In contact sports like boxing and rugby you can use your pre-match nerves to fuel your determination, speed and aggression. In contrast, in a sport like table tennis that involves fine motor control, nerves can also stifle your performance, making you stiff and clumsy. It seems obvious that learning to control your emotions prior to games should therefore be important to table tennis players (and competitors in other sports that require precision). Yet, surprisingly, as the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Personality point out, “to date, only a few studies have investigated the relation between emotional regulation and … sport performance”.
To find out more, Jeanette Kubiak and her colleagues, at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, surveyed hundreds of league table tennis players in Germany about the ways they controlled their emotions prior to matches, and then compared these results against objective measures of the participants’ league performance. The research uncovered several emotional control strategies used more often by better and improving players. “Taken together, the findings provide evidence for the importance of emotion regulation regarding sport performance,” the researchers said.
Over 300 table tennis players took part covering a wide range of ability and with an average of 24 years experience playing the game (the average age was 39 and there were 70 women). Reflecting on the prior season, players rated how often they tended to use ten different emotional control strategies based on the “process model of emotion regulation” put forward by Stanford clinical psychologist James Gross.
The researchers looked at two end-of-season objective measures of success. The first was the players’ end-of-season ranking. They found that higher-ranked players more often calmed their pre-match nerves by: using physical preparation (e.g. swinging their arms and getting warmed up); using positive self-talk (e.g. telling themselves they will win); planning (e.g. thinking about their tactics); and by suppressing their negative emotions and deliberately giving off an impression of supreme confidence. At the same time, higher-ranked players less often reported catastrophising, such as thinking how badly the game could go.
The second outcome measure was improved performance over the previous season – that is, winning more games this season than last. Improving players more often used positive self-talk and less often indulged in self-blame (e.g. thinking they should have practiced more); ruminated less about their anxious feelings; and catastrophised less.
The study is limited by its cross-sectional design. For instance, it’s possible that winning and earning a higher ranking changed how players managed their emotions, rather than emotional regulation driving better performance. The retrospective nature of the survey is another short-coming – it’s even possible that winning changes how players think about and remember their emotional strategies.
Nonetheless, as Kubiak and her team point out, “no [previous] studies have investigated several emotion regulation strategies affiliated with different stages in the process model of emotion regulation in handling emotions prior to a competition”. They added that their findings “are interesting for sports psychology because they help to clarify why some competitive athletes fail to take full advantage of their performance potential, whereas others are successful.”
Image: Bastian Steger of Germany in action during Men Single second round at Table Tennis World Championship at Messe Duesseldorf on June 1, 2017 ( Maja Hitij / Getty Images Staff)