The Art of Emotional Regulation: Level Up Your Energy and Performance
If there was ever a need for emotional regulation, I sure could have used it when I walked into the Olympic Stadium in Montreal in 1976. The stadium was packed with tens of thousands more people than I had ever competed in front of before.
On the outside, I might have looked cool, calm, and collected, but internally I was anxious, I was afraid, and I was having a hard time breathing. The whole experience was just overwhelming, and I was having a hard time not going bonkers.
I had forgotten all about it until the other day when I was listening to Tim Ferris’ podcast interview with Chip Conley. I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Chip recently at his home near Todos Santos, Baja. So glad I happened upon his interview to open my memory banks.
Chip’s work on becoming a modern elder really resonates with me because it is so like Life Athlete in its intent to give people a choice on how they want to grow into their bodies and their minds in the middle stage of life. What Chip was talking to Tim Ferris about was, in part, about the importance of regulating emotional output. His comments reminded me of how pivotal these skills can be. In the Olympics, it’s really easy for emotions to run us into a rapid stage of anxiety, fear, and doubt, which can also, as I have noticed, take away a great deal of much-needed energy.
I’m thankful for Chip to bringing my experiences to mind as a jumping off point to talk about how can you regulate your own emotions. These techniques can be a life-saver in high performance situations, they can give you a competitive advantage, and they can also keep you calm and collected in your day-to-day life.
In competitive sports, the ability to regulate your emotions gives you a leg up on your competitors. It allows you to perform with a sense of ease and relaxation, knowing that the skills that you have honed can be expressed at the highest level possible, even where there’s a lot on the line.
A great example of this is a student of mine who is now in the Hall of Fame, Edgar Martinez. He was a phenomenal baseball player for the Seattle Mariners. Over the eleven years that we were on the same team together, he as a player, me as a coach, I observed a person who was able to control himself so that he never got too up or too down. His energy level essentially stayed in the middle, and therefore he was able to focus on performing at the highest level possible.
If he didn’t get a hit for one night, two nights, three nights, it didn’t matter. He kept practicing every day, the same disciplined routine, and never thought about what happened before. He simply took in what he needed to do to be better, and then got out there to practice. If he hit five home runs in a row, he didn’t think about going back and hitting six. He didn’t get too excited about it. He stayed firmly in the middle.
Being emotionally self-regulating is walking that center path. It’s not allowing what happened in the past or what might happen in the future to take you away from that sense of self-control. It allows you to go about your business with the highest level of focus possible.
We all want to perform well. The professional baseball player at the bottom of the 9th inning wants to score the winning run, the thrower in the Olympics wants to win on their last throw to take the gold, and the Tour-de-France cyclist wants to overcome the competition to win it all in the last mile. These are all situations where control of one’s emotions, and therefore one’s energy, is paramount. Learning to do this takes time, but I have identified some key strategies in my own training and in my work with high level athletes and top performers in business. These are tricks you can use on a daily basis to regulate your emotions more effectively. The first tip I have is this:
1. Identify the need for emotional regulation.
One of my top priorities in my later athletic career, was to start to recognize when my emotions were not in check. I could see that when I was not in control of what I was feeling, it would affect the level of tension in my body as well.
A primary concern for athletes, and really anyone who is expected to perform in front of huge crowds of people, is how to not let doubt or fear control their output. What if I can’t do this? What if I’m not good enough? What if I didn’t practice enough? What if I’m not in good enough shape? All of those questions can lend themselves to an emotional state that is neither calm nor focused. Recognizing and catching that switch as early as possible is critical to getting your body and mind back on track.
To recognize when that shift is happening, pay attention to things like the tension in your shoulders and the depth of your breathing. Are you holding your fists tightly or are you able to relax your hands without any shaking or tightness? Checking in on these subtle body cues is the first step to understanding how to regulate an excess of emotion.
2. If you can’t change your situation, take control of your reactions.
In any circumstance that you’re in, you can change something. If you can’t change the situation you’re in, then you can change your reaction to it. For instance, if somebody cuts you off on the freeway, you can’t do anything about it, but you can choose how you are going to react to it. In that moment between the incident and your reaction, you may find that you can take a deep breath and remind yourself that everything is working out in your favor. Perhaps that person was not even aware of their actions, so your anger would be out of place.
Recognizing that no matter the situation, you still have the ability to change something is key. You can’t change the weather or the tides on a day when you wanted to go surfing. Some things will always be out of your control, but you can choose to let them go. With that choice, you have emotional regulation. You have the ability to hold onto your energy and not be drained.
3. Take action on the things you can control.
The third tip is to take control of the situation. I can think of a time my freshman year at the University of Oregon. I had come from Southern California, where it doesn’t rain much, to Oregon where rains quite a bit during the fall and winter months. Outside when I was practicing, it rained often, and when the 7-foot circle from which you throw a shot put becomes wet, it gets slick. So, I would get very concerned. I would get uptight, wishing it were dry, and my energy and focus would be diverted to my discomfort. What I realized many years later, was that, unfortunately, I had lost that energy and focus to something that was entirely out of my control. I had let my emotions run away with me.
Interestingly enough, I later learned from another thrower that if you put even more water down on the ring, it actually makes the circle less slick. So the very thing I was getting all anxious and up in my head about had a solution that I could control.
Sometimes we get so up in our heads about our stress that we forget we still have the ability to improve our situation. I can put more water into the ring to keep it from being slick. I can put on a rain jacket and set up an umbrella. My options to adapt to the circumstances may not be to my liking, but wishing it was different only generates more anger, anxiety, and distraction. And sometimes, simply putting a solution in place is enough to get moving in the right direction again.
4. Get into your feet.
Getting into your feet and out of your head is crucial to emotional regulation. Feeling your feet against the ground distracts you from wishing that things could be different. It brings you back into your body and gives you the opportunity to take three deep breaths. In those moments, you give yourself a chance to come back into yourself. It is a reminder that your body is all that you can control, and the rest of the world is separate from you and it will continue on as it may. You do not need to control it.
You come back into your body by first noticing your feet on the ground and then feeling them there, letting the thought of changing things dissipate, letting the fear go, and letting go of that which you cannot change. Feel the ground beneath you, take those three deep breaths, pause and be in the moment at hand, and then let the rest happen as it will.
5. Go with the flow.
The last tip is simply learning to flow with life and not pushing against it. It is rare that things will go exactly as we’d like them to. In fact, that is an essential part of being in this life, being in this body — not having the energy we want some days, feeling sick other days, people not being kind to us when we think that they should — these are all just a part of life. Wanting to control life is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. You likely won’t be happy with the results. Find the round hole instead.
When I first started to flow with my body and give it what it needed, I found that not only did my performance improve, but I enjoyed the process of improvement and achievement much more. Rather than going into tirades about not getting what I wanted out of my body and not having the energy that I wanted, I got out of my own way. I regulated my emotions by not letting myself spiral into anxiety, anger, and pain, and this allowed me to perform better and enjoy my experience more.
From the playing field, to top level performers, to day-to-day life, it’s very easy to allow our focus to be taken over by thoughts of fear, doubt, and what-ifs. This not only leads to a lack of emotional control, but also to a massive drain of energy at a time when we need every ounce we can get. If you’re mad, if you’re pissed off, if you’re unsure, if you’re fearful and anxious, you are draining your system of critical energy and vitality.
The goal of emotional self-regulation is to have more energy and more mental clarity. The goal is to be able to achieve at a higher level by living life from a place of cool clarity. Don’t force life, flow with it. Allow things to happen as they will, notice where you can make a difference, and recognize that you always have choices. Let it go and flow.
I’ve seen this happen over and over again with my clients, whether it’s the baby boomer generation, the teens that I have the pleasure working with, or the high level athletes. Showing them how they can self-regulate is self-mastery at its best, and in doing so, they find that they have more enjoyment, enthusiasm, vitality and higher levels of performance simply by applying a daily practice. If you want to learn more about the Life Athlete approach to emotional regulation, read chapters 4 and 6 in my book, The Way of the Life Athlete available on Amazon. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.