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Understanding collective emotions to optimise sports performance

Mikaël Compo
Mickaël Campo
Lecturer at the Faculty of Sports Sciences (Université de Bourgogne) and President of the French Society of Sports Psychology (SFPS)
Key takeaways
  • The social sciences, and more specifically social psychology, are disciplines that should be considered when it comes to optimising sporting performance.
  • Emotions are subjective experiences at the root of biological and cognitive processes.
  • Understanding them enables us to measure the influence of individual and collective emotions on game situations in team sports.
  • Technology offers the tools to measure and obtain valid indicators of emotions.
  • Interdisciplinary research is developing these scientific performance support tools, but integrating them into training programmes remains a challenge.

Sport is an emo­tion­al are­na like no oth­er, capa­ble of mobil­is­ing entire pop­u­la­tions. To per­form, ath­letes must learn to mas­ter the high emo­tion­al inten­si­ty to which they are sub­ject­ed. Tra­di­tion­al­ly viewed from an intra-indi­vid­ual per­spec­tive, social psy­chol­o­gy over­comes this short­com­ing by focus­ing on the col­lec­tive dimen­sion of emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence. As a result, it is open­ing up impor­tant avenues of inno­va­tion when it comes to per­for­mance in team sports.

Disciplines where individual and collective emotions collide

Team sports are inher­ent­ly social. Per­for­mance, both indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive, is influ­enced by emo­tions, which in turn are affect­ed by group phe­nom­e­na and psy­choso­cial mech­a­nisms. So in a team, emo­tion­al con­ta­gion and the influ­ence of rela­tion­ships are both a risk and a poten­tial means of opti­mis­ing performance.

What hap­pens when a penal­ty is tak­en in a foot­ball match? Is it exclu­sive­ly a mat­ter of the play­er’s emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence before tak­ing the shot? A the­sis by Guil­laume Per­reau-Niel from the Psy-DREPI lab­o­ra­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bur­gundy is cur­rent­ly explor­ing the emo­tion­al state of the ath­lete at this cru­cial moment. In par­tic­u­lar, he is seek­ing to under­stand the fac­tors that influ­ence a play­er’s emo­tion­al state. Ini­tial results show that, in addi­tion to the stakes (both indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive), the body lan­guage of part­ners and oppo­nents influ­ences the play­er’s emo­tions just before tak­ing the shot.

An emo­tion is a sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence that stems from bio­log­i­cal and cog­ni­tive process­es. The lat­ter depend on how the indi­vid­ual assess­es the impor­tance of what is at stake, their abil­i­ty to cope with it and their degree of respon­si­bil­i­ty in the sit­u­a­tion. This sub­jec­tive cog­ni­tive assess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion (or “appraisal”) explains why the same sit­u­a­tion arous­es dif­fer­ent emo­tions in dif­fer­ent peo­ple. In sport, the per­cep­tion of what is at stake varies enor­mous­ly. For exam­ple, an ath­lete’s per­cep­tion changes accord­ing to their expe­ri­ence or degree of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the team: a senior play­er in the French nation­al team will expe­ri­ence a match dif­fer­ent­ly from a team-mate select­ed for the first time.

Social psychology as a means of optimising performance

Along­side these indi­vid­ual feel­ings, so-called “col­lec­tive” emo­tion depends large­ly on the iden­ti­ty process, because we are all part of dif­fer­ent social iden­ti­ties. These may be social cat­e­gories linked to gen­der, age, polit­i­cal class, skin colour, etc. They are also task groups, of which sports teams are a pro­to­type. An ath­lete will acti­vate dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties depend­ing on the con­text. A female rug­by play­er may wear the hats of sports­woman, moth­er, wife, team mem­ber and so on. The one she acti­vates will influ­ence her vision of the world, and there­fore of the sit­u­a­tion, gen­er­at­ing dif­fer­ent emo­tions. Social iden­ti­ties there­fore con­di­tion what are known as inter­group emo­tions, as described by Diane Mack­ie in the 2000s1. These are the emo­tions that thrill us when our nation­al team wins a match, or that under­pin the mechan­ics of oppo­si­tion in derbies.

So when play­ers iden­ti­fy with their team, they expe­ri­ence shared and com­mon emo­tions. This emo­tion­al group expe­ri­ence makes the group a psy­choso­cial enti­ty in its own right. This par­a­digm is far from neu­tral when it comes to opti­mis­ing per­for­mance. In fact, a 2018 study shows that the player’s per­cep­tion of this shared emo­tion has a greater influ­ence on his per­for­mance than his own indi­vid­ual emo­tions2. Top-lev­el ath­letes there­fore need to work not only on their emo­tion­al skills – iden­ti­fy­ing the emo­tions of oth­ers and learn­ing to reg­u­late and express them – but also on a cer­tain “iden­ti­ty intelligence”.

These sys­tems lead us to work on the rela­tion­ship between emo­tions and per­for­mance in team sports through the mech­a­nisms of emo­tion­al con­ta­gion. The way in which emo­tions are expressed can be more or less con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing. Indeed, stud­ies show that lead­ing play­ers have a con­sid­er­able influ­ence on group emo­tion. All it takes is for them to break down to have a psy­cho-affec­tive impact on the rest of the group.

Integrating technology into training programmes

Social psy­chol­o­gy in sport is begin­ning to study these para­me­ters and how they influ­ence per­for­mance. This requires the use of tech­nol­o­gy to obtain reli­able indi­ca­tors of emo­tions. Researchers gen­er­al­ly use psy­chophys­i­o­log­i­cal mea­sure­ments (car­diac activ­i­ty, elec­tro­der­mal con­duc­tance, elec­tromyo­grams of facial mus­cles, etc.). How­ev­er, these are not adapt­ed for use in sports. As for psy­cho­me­t­ric tools, such as self-report mea­sure­ment scales3, they only allow for a pos­te­ri­ori mea­sure­ment and are some­times too influ­enced by the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the sub­ject. There is a lack of tools for in situ mea­sure­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly of col­lec­tive emo­tions. Sport sci­ence research is there­fore devel­op­ing new tools. They will exploit body lan­guage, for exam­ple, using auto­mat­ic learn­ing algorithms.

This is the case of the TEAM-SPORTS project, fund­ed by the France 2030 ini­tia­tive through the pri­or­i­ty research pro­gramme “Very High Per­for­mance Sport”, launched with the Paris Olympic Games. The project brings togeth­er the French rug­by (FFR), bas­ket­ball (FFBB), hand­ball (FFHB), vol­ley­ball (FFVol­ley) and foot­ball (FFF) fed­er­a­tions. One of its aims is to devel­op tech­nolo­gies to cap­ture the emo­tion­al states of teams. For exam­ple, a video track­ing tech­nol­o­gy using arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is being devel­oped by the CEA in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Psy-DREPI lab­o­ra­to­ry. It auto­mat­i­cal­ly tracks the indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive body lan­guage of rug­by play­ers dur­ing matches.

As part of the same project, the French nation­al team has ben­e­fit­ed from anoth­er pilot pro­gramme to cap­ture the influ­ence of game events – such as scor­ing a try – on the emo­tion­al state of the team. The aim is to study emo­tion­al dynam­ics dur­ing match­es in order to pro­vide inno­v­a­tive infor­ma­tion to coach­es and help them make strate­gic choic­es. This tool was put to the test in inter­na­tion­al com­pe­ti­tion dur­ing the World Cup in the sum­mer of 2023 and has recent­ly been adapt­ed for rug­by 7s so that the French team can ben­e­fit from it dur­ing the Paris Games.

Hav­ing these met­rics at our dis­pos­al will help us to mea­sure their effects on indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive per­for­mance, in a psy­cho­log­i­cal bal­ance of pow­er – which is the very essence of com­pe­ti­tion in team sport. Ulti­mate­ly, this research is intend­ed to be trans­ferred to sports teams as a sci­en­tif­ic tool to sup­port per­for­mance. How­ev­er, the tim­ing of the research dif­fers from that of sport­ing com­pe­ti­tion. Inte­grat­ing this sci­en­tif­ic sup­port into team man­age­ment is one of the major chal­lenges of high per­for­mance. This means reduc­ing the delays inher­ent in research, so as to stay ahead of oth­er nations through inno­va­tion. We also need to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly pri­ori­tise the accel­er­a­tion of knowl­edge trans­fer with­in sports ecosys­tems. The future of high per­for­mance is inex­orably linked to this type of approach, which will inte­grate sports sci­en­tists spe­cial­is­ing in human sci­ences into staff, clubs and federations.

Agnès Vernet
1Mack­ie, D. M., Sil­ver, L. A., & Smith, E. R. (2004). Inter­group Emo­tions: Emo­tion as an Inter­group Phe­nom­e­non. In L. Z. Tiedens & C. W. Leach (Eds.), The social life of emo­tions (pp. 227–245). Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​7​/​C​B​O​9​7​8​0​5​1​1​8​1​9​5​6​8.013
2Cam­po, M., Mar­ti­nent, G., Pel­let, J., Boulanger, J., Lou­vet, B., & Nico­las, M. (2018). Emo­tion-per­for­mance rela­tion­ships in team sport: The role of per­son­al and social iden­ti­ties. Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Sports Sci­ence & Coach­ing, 13(5), 629–635. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​7​7​/​1​7​4​7​9​5​4​1​1​8​7​85256
3Sport Emo­tion Ques­tion­naire, devel­oped by British psy­chol­o­gist Marc Jones in 2005.

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