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Responding vs. Reacting

Photograph by Nihal Demirci on Unsplash

After making an error, or after a setback some athletes get very angry and then they yell at others, damage sport equipment, or repeatedly ruminate about the mistake. By losing their temper, they would lose their focus of attention to the task at hand, their muscles get tense, and performance suffers. In addition, others may start avoiding them because of their aggressivity displays. 

Reacting is instinctual, done automatically and without thinking. It happens when the emotions are in control. In addition, reactions are usually out of proportion. When individuals are enraged, the ‘fight or flight’ reaction of the sympathetic nervous system gets activated by the amygdala leading to a series of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and hormonal changes in the body. Consequently, fast and shallow breathing, increased heart rate and tunnel vision is experienced.

Blaming others is common for those prone to react because they do not realise that it is their thoughts and their interpretation of the situation that makes them loose their cool and not others or the situation itself.    

The reactive ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is useful for emergency situations, and the mind is primed for fear, aggression, and to avoid threat. However, it is not that useful when it gets activated unnecessarily. The ‘fight or flight’ reaction over a long period of time leads among other changes to a weakened immune system, anxiety and irritability. So, it is important to learn how to respond (rather than react) more often to avoid these negative performance, physical and mental effects. 

On the other hand, when athletes respond, they do so in a calmer manner. If they experience negative emotions, they acknowledge them, and let them go. While responding, they take the time to consider a constructive action bearing in mind long-term consequences. When they are at rest, the parasympathetic nervous system – also called ‘rest and digest’ – is activated. This other branch of the autonomic nervous system is in charge of functions like digestion and lowering blood pressure and the breathing rate. The mind in this state predispose us to feelings of safety and kindness to others.

Learning to respond rather than react should definitely be an aspect to train because optimal performance cannot happen without emotional control. Even athletes with great physical, technical and tactical abilities cannot perform at their best unless they control their mental game. 

To learn to respond rather than react, there are various aspects to work on, for instance: 

  • The thoughts about the triggering situations, to interpret the situation in a different way, or accepting it.
  • Relaxation techniques in order to activate the ‘rest and digest’ response.
  • Preparing for success, by rehearsing constructive and kind responses to ourselves, others and the environment.

Ten top tips to respond rather than react:

  1. Reflect about the triggers of reactions before a bad mood. 
    1. Ask yourself whether you are trying to control aspects that are beyond your control or whether there is anything about the situation that you are not accepting.
    1. Reflect about whether you can think about the situation in a different way.
  • See if you notice any physical sensations prior to bad moods.
  • Practice relaxation activities you enjoy, whether is listening to your favourite music, having a bath, going for a walk, doing colouring books, or even reminding yourself about the last time you laughed out loud!
    • Relax your face, including: the forehead, the eyelids, the jaw, the lips, and the tongue. 
  • Smile more!
  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Make sure there is enough rest and sleep in your schedule as stress and fatigue make everyone more likely to react. 
  • Allocate time to recover, scheduling some ‘me-time’ during the week.
  • Note down how could you respond to those situations in a more helpful way. 
    • Imagine yourself responding in a helpful and constructive way. 
  • Remind yourself that you could pause for few minutes if necessary, to take some time to gain control.
  • Try ‘easier’ instead of trying ‘harder’. When working on something that is important to us we often think that we have to work hard and be serious, but this may put more pressure on us and make us more tense. We can smile instead of being serious and try to relax more so we are not worried about making a mistake. The idea is to focus on the process rather than the result.
  • Celebrate success. Yes, you may have made a mistake, but you have made great achievements along the way too! So, reflect on those achievements. Perhaps it may be helpful to get encouragement from motivational quotes.