Author: Deveau, Bruce
Date published: May 18, 2012
Can we talk about anger? Can we talk about anger without making ourselves angry? Anger is a powerful and often misunderstood emotion. As part of a series on key emotions, this month I look at a universal feeling that can drive great performance and also cause unbelievable destruction.
What is anger? Anger is one of our most basic emotions. It is a call to action but not the action itself. Anger is an emotional response to a situation that is perceived as frustrating or threatening. That perceived threat can be to yourself or others, your sense of identity, or your goals.
How does anger relate to your mental game? Sport psychology looks at emotions primarily in terms of how they promote or inhibit peak performance. With that in mind, emotions are categorized as positive or negative because of their power to direct our actions. Positive emotions, such as happiness, excitement, and interest, tend to provoke positive, forward responses in which competitors rise to the occasion. Negative emotions, such as fear, selfdoubt, and worry, tend to provoke avoidant and weak responses in which competitors fail or perform below their potential.
Anger is a bit complicated. The response to feeling angry differs from person to person. Ask one racer how he responds to feeling angry, and he might say, "Bring it on!" This racer is energized and excited. Ask another, and he might say, "Good grief!" This racer is distracted and offhis game.
In general, the research on anger and performance puts anger as a negative. Because anger is preceded by a perceived threat, anger is associated with the unwanted emotions of fear and anxiety. Like all emotions, anger exists along a continuum based on how much intensity is behind it. Drivers can perform well at very high levels of stimulation, but in order for that intensity to be useful, it must be associated with a positive emotion. While anger has the power to drive up the emotional intensity, its explosive potential is more likely to send it out of control, causing driver error.
Some competitors understand this potential for anger to cause mistakes and will try to induce it in their opponent. They will say annoying things back in the lanes. They will mess around with their staging procedure in order to get under your skin. I disagree with this kind of gamesmanship, but it exists in all competitive environments. The prepared racer knows how to handle it.
How can you harness the power of anger? The first step is awareness. At a glance, anger can seem like a strong, forward position. However, in reality anger is primarily a defensive stance. Anger is a defensive response to a perceived threat.
Here's an example: You're driving down the road, and a person cuts you offwhile talking on his cell phone. You shout at him in anger and wave an unkind gesture in his direction. You responded with anger, but before anger there was a perceived threat: When he cut you off, you were surprised, and for a second, you thought you were in danger.
If anger is a response to perceived threat, that makes anger a secondary emotion. In the chain of emotional events, anger always follows a perceived threat and the fear associated with it. There are individuals with highly reactive nervous systems who will react more frequently with anger, in a greater number of situations, and with greater intensity. A person who walks around feeling angry most of the time is actually feeling threatened. That point alone is enough to make some folks angry because they feel justified in their feelings. Anger can make a person feel strong when they can't recognize or don't want to admit that they feel threatened.
But there are costs to excessive anger. When directed inward, anger can lead to negative emotions, such as anxiety and self-doubt. When directed outward, anger can make a person offensive or even assaultive. An angry person is more likely to be distracted, unhappy, and performing below his potential. That way, anger is like fire. When under control, it is a necessary part of life. When out of control, it causes destruction.
Regardless of whether you have high or low levels of anger, you can only manage anger if you recognize it as a response to a perceived threat. I say "perceived" because it turns out not all situations mean the same thing to different people. One person might perceive a situation as threatening while another might perceive it as challenging. This is where anger meets with sport psychology. The person who perceives difficult situations as challenging is always going to perform better.
You can't eliminate anger from your emotional world, but you can lessen its frequency and intensity. You can reduce its harmful effect on your performance. If anger always follows perceived threat, that means the whole chain started with an initial appraisal of the situation as threatening. The task is to slow down the lightning-fast connection between initial appraisal and its reaction. Sometimes, what initially seems like a threat can be seen as a challenge. By slowing down your reactivity, you give yourself a second chance at that initial appraisal. You get to ask, "Is this really a threat?" "Could it be a challenge?"
The distinction between threat and challenge is the key to controlling anger. The person who perceives threat is going to act defensively. The person who perceives challenge is going to react with many more choices. This skill of reappraisal is not going to happen instantly. It takes work and persistence to generate new automatic responses.
The most successful athletes in the world control their anger because they have adjusted their initial appraisal, interrupted automatic responses, and given themselves more emotional and action choices. When a difficulty arises, they see threats as threats and challenges as challenges and respond accordingly. The driver who learns this skill stops fighting fire with fire and starts fighting fire with water. Water works better. ND
Bruce Deveau, MSW, is a psychotherapist, mental-skills coach, and author of The Racer's Mind, a workbook and CD for driver concentration. For information, log on to www.theracersmind.com. Send correspondence regarding this column to The Racer's Mind, P.O. Box 392, Amesbury, MA 01913 or call 978-388- 4331; email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
"A person who walks around feeling angry most of the time is actually feeling threatened."