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Anger & Competitive Performance

Learn how anger affects competitive performance from anger management expert Dr. J. Ryan Fuller in this Howcast video.


I’m Dr. Ryan Fuller and I'm going to talk a little bit about the role that anger might have in terms of performance. So, oftentimes when we think about performing at something, we believe we sort of have to be incredibly excited, incredibly aroused, or even in the case of an aggressive sport, it might even think it's a good idea to become angry at the opposing team or opponent. There's lots of evidence, though in fact, that it can be quite disruptive to be incredibly angry. And even if you think about an aggressive sport like hockey, boxing, football, you often times will see boxers, perhaps, talking trash to their opponent before a fight. The strategy is obviously to make the other boxer angry, which is in fact going to hopefully impair his performance. He or she is not going to be able to sort of follow the typical technique that they would normally do in the ring. Same thing can be seen with football players on the line where they might be making comments about the other linemen’s family members or a catcher making that to a batter. So if we look at the area of sports, it seems clear that people really understand that getting the opponent angry takes them out of their game.

Well in social science research, there’s been evidence going back decades, all the way back to 1908 by two people called Yerkes and Dodson. They established this law. Originally it was done with learning. And basically what they showed is that high levels of arousal, which is what we see with the case of anger, so anger is an emotion that is negative, valance, but it has high arousal where you see sadness or something like that has low arousal. So anger has high arousal, the same as fear. And what they demonstrated was that high levels of arousal and very low levels of arousal actually bring learning down. And scientists after that showed the same thing for motor performance. What typically leads to optimal performance is moderate arousal; something right in the middle. So for most of us, for most behaviors, what we're really looking for is not to be lethargic and too low. We want to make sure that we're alert. We want to make sure that we're paying attention but we also don't want to be too jacked up. We don't want to be drinking too much caffeine. We don't want to be overly excited or put too much weight on something. We want moderate levels of arousal to optimize performance.

Now there are a few exceptions. If it’s very very simple behavior, then we might be able to perfectly get up out of our seat and walk over and open the door with a high level of arousal. The second category and this is true for some athletes, as you can imagine, an Olympic sprinter in the starting blocks. There's no question she's going to be incredibly aroused and excited and probably nervous. But it's an over practiced behavior. And when the behavior is over practiced, then it's really known really well, then the arousal may not interfere. A third finding that's come out recently is that, what really comes down to might be us being able to keep our attention and being present with the behaviors. And so it's also possible for those of us who are not professional athletes, that if we can get much better at keeping our attention on the matter at hand, high levels of arousal will not interfere as much.

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