Understanding Athletes’ Capacity for Emotions - Expanding the Window of Tolerance

on Tuesday, 12 May 2015. Posted in May

Why helping Athletes Increase their Emotional Tolerance is Important for performnace

One aspect of athlete scrutiny that has sat uncomfortably with me is the generalisation and labelling of aspects of athletes' mind-set. Remarks and sound bites such as "He lacks resilience", "They can't handle the pressure", "She's not mentally tough enough" may well be seen as problem identification but are they truly helping athletes and coaches create change. A coach may think he or she is identifying a problem, but I think it's more likely creating a self-concept for the athlete that can become entrenched and difficult to move away from.

"We need to be specific and targeted about what the struggle is"

Explanations such as the ones written above offer little in the way of knowing what to work on with an athlete from a psychological perspective. Just like a tennis coach working with a player on a particular aspect of a forehand, or a goal kicking coach working on the ball drop, coaches need to be specific and targeted about what the struggle is psychologically.

I want you to come out of reading this article with an understanding that individuals have different capacities to tolerate different emotional/physical experiences. Not just differences between athletes but between different emotions. From understanding this, the scope for change for an athlete can broaden. I'll call this capacity as "Windows of Tolerance".

"Individuals have different capacities to tolerate different emotional/physical experiences - between individuals, and within the individual"

An athlete may have great capacity to regulate and shift attention away from struggling with anxiety yet struggle to tolerate the feeling of anger when there is a perceived injustice on the field.
Imagine a footballer who experiences performance anxiety before a match yet is still able to focus on the task ahead and fully commit to the key behaviours in line with his role in the team; creating space, tackling well, moving the ball forward at pace.
However, in the same match, a free kick is awarded against the athlete and he experiences anger from the perceived injustice of the award of the free kick. The athlete might then react by lashing out at an opponent or match official resulting in some kind of suspension. The athlete's "window of tolerance" (to the anger experience) here has been breached. The impulsivity to react and remove the uncomfortable feeling has taken over - engaging in short term comfort at the cost of performance.

Another example could include an athlete's capacity for sadness, grief and loss. One athlete's capacity to tolerate the grief and loss experience may be high, resulting in commitment to performance behaviours soon after a loss of a loved one. That same athlete may struggle with the pain and discomfort of pre-season training. Never truly pushing his body to the physical limits nor maximising fitness levels and also never expanding his window of tolerance to pain.

You can see by these examples that it's not as simple as labelling athletes as "resilient" or "mentally tough". You actually need to identify the individual's ability to tolerate, make room for (and ultimately accept willingly) discomfort in service of performance markers and values.

"It's not emotion that causes loss of focus and inconsistent effort, but the athlete's capacity to make room for that emotional experience"

Importantly here, it's not emotion that causes loss of focus and inconsistent effort, but the athlete's ability to make room for that emotional experience. If you're a coach reading this, here is one key to unlocking performance potential. DO NOT blame the emotion and tell the athlete implicitly or explicitly that the emotion needs to be changed, controlled or extinguished. Instead, work on expanding the window of tolerance to the emotion that the athlete struggles with.

Given this information, how are you actually helping your athletes expand their windows of tolerance? Which window are you focusing on this week, month or season? Is this ever a focus of your sessions? Do you structure a program with this in mind? The great thing about structuring psychology into your sessions is that is doesn't have to take away from other skills. In fact what could be better than honing skills while the athlete is exploring their window of tolerance.

I must comment about the need for having someone specialised in working on the expansion of the window of tolerance. Consulting with someone with experience and knowledge in assisting athletes in this process and structure is paramount. From an ethical and competence perspective, a sport psychologist with the right experience and knowledge is important to achieving the right outcomes here. Do not expect to throw your athletes to the emotional edge of tolerance (or passed it) and expect great change immediately. It takes knowledge and skill to help athletes learn, reflect, and expand their windows of tolerance to ultimately enhance performance.