deemed as useful by the participants only those who engaged in the longer term coaching and writing actually improved their MSCEIT scores. I know I can be a bit boring about coaching and reflective writing but this folks, is quantitative evidence of its value…

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