Brazilian Cesar Cielo was the 50 metre champion in the pool until the 2012 Olympics. Cesar has a unique way of psyching himself up for a swim. 'The 25-year-old world record holder thumps his chest so hard you can see the imprint of his hands. He says it motivates him and wakes up his body.'
I wrote a post on the Beserker Warrior Tradition. This warrior tradition spanned 3,000 years (Spiedel, Beserks: A history of Indo-European 'mad warriors,' Journal of World History, 2002, 13: 2). Rather than attempting to reduce the intensity of emotion when engaging in combat like so many activities teach, Beserker's deliberately inflame their emotion to improve their combative performance. They do this by, among other things, beating themselves Tarzan style.
It has been demonstrated that an emotion can be elicited in an individual through their own actions or facial expressions. Even swearing has been shown to elicit emotions in oneself. Why do Beserker's attempt to inflame their emotions? Because it enhances particular types of survival behaviour.
What is the emotion the chest beating is designed to elicit? Anger. What is the action tendency of anger? Fight. Emotions include a feeling, behavioural, and physiological reaction. The physiological reaction is Cesar's awakening of his body. No emotion, no awakening of the body.
The principle of 'autonmic specifity' tells us that each emotion is characterised by a unique physiological reaction which is designed to prepare the body for the action associated with the emotion. The subjective feeling of anger is accompanied by a physiological reaction which prepares the body to fight.
The physiological reaction includes the release of adrenalin in the blood stream which enhances speed, strength, and endurance. For fear, the blood flow is directed away from the arms to the central muscles that are used for flight. For anger, the blood flow is directed to the arms to fight and to grasp weapons. In swimming, the legs only provide 25% of the propulsion with the arms doing the bulk of the work. Anger provides the motivation and the physiological reaction which facilitates Cesar's competitive performance.
If instead of inflaming his anger emotion, Cesar followed the advice of many survival activities and controlled or negated his emotions, would he be at a competitive (survival) disadvantage? After all, he wouldn't have nature's physiological boost of adrenalin to assist his performance.
It is interesting to speculate whether or not it is advantageous or not to induce fear in runners. After all, the action tendency of fear is flight, and the physiological reaction associated with fear prepares the body to flee. I'm not sure how many coaches would deliberately instill fear into their athletes. The military, on the other hand, have absolutely no hesitation in instilling fear into their personnel. The fear of letting their comrades down; the fear of dishonour and disgrace; even the fear of being shot by their own commanders if they heed nature's survival imperative to flee in the face of non-survival oriented objectives.
There is another possibility. Cesar may not be a true beserker. He may not be eliciting an anger emotion. Instead, he may be eliciting a positive emotion. Emotion theorists sometimes categorise emotions as positive and negative. Appraisal theory tells us that a stimulus may be appraised as, among other things, a threat or a challenge. Negative emotions such as anger and fear are associated with a threat appraisal. Positive emotions such as excitement and anticipation are associated with a challenge appraisal. Positive and negative emotions are associated with different cognitive capacities. Negative emotions reduce and limit cognitive capacities, while positive emotions 'broaden-and-build' cognitive capacities. Autonomic specificity theory tells us that the different emotions also elicit different physiological reactions which prepares the body for the action associated with the emotion.
Jones et al (International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 2: 2 2009) proposed a 'theory of challenge and threat states in athletes' (TCTSA) which is an amalgamation and extension of the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat, the model of adaptive approaches to competition and the debilitative and facilitative competitive state anxiety model:
Emotions are perceived as helpful to performance in a challenge state but not in a threat state. Challenge and threat states influence effort, attention, decision making and physical functioning and accordingly sport performance. The TCTSA provides a framework for practitioners to enhance performance, through developing a challenge state, and encourages researchers to explore the mechanisms underlying performance in competition.Is Cesar eliciting a positive emotion based on a challenge appraisal. A positive emotion based on a challenge appraisal would, presumably, enhance performance beyond a negative, threat-appraised anger emotion, and presumably beyond no emotion.
What emotion do you or your instructors attempt to instill in your or their trainees? More importantly, do you or your instructors know anything about emotion and its effects on performance?