By Mitch Abrams, Psy.D.
Consider the scenario; you get to the gym with the intentions of establishing a new max bench but you can’t focus. You’re feeling kind of tired and having difficulty getting motivated. You’ve been working towards 300 pounds for a while, but feel like today isn’t the day. The normal inspirational psychjob your workout partner offers isn’t budging you. He then relents, “Well, okay, maybe you just don’t have it…you’ll get there eventually.” He may think he’s being supportive, but in reality, he took a swipe at you. You’re work has not led to the results you are looking for. You start feeling a little defeated, and then maybe embarrassed until you realize that he just threw down a challenge and you start to get angry.
As your anger builds, your heart rate increases, your breathing rate increases, your muscles are getting tense and a little shaky because they’re preparing for work. You can imagine that now, lifting this weight is a matter of pride that somehow this says something about who you are. You now think you can lift even more.
If you lie down under the bar, and lift it off the rack, with your body streaming with anger as fuel, you can use that anger to lift more, train harder, and exceed previous bests. At the same time, if you don’t temper it (pardon the pun) with good judgment and clear thinking, you could try to do too much and risk injury. Therefore, your ability to adjust your anger, depending on the demands of the task at hand, can have significant impact on achieving your fitness goals.
These days when people hear the words “Anger Management,” they either believe it is the place that you are sent for a sports transgression – the athletic equivalent of the principal’s office – or a Charlie Sheen sit-com which is a far cry from a maniacal Jack Nicholson/Adam Sandler pairing. The reality is anger management is not about teaching people to not get angry. No one gets in trouble for being angry; they get in trouble for what they do when they get angry sometimes.
Anger is a normal human emotion that, depending on the task, can be quite helpful. At higher levels, it can increase strength, speed and intensity while decreasing the perception of pain. Anger has the potential to elevate sports performance. Unfortunately, at higher levels, it also can lead to poor fine motor coordination, difficulties in problem solving, decision making, cognitive processing speed and the ability to synthesize the data we obtain from the environment around us to make quick, strategic decisions – something in the sports world that is sometimes known as “vision.” For heavy lifting, anger can help. For putting on the green, anger can hurt. Therefore, if you can adjust the intensity of your anger to the amount needed for a given task, you can improve your performance.
To become better at this, you need to learn how to turn up and turn down your anger. To turn it up, you can conjure an image in your mind of being provoked, of being embarrassed, of having your “buttons pushed.” In fact, the better you know you’re own buttons or triggers, the better you’re able to identify when you’re getting worked up and need to calm down and the better you can use them as motivation to push you harder. For many athletes, an easy way to get them to fuel themselves is to call them out. Challenge them that they can’t do something, or that they don’t want it hard enough. An athlete’s internal drive will very often fight against that and use the fuel to fight on.
Being able to cool down is perhaps even more important. Keep in mind that you cannot be physiologically in a rage and calm at the same time. So sometimes, exerting a lot of energy in exercise will ease the anger. But, learning relaxation techniques like breathing exercises, meditation or utilizing imagery and visualization can bring your mind back to a quiet place. Remember, the greater your ability to control oneself, the greater your personal power.
Dr. Mitch Abrams is a licensed sports psychologist, specializing in anger management, and creator of one of the only comprehensive anger management programs to assist athletes in developing their peak potential on the field and off. He is the author of the book “Anger Management and Sport”, (Human Kinetics, 2010) and writes a blog on “Sports Transgressions” for Psychology Today.
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