The Mental Edge in Sports Performance


Communication is at the heart of all relationships, and sports team relationships are no exception.

Criticism from the coach, a disagreement with a teammate, a fight with another player/official-the sting of any of these can make you forget a month’s worth of praise. If you’ve been called lazy, careless, useless or a disappointment, you are more likely to internalize and remember that. It is human nature to forget, or discount all the times people have told you that you are talented, a hard worker, and/or that you make someone proud.

Chemistry plays a big role in this phenomenon. When you face negative comments like criticism, rejection or betrayal, your body produces a higher level of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of the brain. This, in turn, activates conflict aversion and protection behaviours, where you become more sensitive and reactive. You often perceive even greater judgment and negativity against yourself than actually exists.

These effects can last more than a day, which imprints the interaction on our memory, and magnifies its significance on your future behaviour. Unfortunately, the cortisol acts like a sustained-release tablet-the more you focus on the negativity and fear generated, the longer the impact.

We know, by now, that production of cortisol and a focus on the negatives of the game is a roadblock to the flow state, and therefore, a poor physical performance is more likely.

Now, positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction too. They cause a release of oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine. Oxytocin, for example, is a “feel-good” hormone that elevates your ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in your prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, oxytocin metabolizes more quickly than cortisol, so its effects are less dramatic and fade quickly.    


Therefore, the “chemistry of conversations” is critical for your team’s performance. Anything that enhances or diminishes connection, collaboration, community and flow will affect your team’s success on the scoreboard. All members of your team must be mindful of everything that comes out of your mouths.

A coach who focuses solely on a “best-practices” approach, at the expense of showing concern for the players, may be dismantling the team from the get-go.

I am NOT suggesting that a coach must not demand results nor deliver difficult feedback. But, it is critical to deliver both in a way that is perceived as inclusive and supportive, thereby limiting cortisol production, and hopefully enhancing the cognitive benefits of oxytocin.

It is important to deliver praise immediately following a success, for individual players, and the team as a whole, in order to harness the great effects of the life- giving hormones-oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. The players’ bodies will synchronize with the positive emotions and the memory of the success will sharpen and hang around longer.

Only great things can happen when you take conscious control of the chemistry of your conversations among your team members. Watch your thoughts, as they will dictate the quality of what comes out of your mouth.

Feel free to connect with me, Chris Patton at:  or at 1-519-241-9648!

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