Exploring Emotions

The many roles emotions play in our lives

What Tiger Woods [and You] Should Know About Emotion Regulation

Learn how Tiger Woods keeps his cool.

By Scott Edward Jacobs

Maybe this is just a sign of the times, but there are actually sports betting sites where you can make a wager on how Tiger Woods will respond if heckled during the Masters tournament. Now, Tiger seems like the kind of guy who can keep his cool, and based on recent reports, I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would claim he knows how to perform under pressure. . .

So Tiger, are you gonna let the heckling get to you? And if not, how on earth are you able to keep your cool?

For the sake of this analysis, let's work under the following scenario: Tiger Woods, after lining up a shot, or chipping-in for a double-bogey, finds himself on the receiving end of a heckler.

What can he do to maintain a calm state? First, he could try to ignore it all, using a distraction-based strategy. That is, he could try to ignore the rambunctious man throwing insults at him (okay, in my mind, the heckler is a man, but based on recent reports, it would be no surprise to me if a woman cursed him out too). So what if that fails, and he finds himself unable to successfully distract himself?

Research tells us that he can reframe the situation, using a powerful emotion regulation strategy known as "cognitive reappraisal". So, to control his response, he can reinterpret the actions of his heckler or of his own role in the situation.

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I can think of a number of ways he could do this. He could remind himself, "that guy is paying to watch me". This, personally, is my favorite. I mean, if someone were charged admission to watch me work, and then heckled my performance, I'd get tremendous joy at the thought of their having paid to do so. I suppose, as an academic, I can somewhat relate to this too. We do, in fact, pay to attend academic conferences where we present our latest research findings. And, of course, there is usually a scientist or two who will, during the question and answer period, lay down a good scientific heckling of one's work. Next time I'll have to remind myself they're paying to do so.

Tiger might also remind himself, "I'm the best." Elevated self-confidence has been associated with peak golf performance(1). So this thought couldn't hurt. Or he could interpret the heckler's outburst for what it represents---immaturity that will get him nowhere, and Tiger could take pity on the combatant.

As you can see, there are plenty of ways that Tiger could maintain his mood by re-interpreting the actions of the heckler. Another odd response that seems to show up a lot on daytime talk shows---is to simply burst out a good old, "you don't know me!" ---- I have to say, though, that I have some doubt that the scientific literature supports the effectiveness of this last response.

You're probably already envisioning the benefits of cognitive reappraisal in your own life. Try it out, and reap the benefits. Studies show that people who employ this strategy have fewer symptoms of depression, are higher in life satisfaction, and have greater levels of self-esteem(2).

Now, consider the scenario in which Woods fails to see the situation in a less negative way, and he finds himself experiencing some anger. All is not lost. There's this curious thing about emotions: You don't have to show them. We emotion researchers refer to that process as "expressive suppression" or "response inhibition". In other words, you just hide any facial expression of what you're feeling. You show your poker face---[or in Tiger's case, I suppose, a golf face?]—in a manner of speaking.

Socially, Tiger would gain the benefit of not displaying any emotion. But at what cost? Studies show that expressive suppression does not influence the experience of negative emotion(3). So that's not too helpful. It also causes increased sympathetic activation, which is a fancier way of saying that his blood pressure will elevate and his hands might get sweaty, among other things. Neither of which seems too helpful for one's golf game. And suppression even exerts a cognitive cost.

Now I'm not up to speed on the personality profiles of historical golfers, but I really doubt there are that many "suppressors" running around in the famous green jacket.

So, should we take the bet? Will Tiger show an emotional response if heckled?
Probably not.

Tiger, make sure you say thanks to your old friend, emotion regulation.

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By Scott Edward Jacobs

Scott is a PhD student at Stanford University studying the effects of anxiety and its regulation on performance. Every once in a while he blogs about that at http://www.yesbutstill.com


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Recommended Reading

1.   Cohn, P. J. (1991). An exploratory study on peak performance in golf. The Sport Psychologist, 5(1), 1-14.

2.   Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(2), 348-362.

3.   Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(03), 281-291.

The Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory studies emotion and emotion regulation.

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