Olympic athletes could sustain elite performance if their supporting colleagues have a high level of emotional intelligence, according to research.
Results from a study of a national sports organisation involved in the London 2012 Olympic Games found that it is possible to increase the emotional intelligence of members of an organisation, and that this has a positive impact on how the organisation and individuals, including athletes, function.
Researchers at the University of Portsmouth, together with colleagues from Loughborough and Cardiff Metropolitan Universities, explored the link between emotional intelligence and how effectively individuals, teams and organisations function in Olympic sports.
Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to identify, understand and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others.
“These abilities impact the quality and closeness of relationships such as that between coach and athlete, which are fundamental to athletes performing well in competitions,” said lead researcher Dr Chris Wagstaff, sport and performance psychologist in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Portsmouth.
The study into positive organisational psychology in sport took place over nine months in the run up to the Olympic Games and was split into two phases. During the first phase, 25 participants – athletes, coaches, managers and administrative staff from a national sports organisation – attended educational workshops delivered by sports psychologists and were required to complete detailed pre- and post-study questionnaires and keep diaries of their activities and emotions.
During the second phase, three national mid-level managers, chosen because they had key relationships within the organisation and therefore the greatest influence, received one-to-one coaching.
Researchers found that compared to pre-study measures, the quality of participants’ work relationships was improved during the first phase of research. The participants were also better at regulating their emotions, which meant changing the way they thought in response to challenging situations, which had a positive effect on individual performances.
The three managers in the second phase who received one-to-one coaching showed an improvement in emotional intelligence ability, indicating they had become better at identifying, understanding and managing emotions in themselves and others.
This is the first study to sufficiently show that these methods can increase the emotional intelligence and emotion regulation of the participants.
“Athletes stand a better chance of succeeding in competition if their organisation can develop its emotional intelligence,” said Dr Wagstaff.
“Sports organisations are fundamental to the success of athletes when they prepare and compete at Olympic level. They provide significant support in areas such as funding and medical expertise, but they can also be a source of pressure in terms of selection procedures and media expectation, so understanding emotions within the organisation is crucial.”
The research also has implications for non-sporting organisations. Dr Wagstaff said: “The abilities we have developed here to promote performance in sport are similar to those required to achieve and sustain elite performance in others fields, such as business or the military.”
The study is published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Previous research findings from the programme have been published in the journal Sport Exercise and Performance Psychology, the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, and the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology.