Control Emotions

Amygdala Hijack & Emotional Regulation?

“Learn to control your emotions or they will learn to control you.”Edgar Martinez


We could write up a fictional story here yet unfortunately, have several real life examples to choose from… In sport, over the years, elite coaches and athletes  in critical times for their individual and team’s performance. Some lost the game, others almost more. Ohio State legendary coach Woody Hayes’ career was forever tainted by the punch he threw at Clemson player Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl.  Zinedine Zidane notarious head-butt of Marco Materazzi in extra time of the 2006 World Cup final arguably influenced the team’s loss to Italy. And, in 1977, Kermit Washington jaw-breaking punch of Rudy Tomjanovich also brought to the forefront to performers’ minds the impact of losing composure when it mattered most.  


You have probably heard of the body’s “fight or flight” response.  The amygdala is the part of the brain controlling this reactive response to a threat.  Each of the above mentioned examples are of elite performers whose emotions “got the best of them.”  When negative emotions surge, other cognitive abilities, including decision making are altered. Characteristics of the amygdala include: 1) a trigger (a real or perceived threat), 2) Instant response (intense and with loss of control), 3) A strong emotion, and 4) A strong regret after the action.  

Emotional self control is the ability these automatic responses (hijacks) or destructive responses to real or perceived threats.  Impulse or emotional control allows us to stay physically calm, positive and thoughtful or strategic under performance demands. Whether in coaching, performance or leadership, this ability is a cornerstone.  Emotional self control requires the performer to effectively recognize and manage one’s emotions and reactions to allow for constructive use of the emotional energy, effective thinking and strategic decision making.

Hitting your Optimized Zone

Score Yourself

  • Reflect on the background of “Emotional Regulation” above.  
  • Describe 1-2 situations where you can relate to your emotions controlling you and negatively impacting your performance.  
  • What did you notice in your physical response? (e.g. fist clenched, tight lips, clenched fist, high blood pressure, etc) What emotions did you experience? What thoughts went through your mind? What action did you take? And, what outcomes resulted?
  • Consider alternative responses.  What would have been alternative to managing the intensity in emotions?  Shifting the physical engagement with the situation? Are there any alternatives in your cognitive interpretation?


One will not be able to “think through” amygdala hijacks.  The flooding of the emotion will overrun the mind’s ability to think flexibility and with emotional distance.  The first technique that is required in emotional control is using breath control or diaphragmatic breathing. When inhaling, the diaphragm drops, the rib cage moves out, and air rushes into the vacuum created.  On the exhale, the diaphragm pushes up, the rib cage moves in, and air pushes out. Use the following practice:

  1.     Sit comfortably, with your knees bent, arms and legs uncrossed, and your shoulders, head and neck relaxed.
  2.     Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
  3.     Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
  4.     Exhale slowly through your mouth as you let your stomach fall inwards. The hand on your upper chest should remain as still as possible.
  5.     Simply focus on breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth. If you get distracted, use it as a reminder to return your attention to breathing.
  6.     After about 10 complete breaths, start to focus your attention on a word, phrase or image as you breathe out. Pairing your cue word/image with your exhalation.
  7.     Your goal is to slow your breathing rate down to around 6 breaths per minute.
  8.     Practice one 10-minute session per day or two 5-minute sessions per day.   


Choose a teammate or coach that you often are performing with or nearby.  Ask them to observe your performance and offer feedback….what do they see when you are first start experiencing negative emotions like frustration?  Gather feedback on the earliest signs of negative emotion. Your breath control will be more effective if scaling you back from frustration rather than rage.  Consider also using your accountability partner for a check in on your breath control practice.


  • “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman

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