Let’s play a game-I call it, The Ultimatum Game (Disclaimer: This game belongs to Science, I did not make it up). Now, in this game, you only play once, so when I explain the scenario, you only get one chance at a response… So choose wisely.
Imagine yourself with another person, sitting at a table. You are “the proposer” and the person across from you is “the responder.” I’m going to give you, the proposer, a sum of money; for example sake, let’s say $10. Your job is to propose how you would like to divide the money between yourself and the responder. You may divide the money any way you would like. Once you have your proposal in mind, you must present it to the responder with the words “take it or leave it.”
So… How do you split it? Think of an answer before continuing.
Here is the catch to the game (which neither yourself or the responder are aware of until after the deal)… If the responder accepts, the money is split accordingly, however, if the responder rejects, then neither person will be rewarded with the money. Now, some might think, “why wouldn’t the responder accept any amount, that’s more than they entered with in the first place?” These people are traditionally known as rational thinkers; leaving with some money is better then having no money at all, right? HOWEVER, what researchers have found is that a large majority of the time responders will actually reject the money if it is not split 50/50, therefore losing both parties the opportunity to cash-in. Now, why would anybody pass up the opportunity for free money?
One word… Ego.
When the responder feels “less than” due to the (potentially) uneven division of $10, the limbic system activates-ie. feelings of irritation-and produces this overwhelming urge for us to act on impulse; hence, neither person ends up receiving any money. Now you might be thinking, how in the world does this relate to sport psychology? I’ll explain…
A long, long time ago, prior to the maturation of our species today, our brains primarily used this limbic system (the emotional-and often irrational-part of our brain) to function in every day life. This system generates a “fight or flight” response, which was especially helpful when it came to steering our primitive selves away from harmful situations, like running the opposite direction from a hungry bear. Since then, our brains have matured, and the prefrontal cortex has developed to help us process our emotions before we react to them. This ability to process emotions and activate our prefrontal cortex is much easier said than done, especially in times of high stress and anxiety. This is where arousal control and attention play a large role in performance. Take, for example, an athlete who is competing in a championship game or event; the stakes are higher than usual, the pressure to win is on, and the limbic system (that same primitive fight-or-flight response) kicks into high gear. The athlete is clearly attached to the outcome of his or her performance, and the heightened emotional state he or she experiences, makes it difficult to activate the prefrontal cortex and maintain composure throughout the competition. Over an extended period of time, the emotional flooding results in elevated levels of cortisol (the primary stress hormone of the body), and leads to an increased amount of glucose in the bloodstream, altered immune system functioning, memory and concentration impairment, and even anxiety. So how can an athlete sort through these emotions to think more efficiently, and attain their peak performance?
Two words… Process-Focused.
Here is what needs to be considered... What is at the root of the athlete’s motivation to win? What is it about the championship game that has their emotions raging? Is it a scholarship? Is it the desire to “go pro?” Maybe it is simply the feeling of competing? Either way, it is IMPERATIVE to understand just what this factor might be. What we know (as sport psychology consultants) about motivation, is that the athletes who are intrinsically motivated are most likely to be the hardest workers, the most able to maintain a positive attitude, and also, the least likely to burn out; these are the athletes that have an easier time regulating their emotions because they see performance as a process rather than an outcome. Let me define this idea of intrinsic motivation further... Intrinsically motivated performers focus on the process of bettering them self (and in applicable cases, their team) opposed to the outcome of a game, race, or season. These are the elements that are within the control of the athlete, which ultimately reduces the amount of stress that the athlete experiences in a given moment, even a championship game. If an athlete places judgment upon whether or not they beat other people to get the “WIN” or “1st place,” they will begin to derive their esteem from a comparison of themselves to others. Since the performance of another person is outside of the realm of the athlete’s control, the comparison between the two can lead to elevated levels of stress. If the athlete has a process-focused orientation, then he or she will feel more “in control” of their own development within their sport, more in control of their emotions, and their esteem will then be based on individual growth versus outcomes of competition.
Here are three emotional advantages to the performer who is process-oriented:
1. The performer will “control the controllables.” The individual who is process-oriented will likely experience greater success regulating their emotions, because their focus will be on their own development instead of making a comparison of their own development to others’.
2. Process-orientation allows performers the flexibility of making mistakes. The performer will put less pressure on them self in the moment of competition because they will be focused on overcoming the challenges they face, opposed to focusing on a single outcome (ie. winning). After all, overcoming adversity only prepares us to be more able to deal with a similar scenario the second time around.
3. Process-orientation is linked to enjoyment. Simply, fun. The performer that is fixated on a single measure of success (ie. scholarships or monetary rewards) will not feel fulfilled until that single outcome is achieved. Keeping the focus in the present will allow the individual to enjoy all the experiences that accompany involvement in sport and performance.