Self-Regulation: Definitions and Strategies for Athletes

Self-Regulation: Definitions and Strategies for Athletes

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Top football player and coach Lou Holtz once remarked, “Without self-discipline, success is impossible, period.” That self-discipline or what is now known as self-regulation in the athletic field has grown into a science of its own. Researchers have dedicated efforts to understand how self-regulation in athletes produces optimum results. Now athletes have teams of people to help them with their emotions, motivation, and self-regulation. There is no consensus on the definition of self-regulation but it is generally perceived as a series of thoughts, self-talk, actions, and emotions that an athlete uses to attain a goal.

What Is Self-Regulation?

In simple terms, self-regulation is all about managing your emotions and the environment, bringing them in line with the ideals you have set. As an athlete, there are multiple things to deal with: training schedules, injuries, family, performance, and finances. Then there are emotional and behavioral aspects that need to be taken care of while training.

Core aspects, standards, and monitoring

The four core aspects of self-regulation are standards, monitoring, strength, and motivation.

Standards are the framework or rules of the sport within which an athlete has to follow. Football, tennis and any sport have its own set of standards.

Monitoring is where an athlete monitors his thoughts and behavior. It involves asking oneself, “how do I feel? Is this how I’m supposed to feel after a performance?”

In theory, self-regulation can sap your strength. Therefore, it may affect your endurance. Having said that, one review of studies showed that athletes with better glucose levels and higher motivation were able to achieve better performance despite the self-regulatory emotions. This was because they found that glucose helps to regulate willpower, and therefore helped the athletes to achieve optimum performance. Hence, motivation is a key component of self-regulating.

Why Self Regulation?

Self-regulation has been shown to positively influence performance and behavior. Researchers proved that performance could be enhanced by thought suppression tasks. In the regulatory phase, the scientists found perceived stress decreased and there was less emotional distress. Additionally, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption decreased. Athletes started eating healthy, had better emotional control, were able to carry out household chores, attend events or commitments without issues, monitor their spending habits and could monitor their own habits. It also showed that the capacity for self-regulation can be improved if not increased in athletes.

How To Self-Regulate?

You may already be self-regulating as an athlete and may not even know it. Or you are aware of it but want to get better. There are four steps to better self-regulation. This includes planning, self-monitoring, evaluation, and self-reflection. You can take a look at each of the steps and their strategies to achieve them. Remember, this isn’t a one size fits all approach. Different techniques work differently for people. It’s a subjective process.


This is the first step. What is required of you to achieve this goal or complete this task? Are you prepared? What kind of preparation is needed to achieve this? Do you even have a goal? Two ways of doing this are through better planning. This is through SMART goal setting and competition routines.

SMART goal setting

SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Action-focused, Realistic, and Time-frame. This is important. Write down your goal. It isn’t important to just want to win a medal. You have to set a goal. Set both long-term and short-term goals. Short terms goals could be bowling fifty balls every day for two months. Long-term goals could be making the quarterfinals of a major US tournament in three months. While you write it down, also write the steps you have to take to achieve this. Track your progress, are you making fifty balls of free throws in practice. If not, why?

Competition routines

Competition routines are important as the only thing you can control as an athlete is yourself. You can’t control the umpire or the conditions. This sports routine makes your performance predictable and naturally progressive on game day. It should start in the practice stage. A routine could be as simple or complicated as you like. It can start with deep breathing and relaxation. Then narrow your focus on the goal. Make a basket or shoot a free kick.

Moreover, every time you follow your set drill, you lay the groundwork for the actual performance in competition. You control the intensity of your focus. Make a structured time-frame for your routine. Once you have this you can extend this to a pre-competition routine too. This structure can include your warm-up, foods, tactics, check your equipment and mental preparation. Everybody’s routines will be different, but at the heart of them all, they have one common denominator: consistency. Do it consistently till it’s second nature to you.


While many athletes have a coach monitoring them, self-monitoring is a more micro level monitoring where an athlete is acutely aware of how they are going about a particular throw or run. ‘Why am I tense? Do I need to do more stretches? Is my aim off? Am I slightly off balance?’ You can improve your performance by identifying the issues in your game through positive self-talk and concentration strategies.

Positive self-talk

The positive self-talk will help you both in positive and negative situations. So get into the habit of talking to yourself. Muhammad Ali says he hated training. “I hated every minute of training, but I said, don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion.” Script your positive self-talk in advance and practice it. The Mayo Clinic lists a few examples you might find useful.

Concentration strategies

Additionally, develop concentration strategies. You will have many distractions while you train and perform in competition. These will be mental, visual, and auditory distractions. Then there’s your own inner critic rising up with negative trash talk. You have to ‘curb’ all of these by improving your concentration. Some strategies include simulation training, where you train as though you were in competition throughout. Then there are ‘cue words.’ These are words or phrases that snap your attention to the task at hand. “Parking” also helps shelve negative thoughts in a “parked” area till you’re done with your task. “Switching” also helps. This is where athletes switch their attention on and off to narrow their focus on the task at hand. Psychologists also ask athletes to dwell on the “here and now” moment, not the past game or the future result of the game.


Psychologists talk a lot about mental imagery to visualize your free throw or goal. Studies have shown that athletes who do practice visualization can improve their performances as effectively as those who practice daily. Imagine the combined effects of visualizing and daily practice. Visualization can be done by first relaxing in a quiet place. Then imagine your environment. Imagine the screaming fans, the referee, and the track or field. Allow yourself a third person view of the surroundings. Then shift to a first-person view of your environment. Envision your body performing the perfect action. Imagine yourself playing the perfect shot or game. See it, feel it and hear it. Engage your muscles in your imagination and then slowly bring yourself back to the present. The best time to perform this is before going to bed.


This step involves studying your actions. What did you do? How did you do? What went wrong? What went right? Do you need to change you run up or follow through? Do you need to change your strategy? Here while external feedback from a coach is helpful, even internal feedback from your own internal coach can be helpful. This is because you’ve studied your action at a micro level.


This is where you reflect on the whole process. Jot down your own reflections of what happened during practice and games. Furthermore, maintain a journal where you describe what happened. Write down how you felt during the game, before and after. Also mention what went wrong, what steps you can take to change it cor correct yourself. How can you improve your game and do it better next time? Did you achieve what you set out to? If not how what can you do next to achieve it next time? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How can you change your weaknesses to strengths?

Emotional regulation

In addition to the above techniques, emotional control strategies improve athletic performance. Different emotions trigger different responses in athletes. In one study of 305 runners, they found that 15% of them felt anger and anxiety increased their performance. Conversely, 85% said that controlling and reducing these emotions improved their performance. They reduce these emotions by relaxing their muscles and externally refocusing their emotions on other things. Relaxing techniques include deep belly breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. They start with five minute tensing and releasing of tension from various muscles groups starting with your heads, down to your neck, hands, torso and feet.

This external refocus could include changing the situation, modifying the situation, cognitive change, and attentional deployment. They can also modulate their responses to a situation. No matter what technique is employed, these are better than the suppression of emotions.

If you want to regulate your emotions, you must first identify the emotions linked to your best and worst performances. Does anger make you perform better or worse? Use the emotional regulation strategies and see what works for you. What works for one athlete may not work for another given everyone has different emotional makeup and resilience. Examine your own emotions carefully after training and performance or associated with events or decisions. Get in touch with your own feelings. In short, know thyself.

Stages Of Application

All self-regulated learning has three stages. Forethought, Performance, and Self-reflection. The word forethought is what distinguishes regulated learners from non-regulated learners. Forethought is the planning stage and requires goal setting as we’ve discussed earlier. You can use the SMART technique or anything else that works for you. Performance phase is the phase where you act. You learn and do during this stage. You perform, monitor, tweak and change. Rinse and repeat. Self-reflection is the stage where you analyze everything and change your behavior to achieve success.


Any strategy is only as good as its execution. Putting all of the above into practice will take time. Talented athletes outperform their peers with self-regulation. This goes to show that behavioral management is the key to super athletic performance. Along with the above techniques, behavioral analytic tools like Jacobson analytical relaxation, autogenous training (Schultz), and Psihoton training can be employed.

Each of them involves relaxing muscle groups, regulating body heat, heart rate, perspiration, and other body functions. For an individual performer, it means using this underutilized skill by taking absolute control of their bodies. It means understanding their minds, behavior, and performance. Developing self-confidence, problem-solving skills and other coping mechanisms can help athletes control themselves no matter what the external conditions while competing.

Bring It On

Now that you have understood how self-regulation works it’s important to get on your own action plan. Despite all the thinking involved, this is an action-oriented mindset that helps set apart the champions from the rest of the pack. It also helps monitor your own progress. In essence, you compete with yourself every day and your focus on making yourself better. No excuses. Self-regulation is basically, an exercise in self-control.

But while you do this, have fun. Kimiko Date Krumm who won her first Grand Slam after being out of action for twelve years, said, “When I came back, at first I just wanted to have fun.” Don’t give in to the pressure of competitions. Maintain healthy relationships with your friends and family. Got out with your significant other, spend time with your children. Achieve work-life balance and set realistic goals keeping all things in perspective. Your socio-economic factors, relationships, and support groups also affect your mind and behavior. Your mental game needs to be as strong as your mental game.

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