Higher levels of Emotional Intelligence (E.I.) have been associated with superior performance by teams in business for some time and various coaching programs have been aimed at developing skills and abilities in this area.  Whilst E.I. has been thought to have a similarly positive impact in sport, the empirical evidence to support this has been scarce.  However, an important piece of practical research has been carried out which assessed the effect of E.I. on the performance of professional cricket teams in the South African national, first class competition.  The research, carried out by David Crombie, Carl Lombard, and Tim Noakes at the University of Cape Town, found that E.I. had a significant effect on the results of teams in this competition.

It is commonly acknowledged that an athlete’s emotions play an integral part in their performance.  We often hear that an athlete or team is ‘playing on emotion’ or that on any given day, feelings such as aggression may be up or down.  However, measuring the emotion that underlies these observable behaviours or accessing them when needed by the athlete is less simple than seeing them in action.  The following quote provides an example of the impact of emotional intelligence;

“An elite professional athlete requires the effective management of stress, tolerance of frustration, regulation of mood, and exercise of emotional restraint within public view and scrutiny” (Perlini & Halverson, 2006).

So what is it that helps an athlete perform under pressure?  Clearly, some individuals display an innate ability to remain calm and think clearly, so if we can understand the specifics of these traits, we are in a better position to create them.

Whilst there are various techniques that can be used to create this ideal state of mind, these are often limited by the ability of an athlete to understand their own emotional state.  Emotional intelligence has been defined as the ability to recognise, understand and manage emotions.  This insight can become the vehicle to the calm, clear thinking that facilitates the state of ‘flow’ that is synonymous with ideal performance states or descriptions such as an athlete being ‘in form’.  The simple intention of focusing clearly on the task in the face of distractions such as self doubt, actions by opponents, or the inevitable pressure to achieve a result, becomes far from simple to execute.

One of the keys in maintaining attention and focus is the awareness and, subsequently, the ability to manage our emotions, particularly in the face of situations that normally create pressure.  Crombie and his colleagues identified the following traits of emotional intelligence as important components that are open to development:

•    Perceiving and identifying one’s own emotions and those of others.  This allows an athlete to receive accurate information about their immediate environment.

•    Facilitation of logical thoughts about these emotions.

•    Understand emotions so that both personal insight and insight into the feelings of others can be utilised within a competitive environment.

•    Managing the emotions of self and others so that such emotions can be either maximised or ignored, depending on the needs of the situation.

The impact and relevance of E.I. varies from one sport to another and can be harnessed in different ways according to the specific stages of an athlete’s performance.  E.I. has an effect on an athletes training, pre-competition preparation, competitive context, and the post-competition recovery phase.  Pleasingly, the above E.I. skills can be developed and enhanced with the appropriate professional assistance.

A further key relevance of E.I. involves its effect on the cohesiveness of a team.  The interpersonal component of E.I. includes empathy, consideration of the needs of the group, and the ability to communicate effectively, including under pressure.  Enhanced E.I. has the potential for athletes to communicate and make decisions in a way that best suits the requirements of the team.  When this is combined with an enhanced ability to focus on the process required to perform their own skills, both the athlete and the team will be closer to reaching their potential.

Crombie, D., Lombard, C., & Noakes, T.  (2009).  Emotional intelligence scores predict team sports performance in a national cricket competition.  International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 4.
Perlini, A. H., & Halvorsen, T. R.  (2006).  Emotional intelligence in the national hockey league.  Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 38.