Exercising too much self-control may be counter productive and could hinder performance in athletes and sports people, research suggests.
UK scientists have found that hockey players who strived to exert more self-control – by trying to control their behaviours, emotions and desires to pursue their goals – saw a drop in performance in their dribbling, passing and shooting skills.
The team said their findings, published in the journal Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport, suggest that too much self-control may have a negative effect on sporting skills and should be avoided before matches.
Lead researcher Dr Ruth Boat, a sport and exercise scientist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, said: “Our findings suggest that self-control exertion can have a negative effect on sporting skill performance, possibly as a result of poorer sustained attention and a lack of ability to focus on the task at hand.
“In our study performance time didn’t alter but accuracy did, which shows the impact of self-control on the accuracy of skills performance specifically.
“As they learn a skill, however, it will require less self-control on the part of athletes.
“Our work suggests that athletes and their coaches could aim to avoid over-exerting self-control before a competitive match in order to optimise their performance, perhaps learning to manage this through certain interventions.”
For the research, the sports scientists followed 13 male hockey players who took part in a series of cognitive function tests requiring self-control, which involved resisting their automatic responses.
One such task involved having to respond with the colour a word was written in, rather than the colour word itself – so if the word “green” was written in blue font, then blue was the correct response.
Immediately after the tests, the players were asked to perform a hockey skills task which also required self-control behaviours such as regulation of attention, emotions, and motor skill execution.
The participants had to dribble around cones, make a pass against a rebound board and then shoot to the opposite side of the goal they were instructed to.
The tasks were repeated six times over four sessions, with a 90-second rest in between each session.
There were 24% more errors made in the skills task by participants following self-control exertion, compared to when they performed the skills task without the self-control test.
The participants did not make any more errors at the start of the task, however, it gradually increased to 40% more errors towards the end of the task.
This shows that self-control is particularly important for skills performance towards the end of a match, the researchers said.
Dr Boat added: “It’s important to think of self-control as like a container, athletes can take so much until it eventually runs out and this will become detrimental to their skill performance.”