Impulsivity Explored

Impulsivity Explored is a blog by leading sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole on the impact that impulsivity can have in performance situations.

Impulsivity
Impulsivity Explored is all about brain explosions that take place in the heat of the sporting contest. This is potentially one of the least investigated areas of modern-day sport psychology. 

Meaning of impulsive in English (Cambridge Dictionary)

Showing behaviour in which you do things suddenly without any planning and without considering the effects they may have.

Impulsivity and Reacting Versus Responding

How impulsive are you? Is impulsivity something that if you were to work on, would have a direct benefit on your life or performance? When something happens to you, especially if it’s something that produces a lot of emotion, do you tend to react or respond?

Reacting and responding are slightly different from one another. One is impulsive the other isn’t. Can you guess which is which?

Reacting basically implies the resulting action was more automatic, less considered. In a nutshell, the brain was less involved. Responding on the other hand is suggestive of a much more considered action. One which was selected from a series of options. Due to this a response almost always takes longer than a reaction. In some cases much longer. Reactions are more impulsive, responses are less impulsive.

Impulsivity Can Be Useful … Sometimes!

It would be tempting to say that due to the above that responses are better than reactions. But this is not the case. Reactions serve a really important purpose in threatening or dangerous situations. Think about the benefit of your hand pulling away from a scolding hot object without you having to think about it. The speed of this reaction will, in many situations, reduce the amount of burning that occurs. This same reflex action allows a motorsport driver to react so fast that they appear to pull off the grid at the same time the lights go green.

But what if you are so good at reacting that you always react? And what if some of these situations would benefit more from a response. 

In the work that we do as sport psychologists and performance psychologists this issue is most common under the general banner of helping our clients with what could be called ‘reducing unhelpful impulsivity’. 

There are hundreds of examples where impulsivity can cause serious issues in competitive sports. Can’t think of any? Then take a look at this Bleacher Report blog of 25 of the most famous brain explosions in recent memory.

Think about the tennis player who can’t help but throw their racquet or abuse the umpire. How about the cricketer who is so upset about a catch being dropped off her bowling that she berates her poor teammate right there and then. ‘I couldn’t help it, my emotions got the better of me’. Really? Is that actually possible? I know it certainly feels like it but to reduce unhelpful impulsivity we first need to believe that our emotions have less power over our actions than they do.

But I Couldn’t Help It!

Blaming our emotions as if they are some invading alien life force that makes us act in a certain way is both inaccurate and very unhelpful. Just because it feels like we have no other option doesn’t make that true. 

One of the best ways to start reducing unhelpful impulsivity is to establish if the person who did the reacting was still happy with their actions well after the fact. Ideally at least one full day later. Was Serena Williams still pleased with how she reacted in the 2018 US Open final? If Will Smith was given the chance to go back in time would he still decide that slapping Chris Rock across the face at this year’s Oscars to be the right call? I can’t be sure as I have not asked them but I suspect both would love a do-over.

The reason why we want to establish this is to try and get an idea if the issue is really about impulsivity rather than morals and values. And you can imagine, someone who 24 hours after the fact still thinks that keying up someone’s car who parked poorly was the best choice of action in that situation would be better off focusing on their morals and values instead of their impulsivity. 

Most of the time, certainly in the work we do, the athletes or performers who reacted poorly realise this soon afterwards. Sometimes just seconds afterwards. Their morals and values are sound, they just need help converting certain reactions into more considered responses.

Fortunately, there are some tried and tested processes that when taken seriously can do just this. Here are three to whet your appetite.

Process A: Mindfulness

Regular Mindfulness, if you have chosen the right kind, is in part designed to help to reduce the overall power of thoughts and feelings. As some readers and many of my clients may know the best definition I have ever come across for Mindfulness is “increased awareness of the present moment with decreased judgement”.

One of the reasons why Mindfulness, if done regularly, is so effective in reducing unhelpful impulsivity is because it helps with both of these at the same time. When your awareness goes up you are basically using the information-gathering part of your brain and this shuts down the reacting part. By decreasing judgment, we are less likely to think that the umpire is doing a bad job and more likely to think he’s just doing his job.

In recent years there has been an explosion of apps designed to help with Mindfulness but at the time of writing, my top suggestion would be Balance available on most smartphones. Feel free to use the comments section at the bottom of this blog to make other suggestions of Mindfulness apps you recommend or don’t and why.

Process B: Increase The Gap Between Stimulus And Response

This is not exactly the same as the above suggestion but is similar. The concept of there being a stimulus (for example, seeing someone take a parking spot you’d be indicating for) and then a gap and then the response was the brainchild of Viktor Frankl; the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and Holocaust survivor. This approach, which I have always found is most effective when combined with the below process asks us to come up with methods to a) make sure there is a gap and b) increase the duration of the gap.

Classics examples include counting backwards from 10 to 1 or taking two big belly breaths or, where appropriate writing down the emotions.

Process C: Lists

The final process designed to help improve this particular type of decision making is to work out ahead of time which types of situations are most likely to produce a response versus a reaction. For example, I am typically calm when behind the wheel of the car so I would not include any driving related scenarios in my lists. But to this day, despite what I do for a living, I still struggle to respond ideally when I witness most forms of prejudice (sexism, racism etc) so it makes sense for me to have these kinds of situations/stimuli on my lists.

You can have different lists for different areas where you might be unhelpfully impulsive. Even better, clarify what your best response and most damaging reaction might be for each. Sometimes the mantra RESPOND DON’T REACT is the best way to increase the gap.

Keen But Need A Hand?

If this article has motivated you to improve either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance but you feel like you’d benefit from an expert helping hand then Get In Touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at info@condorperformce.com and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.

 

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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