The quick answer to this is no, even though the majority of people think yes.
Let us look at this in a bit more detail though to see what is going on when we use training to deal with anger/stress or use anger/stress to perform. I will try to keep it relatively short, but no promises.
Firstly, before we get into the answer to performance, I want to explain the polyvagal theory. This has been about for a while now but there has been a lot of new research on it which is bringing it more to the front in the world of psychology.
We have all heard about the sympathetic- and parasympathetic nervous systems and the flight or fight response. The polyvagal theory looks at all this in detail but expands it, to really help us understand how different states affect our training and performance. The vagus nerve connects the brain to the heart, organs both above and beneath the diaphragm. Research of the vagus nerve has helped us understand how the human nervous system relates to varying degrees of safety or of danger.
The polyvagal theory divides our autonomic nervous system into three systems. The oldest and first one we will list is the dorsal vagal part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This part of the nervous system enables us to shut down or freeze when in a situation that feels overwhelming or uncontrollable.
The second is the ventral vagal and this is our flight, or flight response. We have all heard of this response many times and it is when the body gets ready to run away or stay and fight depending on the danger and the threat perceived.
The last is the ventral vagal and this is part of the parasympathetic nervous system just like the dorsal vagal although it stems from a different part of the brain. This is when we are calm and connected, settled, curious, compassionate, grounded, and mindful.
Now every day we probably dip in and out of these systems multiple times and for some of us, we tend to live in one of these systems more than we should. You might notice a day in work when you have just had enough and shut down to what is happening around you, maybe you go home and just veg out watching tv (freeze). The flip side of that is maybe you get annoyed at work or stressed to meet a deadline. You start to get angry and bad-tempered with people around you. This is you going into fight or flight.
You might see a trait where you always get angry when you are stressed or things go wrong, or you might be the person that hides away and shuts down. This has been shaped throughout your life, we all fall into habits, although even when this has been your response for years it can still be changed. The problems start to arise when we stay in these systems for a longer period, becoming increasingly angry or withdrawn. Our health both physically and mentally will start to suffer.
So now having seen how the nervous system works you can nearly just answer if getting angry or being stressed can help with training and competition.
Remember, training and competing are both stressors and this will then put our body and more importantly our nervous system in either fight/flight or shut down. You see it in many sporting arenas, where the athlete gets frustrated or angry because things are not going to plan and they either give up or start getting angry and become hard to deal with or coach. The person in the gym that throws the skipping rope away and swears at it, when they keep tripping up. Even in contact sports where you would think getting angry would be an advantage, we see boxers get frustrated and they will start to tense up, telegraphing their shots. They will start to fatigue as they start to use more energy and their breathing becomes shallower. Compare this to their opponent who is all relaxed making them miss more with their quick feet and fast hands. Getting more relaxed as they see their opponent get more frustrated. We see this in all sports were the relaxed athlete will perform better.
Sports psychologists know that arousal and nerves will affect an athlete’s performance, that’s why they will get them to do breathing exercises and visualisation drills to calm them down. However, you need to be careful when doing this, what if the athlete is the type of person to shut down when nervous or afraid. Making them more relaxed won’t help and would be disastrous to their performance.
We as coaches need to know our athletes both physically and mentally. We don’t necessarily need to know what makes them get fired up, but we do need to know when they are fired up, what reaction will they show. We might need to move them from freeze/shut down a more aroused state or we might need to make them less aroused to get them out of flight/fight. (see diagram above)
Networkyogatherapy.com. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://networkyogatherapy.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/poly.jpg> [Accessed 6 May 2020].
Online.setantacollege.com. 2017. Setanta College: Log In To The Site. [online] Available at: <https://online.setantacollege.com/mod/scorm/view.php?id=22015>
Porges, S., n.d. The Polyvagal Theory.
Weinberg, R. and Gould, D., 2019. Foundations Of Sport And Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.