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The 8 Basic Emotions: How to Win at Sports and at Work

Joan Kingsley, co-author of The Fear-free Organization, draws parallels between work and professional sports and concludes that many business bosses are missing a trick – or 8 …

Top athletes and sporting teams are increasingly hiring sports psychiatrists to help players understand how the brain works and the crucial role of emotions in playing to win.

Recent articles in the media* report that Britain’s number one tennis player Andy Murray is learning what makes the brain tick and how emotions are part of the hard wiring of the brain. This knowledge is giving him a powerful understanding to help him manage his fear, anxiety and stress. It’s also helping him to raise his game.

Murray and his team have come up with a strategy for managing and using his emotions rather than being overcome by them. He’s put in a lot of time and effort working with a sports psychiatrist to understand how the brain works. He believes that is the only way to gain an understanding of himself and to be more forgiving when his emotions are in danger of tripping him up and tipping him out of control. Murray’s goal is to live in the moment, in the excitement and joy of the game; so even if he loses he will still derive a great deal of satisfaction from his love of playing. And if he wins the title, well that’s just the icing on the cake!

Sounds a tall order, and perhaps it is, but Murray thinks it’s a whole lot better understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of mind and mood than learning some behaviour tricks to calm down. Murray says sports psychologists teach coping strategies, like counting to 10, to manage stress. But that just doesn’t do the job, particularly if you want to win championships.

Great athletes know the crucial role of emotions in playing the best they can and staying at the top of their game. And although it’s serious business, athletes describe what they do as play rather than work.

At work, organizations have adopted the concept of teams as a metaphor for how groups of people come together to create and produce. But somehow they’ve left out the most important aspect of team playing – the emotions. And in order to win at work it’s essential to understand how the brain works and, more specifically, what the emotions are for.

Underpinning everything we think, feel and do are the eight basic emotions. Emotions are the result of eight million years of evolution. The architecture of the brain has evolved with emotions in mind. The emotions are universal across all species with a brain and a backbone; they are universal for human beings across all cultures. The face of fear looks the same in Beijing as it does in Bristol. The look of love is the same in Luang Prabang as it is in London. The expression of anger is as heart-stopping in New York as it is in Nicosia.

The reason evolution has equipped us with emotions is very complex and rather simple. Survival. Without emotions we would perish. In the hierarchical structures of the brain, emotions trump cognition. When the emotional system (the limbic system) in the brain is damaged we lose the ability to reason, to be logical, to concentrate and to make plans. Everything we think and do is created and coloured by our emotions.

We have 8 basic emotions. Two – joy and love – are concerned with attachment. They make life worth living. Five – fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness – are concerned with avoidance. They are the fight, flight, freeze emotions that take over every aspect of our being to drive behaviours when life is at risk and our very survival is threatened. Surprise is the eighth emotion and can either be concerned with attachment (a happy surprise) or avoidance (a nasty shock).

The root of the word emotion means ‘to move’. The 8 basic emotions motivate us to frolic, fight, flight or freeze.

  1. Joy/Excitement: To experience happiness
  2. Love/Trust: To bond; to relate; to reproduce
  3. Fear: To recognize danger; to freeze, flee, fight
  4. Anger: To fight our foes; to protect our young
  5. Disgust: To recoil from poisonous plants, people
  6. Shame: To feel remorse; to behave well
  7. Sadness: To mourn and recover from loss
  8. Startle/Surprise: To astonish, wonder & amaze OR To shock into action

Whether you’re on the playing fields or working in an organization, it’s good business to engage the emotions that motivate us to be the best that we can be.

* Mitchell, Kevin: 'Andy Murray seeing psychiatrist in bid to boost Wimbledon chances' The Guardian, 27 June 2015; Charlie Eccleshare: 'Andy Murray v Mikhail Kukushkin, Wimbledon 2015: as it happened' The Telegraph, 30 June 2015; Ian Johnston: 'Wimbledon 2015: Andy Murray uses psychiatrist to help him to 'genuinely enjoy' playing tennis' The Independent, 28 June 2015

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