It seems intuitive that negative emotional states (ex., fear, anger) can hurt the motor execution of performers, but how do the actions themselves change based on these emotions? In a landmark study, Coombes, Janelle, and Duley (2005) sought to explore the mechanisms behind the decrement in performance often seen in performers experiencing negative emotions. They found that eliciting negative emotions in their participants caused them to perform a motor-task faster, and to make more errors. It is important to note that it was the type of emotion (negative vs. positive) and not the arousal level that caused the changes.
So let’s look at a sport where a goal of the fans is to elicit positive emotions in the home-team and negative emotions in the away-team, basketball. We now have a scientific explanation for why fans try to discourage the opposing teams players when they shoot free-throws. If the crowd is successful in causing the player to feel increased anxiety and/or aggression, is it likely that the player will execute the shot in the way that Coombes, Janelle, & Duley (2005) would predict. There is a good chance that the player will rush the shot (faster), and they will be more likely to miss (errors). In short, the fans know that making the player feel bad will work, and we now have a good explanation as to why it works.
An understanding of the mechanisms behind the emotion-performance relationship is important for two reasons. One, so we can understand “why” it occurs. Evolutionarily, when faced with something that will cause a negative emotion our body is wired to react quickly. If action is not taken we may be harmed. Second, an understanding of this concept can help us develop ways to deal with it. We understand that performers who are anxious or fearful will have the tendency to rush and make mistakes. This is when we can use techniques such as imagery, cognitive restructuring, and relaxation to prepare performers to deal with negative emotions. If we help them succeed in this process they will have a huge advantage over their competitors who may be unaware of the direct effect of emotions on performance.
Coombes, S. A., Janelle, C. M., & Duley, A. R. (2005). Emotion and motor control: Movement attributes following affective picture processing. Journal of Motor Behavior, 37(6), 425-436.