Emotions Could Swing Super Bowl LI Results, Say Sport Psychologists

FEBRUARY 04, 2017
Caitlyn Fitzpatrick
psychiatry, anxiety, neurology, sports, football, Super Bowl LI, New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, Houston, Texas, NRG Stadium, Texans

While eager football fans are elbows deep in buffalo chicken wings, dips, and beer, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons players will be battling it out in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas—and probably dealing with a whole lot of anxiety. Sport psychologists from Florida State University (FSU) believe that the team that manages emotions better will see a Vince Lombardy Trophy in its future.

There are clear differences between the two teams. Patriots’ Quarterback Tom Brady is used to this whole Super Bowl thing. Winning this 51st championship would mean a fifth victory for the 39-year-old father of three. On the other hand, although Falcons’ Quarterback Matt Ryan has been in the league for nine years, he has never played in a Super Bowl—but then again, most of the Atlanta team hasn’t. The Falcons have played only in one final contest: Super Bowl XXXIII, resulting in a loss to the Denver Broncos. So if the win is a matter of keeping their cool under pressure, the Patriots might have the upper hand.

“Football players have reputations for being tough guys, but they’re just like the rest of us when it comes to managing anxiety and other emotions surrounding big events,” Gershon Tenenbaum, PhD, professor of sport and exercise psychology at FSU, said in a news release. “There are some who are more anxious and some who are less anxious.”

Of course there are mental health differences among individual players. Some may manage their emotions better as part of their personalities. Team comradery, genetics, and a slew of other factors also come into play. But being overcome by anxiety could have a major impact on the game.

Tenenbaum and colleague, Graig Chow, PhD, assistant professor of sport psychology at FSU, focus their research on improving athletes’ performances through mental health interventions. Self-talk, thought manipulation, and imagery are just a few techniques that can benefit athletes from the amateur to professional levels.

Emotions will likely change throughout the game, however. Uncertainty leads to anxiety, so once the Super Bowl is underway, that feeling will give way to excitement and frustration, among other emotions.

“The challenge is dealing with emotions—changing the negative thoughts into positive ones and the threatening situations into challenging situations,” Tenenbaum continued. “If the Falcons are able to keep their emotions and their mental state positive at the beginning of the game, they will be able to stay with the Patriots.”

So if negative emotions really breed mistakes, it will all play out come February 5 at NRG Stadium.

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