Want to cycle faster? Cry, laugh and shout!

Study finds that suppressing your emotions makes you slower

If you want to put in a performance when cycling, don't bury your feelings, says a university doctor.

Dr Chris Wagstaff of the University of Portsmouth has found strong evidence that suppressing your feelings results in poor performances. His research has been published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

Dr Wagstaff said: “Sports people frequently have to control their emotions in the run-up to and during competition, but this appears to significantly reduce the level at which they perform. Their thought processes are diminished, they put in less effort and they feel more tired than when they aren’t asked to hide what they’re feeling.

“We all know the feeling of having to sometimes hide our thoughts and feelings. It can make us feel exhausted, and because sportspeople operate in a result-driven goldfish bowl, the demands for suppression are particularly high.

“To protect sporting performance, it’s important that those who manage and organise sportspeople should avoid exposing them to tasks that demand emotion regulation close to competing.”

Doing media interviews, fan events or trying to dampen feelings of anger, anxiety or disgust have been cited as possibly affecting athletes at a high level of competition.

Dr Wagstaff said: “Sports organisations impose chronic expectations and requirements for emotional suppression on performers, such as being overly optimistic about chances of success, being supportive of under-performing leaders, or being friendly to fans and forthcoming with media, but there is a cost in terms of performance.”

Part of the study involved the 20 participating sportsmen and women watching a woman eat her own vomit.

Dr Wagstaff said: “We needed to elicit a strong emotional reaction. While there is huge variation in what individuals find happy or sad, most people agree on what is disgusting.”

Those taking part either watched the three-minute video and were told to supress their emotions during it, with a camera trained on their face to ensure this; watched the video and were free to show their emotion; or did not watch the video. The whole group then cycled 10km as fast as they could. All of the men and women involved got to sample each of the three conditions.

The results showed that those who had to self-regulate their emotion, were slower at cycling, generated less power, had a lower heart rate and thought they had worked much harder than they actually had compared to when they were not asked to control their emotions or when they hadn’t watched the video.

No differences were found between those participants who watched the video without being told to suppress their emotion and where they didn’t watch the video.

Dr Wagstaff said: “It is notable that those asked to suppress their emotions had a significantly lower maximum heart rate. This appears to indicate that people who are suppressing emotion are less willing or less able to put their all into the task. They also feel more tired, even though they had put in less effort."

The findings support previous research in this area.

Dr Wagstaff said:  “It appears to be possible that increasing demands on sports people to suppress their emotions leads to an overload. Those forced to suppress their emotions become less able to control their emotions and the end result is someone who has poor personal relationships and who is not good at managing conflict. To compound the problem further, a failure to self-regulate is linked to violence, doping, substance abuse and cheating.”

Gregor is BikeRadar's Beginners and Family section editor after leading a cycling heavy youth and regularly clocking up more than 34 miles on the ride to work each day. He's interested in the lighter side of cycling, such as commuting, children's bikes and the occasional short sportive. He also helps to keep BikeRadar's forum in check, and can often be found joining in conversation threads on how to step chafing and the like.

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