Emotional intelligence (EI) is associated with both increased performance in athletes and with healthy engagement with exercise in the general population. So what is it, and can you train it?
A recent review, penned by Dr. Sylvain Laborde of the German Sport University in Cologne with two collaborators in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, sought to answer just those questions.
“EI refers to individual responses to intrapersonal or interpersonal emotional information and encompasses the identification, expression, understanding and regulation of personal or others’ emotions,” the authors explain.
Self-awareness, empathy, patience, respect, positivity, and self-control are all things associate with EI – and things that can be beneficial to athletes.
Emotional intelligence is sometimes thought of to as a trait, something which is relatively unchanged through time or situation and is intrinsic to the individual person. It’s also sometimes thought of as an ability, which someone can learn and improve over the course of their career.
Depending on which viewpoint research is coming from, assessing EI might be done with a test, like the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test – think Myers-Brigs, but different. Or it might be assessed by giving athletes a survey and asking them to self-report their emotional intelligence.
To really understand how EI might influence sports performance or engagement, the best viewpoint might be the one that Laborde and his coauthors seem to advocate: the tripartite model. In this model, components of EI are based on knowledge, trait, and ability.
“An athlete might know that using a challenge reappraisal technique [to minimize stress] before a competition would help them (knowledge level) and can perform the technique efﬁciently (ability level), but does not often incorporate the technique (trait level),” the authors wrote. “In this example, we can see that the three levels are loosely connected and an understanding of all three would be most useful for the practicing sport psychology consultant.”
Surveying the scientific literature, the French-German-Austrian team found 33 papers examining EI, which is also sometimes called emotional competence, in relation to exercise.
Most of the research had to do with athletic competition. But to address that might be jumping ahead. An under-investigated, but very intriguing, line of research first showed that EI was associated with the difference between an inactive person and one partaking in a healthy amount of exercise.
In six studies about the relationship between EI and exercise, this manifested in different ways. In one study of undergraduates, EI was correlated with exercise behavior and diet. In another, high school students with high EI were able to intentionally use exercise to stabilize and improve their mood. As a result, they both got a healthy does of exercise, and also stayed mentally and emotionally more balanced.
What might the connection be? Staying true to an exercise regime requires motivation, and understanding and managing ones emotions is key to staying optimistic and motivated. Furthermore, a lot of recreational exercise and sports are done in groups, and being able to manage interactions with teammates, instructors, and exercise buddies makes the workout itself more enjoyable, and more likely to be repeated.
So it’s not surprising that these relationships between EI and exercise carry through to a more serious sporting environment, for instance one where practice is mandatory. Although everyone shows up to practice, for instance, what an athlete gets out of that practice might easily be related to their EI.
And there are new dimensions, too: recognizing emotions in others might mean that an athlete works better with his or her teammates, and expressing emotions might allow teammates to do the same. Recognizing and understanding emotions might also reveal a competitor’s mental state and use that towards victory.
Awareness and empathy might make an athlete a better team leader, or a better coach.
Indeed, studies of both teams and individuals found that higher EI scores were correlated with better performance metrics or objectives. In an earlier paper, Laborde used a technique called Structural Equation Modeling to reveal one mechanism for why this might be so. He wrote in 2014 that EI helps athletes deal with stress, and assists with coping mechanisms.
(For more on coping and what it means in sports, read our story on “competitive suffering”.)
Other researchers found that athletes with high EI were more likely to use psychological strategies and skills, such as task-oriented coping strategies or success motivation.
Emotional intelligence might even be related to physiological performance. One study found that as a trait, EI was related to cortisol responses to anxiety in competition. Another found that EI was related to the maximal muscle contractions an athlete was capable of. These relationships need much further study.
In the life of an elite athlete, managing emotion is key, especially when competition goes on for days, or regularly for months through an entire career. Endurance runners with high EI felt more positive over the course of a six-day competition, and track and field athletes had less anxiety over the course of a meet than their lower-EI colleagues.
Even when the outcome of a competition is negative, researchers have repeatedly found that athletes with high EI have more positive feelings. It’s logical to think that this might help them move on to the next competition more easily.
So, with all of this evidence that EI is important for athletic success or even just healthy exercise, is it something that can be trained? Laborde and his colleagues list this as one major area that needs to be studied. But of the two studies which looked at EI training, there were some encouraging findings.
For instance, a South African cricket team was randomly divided into control and treatment groups. The treatment group was sent to 10 sessions of EI training, 3 hours each, teaching emotion perception, facilitation, understanding, and management. At the end of the experiment, their EI had increased.
Another study found that simply discussing the results of an EI test in a 30-minute coaching session led athletes to improve their EI in future tests.
“The theoretical advancement brought by the tripartite model makes it possible to envisage long-term changes in EI through interventions that target all three levels of the model and we recommend future applied studies to take steps toward designing interventions that target knowledge, ability, and trait components in sport and physical activity,” the authors conclude.
Unsurprisingly, EI is also being touted in the business world as a desirable trait in employees. Online seminars abound; for a sports application, the best strategy might be to find a sports psychologist to consult with (one option: the Association for Applied Sports Psychology). Many university athletic departments also have in-house staff.
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Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.