How participating in sports can help kids improve mental fitness and self regulation

Sports have a lot to teach kids about mental fitness and emotional self regulation. This week I attended the Toronto City track meet with hundreds of kids competing their hearts out to place in their events.  Emotions ran very high from excitement and glory, to anxiety, defeat and despair. Those who did well were the ones who were able to experience the full range of emotions but not get carried away by them.

Participating in sports is not just about winning and competition. It is about cultivating positive attitudes towards self and others through sportsmanship and team spirit. The intensity and range of emotions in sport provides the perfect opportunity for kids to learn about mental wellness and emotional self regulation.

Self regulation is the ability to be aware and manage one’s emotions as they are happening. This capacity for self awareness leads to an ability to get back on course and not get carried away by negative thoughts and emotions.   Positive emotions like interest and excitement motivate people to be in the sport in the first place and we can also develop self awareness for these good feelings and how they may help or hinder performance and enjoyment of the sport.

In 1908 two psychologist named Yerkes and Dodson, developed the “Inverted U model of performance” which is a very helpful framework for understanding self regulation in sport.   Their model states that there is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance.  Arousal improves performance up to a point, where it causes too much stress and anxiety.   At certain point the stress and involvement in an activity becomes counterproductive and gets in the way of being able to perform and be fully present.  On the other extreme, too little interest impedes motivation to achieve one’s personal best and take pleasure in the activity.   This model demonstrates the relationship between the right amount of pressure and performance which we can learn to adjust through self regulation.

yerkes dodson

I saw how this worked in the two races that my 13 year old son ran.  In the first race, he placed 4th for the 1500m, not what he was hoping for.   He was upset that he had not worked as hard as he could have and lacked the mental focus to do his personal best. His lack of drive and motivation was clear in his body language where he could not quite get into his stride.   He was not in his zone. Initially he did feel bad and was blaming himself for not doing well. After the race we had a CBT 101 discussion about how his thoughts affected feelings and in turn affected his performance. I showed him the CBT diagram and he had an “aha” moment which he said made a lot of sense. When he has the thought that he won’t do well, he feels discouraged and the motivation decreases.  He is at the lower end of the inverted U.

The second race was the 800 m and it was much different.   He came in first and the performance was much different. There was a drive and determination to win that was apparent through his movement and getting into his stride. I reminded him that the only thing different was his thoughts and attention. He was able to focus his attention fully on the race and pay attention to the thoughts that he could do his best. He was able to exert himself to his full capacity and it felt very good to win through full determination and effort! He was at the top of the inverted U with just the right amount of pressure.

These lessons extend beyond the sports and can be applied to many life situations. Sports can provide more immediate life lessons as there is the full range of very intense emotions in a very short period of time, from very pleasant to extremely unpleasant. It is all about learning to cultivate a healthy relationship to these feelings and how to regulate ourselves and support each other as team-mates.

Just as we learn to improve our physical fitness through training, we can also train our mental and emotional fitness through training. Skills can be learned through cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness practices which can be integrated into team practices and at home.



2 thoughts on “How participating in sports can help kids improve mental fitness and self regulation

  1. Your explanation about self-regulation here really made sense and is inspiring! I never considered this as a benefit to getting kids involved in sports. How can we spread the word!? Awesome job by your son too!


    1. Thanks for your feedback! I am glad it was helpful. I think we can spread the word by having these discussions with kids, parents and teachers. I had a conversation with a teacher who is a coach at the track city finals today and she is very inspired to be teaching all about emotion regulation as part of training. And this past weekend I led a group of parents and kids in competitive fencing who also had lots to say – there seems to be lots of opportunities to have these discussions.


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