Exploring sport coaching and psychology
Exploring sport coaching and psychology

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Exploring sport coaching and psychology

4 Managing your emotions and anxiety

Psychologists working in all fields of human endeavour are seeking ways of helping people deal with fear and anxiety. Fear is not just about primitive threats to life; it is also about the broader range of negative emotions and anxieties that can sabotage even simple tasks. The causes of this fear could be a phobia about spiders, threats to one’s self-esteem (e.g. asking for a date) or the stressful situations athletes face.

Over the years, psychologists have developed ways of helping people to distract themselves from focusing too much on negative emotions and thoughts. One example is psychiatrist Steve Peters, who talks of a primitive chimp-like voice representing a part of the brain. This echoes with our primitive evolutionary past, which Ben Seymour spoke of in the ski racing film in Activity 2. This reference to a chimp is a teaching tool that helps people understand and thus control their emotions better. In the next activity, you will hear directly from multiple snooker world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan on how he learnt to control his negative emotions with the help of Steve Peters. This falls under the ‘resilience and self-regulation’ part of PCDEs.

Activity 3 Controlling your emotions in sport

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Watch the video below. How did Ronnie O’Sullivan develop his understanding that enabled him to help control his emotions?

Download this video clip.Video player: Ronnie O’Sullivan on controlling his emotions
Skip transcript: Ronnie O’Sullivan on controlling his emotions

Transcript: Ronnie O’Sullivan on controlling his emotions

Pressure, It can make you or break you. Decades of scientific understanding has enabled us to hone our physical form, but it is indisputable that what exists above the neck has a huge role to play in sporting success. None more so than in the game of snooker. Perhaps one of the most psychologically demanding sports. Just ask five times world champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan. As one of the most skilful players of all time, Ronnie realised that his raw talent wasn’t enough, and controlling his negative emotions was the key to unlocking sustained success. In order to do that, he sought the help of psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters.
I used to always win tournaments, but I didn’t feel like a champion. I’d always feel like I just kind of done it with my talent? I used the game as a way of – like if I could play well at the game, then my mind was good. And if I didn’t play well then my mind was bad, and I just kind of accepted that that was how I was going to be. So I kind of resigned myself that if I was going to play snooker I was going to probably be battling this negative emotions really. So, I just wanted out. It was just time maybe to say goodbye, but then fate steps in and I meet Steve and then I’ll probably play the – well I know, I’ve played the best snooker I’ve ever played in the last four years. If it wasn’t for Steve I definitely wouldn’t have won the titles I’ve won, in the manner that I won it you know?
My role I think is to come in and help the elite athlete or whoever approaches me to understand their mind better, as a machine, and to get the best out of it. The way I operate, I parallel the physical side, so the coach would do physical training, fitness, techniques and events, and what I do is mirror that with the mind, to say ‘how do you operate your mind in a way that it will get the best out of you during competition’.
I’m now a great believer that the mind is more important than the physical attributes, because I see it other players now, I see it in other sportspeople. I think they’re not the most talented, but they certainly have – are able to deal with their head, out there in the heat of battle. That for me is what great champions have over the other people, it’s just have that strength of mind. I didn’t know how to do it, and Steve showed me how to do it.
Steve devised a deliberately simple model, to illustrate the interaction between different parts of the brain. His theory suggests that one of those parts, dubbed ‘the chimp’, can override our logical thoughts with emotional ones, often leading to irrational feelings and behaviours.
If you really cut it down to basics, essentially we have what appear to be three competing circuits in the brain, or systems, or areas. So I call them team leaders, and the first team is what we want, our values our beliefs, what we want to happen – so for example simply, I want to go into the sport, enjoy it, do my best and come away with my head held up thinking all I can do is my best. That’s one. The second one which I then coined the term ‘chimp’ because we share the same circuitry with the chimp, and often when we’re losing it big time we do become like chimpanzees. But that part of our brain we’re not directly in control of, we have to learn to manage it and recognise that even if I want to go to a sport, and I’m going to enjoy it, that part might for example – it varies – say no, your ego is on the line here, everybody is watching you, you can’t afford to make a mistake. And it may start saying, typically things like I just want this to end, I don’t want to be here. And yet, me as a human being, I might be saying I do want to be here, I want to enjoy my sport. So you’ve got this inner conflict in a lot of people, and the third system is a computer system, and these are all memory banks and behavioural banks.
The appeal of Steve’s chimp paradox has been in simplifying a difficult subject to empower people to manage their emotions.
There’s been matches when I’ve not wanted to even go out and play. About five minutes before the match my mates have been trying to get me out of bed, and I’m like, I don’t want to face it. And I’d get there, put my shirt and tie on as I’m walking towards the table, and I’d get out there and I’d think this is going to be a nightmare, and I started to play well. And then I was like, I want to be here now, and I didn’t understand that. It was just kind of like Steve said, it can—the chimp is fickle. Managing it is the key, isn’t it. That’s what it is, it’s always there, it’s just managing it, steering it and kind of, and then we say sometimes the chimp’s really on our side and we’re flying. And I’m like, what? I said Ste, I said, the chimp feels really good, I feel so positive, I feel like I can just knock down walls. He went, just go with that, we like that. And I was like, okay. And then I realised I can actually manage the levels of emotion that I want to put in or take out, you know. I mean, sometimes I can fire them up and sometimes I can take them down. It’s good to know that I can become emotionless if I have to be. I’m a lot better at not sabotaging I think, isn’t it, Steve?
Yes, yes.
My own success really.
You’ve done really well, but I say the key is, you’ve put the work in.
Yeah, yeah.
If somebody gets really physically fit by say jogging, and then they stop for three months, they lose it. And in my experience, if someone gets emotionally fit and learns this skill of managing themselves and getting the best out of themselves, if they don’t practice that, they lose it, it defaults back to the base position.
I feel much more like a 14-year-old kid now, when I first took the game up and played it for fun, enjoyed it and had no fears, if you like. And that’s how I feel now, the last four years. I feel like that young boy again, that’s excited to play, loses, takes it on the chin, comes back for some more, you know, so.
That’s because of Steve.


In all sports, people say it’s all to do with approach and attitude at the end of the day, so if you can learn how to get the right approach and attitude, then the probability of success must inevitably rise.
O’Sullivan has said of snooker, there are times out there when you’re so close to cracking, but managing and understanding the mind has clearly been essential in getting him back to the top of his game, with two world titles.
End transcript: Ronnie O’Sullivan on controlling his emotions
Ronnie O’Sullivan on controlling his emotions
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Ronnie learned to understand himself better by looking at what stimulates his emotions. In particular, he learnt that the conflict in his mind between the logical self and more emotional self could be controlled. By embracing Steve Peters’ ‘chimp’ model, he was able to distance himself from the emotional part of his brain by talking about it in the third person (i.e. ‘sometimes I can fire him up and sometimes I can take him down’ (O’Sullivan, 2013)). Thinking about emotion as a detached third person in itself is likely to make it easier to regulate and control.

Ronnie O’Sullivan (2013) has also reported a five-point ‘anchor’ that helped control his emotions, which is summarised below:

  1. Do my best; that’s all I can do.
  2. I want to be here competing.
  3. I’m an adult, not a chimp. I can deal with anything.
  4. It’s impossible to play well all the time.
  5. What would I say to my children if they said their game was not right?

Again, you can see these statements reinforce his logical self, rather than any emotional impulses, and help displace negative thoughts.


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