University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

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UWM professor helps athletes hone their mental game
Photo by Peter Jakubowski  
Barb Meyer
Barbara Meyer worked as a performance enhancement consultant with golfer Justin Regier this summer. In October she attended the first stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying School Tournament (Q-School) with Regier. Meyer describes Q-School as “one of the most mentally and emotionally intense events I have experienced.”

There are just two laboratories in the world where the role of emotional intelligence in sports performance is being systematically studied.

Top athletes from around the world know that one of these labs is at UW–Milwaukee, and its influence is growing. Barbara Meyer, Professor and Chair of the Department of Human Movement Sciences in UWM’s College of Health Sciences, is preparing to reach a wider pool of athletes by using online research and analytical tools to answer age-old questions about what makes an award-winning athlete.

“There are two labs in the world, one in the United Kingdom and mine here at UWM, that have really started to systematically study emotional intelligence in sports,” says Meyer.

Photo by Peter Jakubowski 
Barbara Meyer
Barbara Meyer
So, what really sets one athlete apart from another? What helps propel a tennis player or ski jumper or sprinter into elite, world-class status? Why does one golfer “choke” while standing over a three-foot putt, while the other sinks the ball to cinch a tournament win?

Meyer suspects that the difference may be what’s going on inside an athlete’s head, part of which may be that individual’s emotional intelligence.

Meyer describes emotional intelligence as our ability to perceive, understand, utilize, and manage not only our emotions but the emotions of other people.

In her work as a sport psychology consultant, Barbara Meyer has worked with world class athletes to help them develop a “skill set” of mental tools. She has witnessed how this self-knowledge and ability to control thought patterns can help put an athlete on the medal stand. Australian Alisa Camplin, an aerial skier who won gold in 2002 and bronze in 2006 at the Olympic Winter Games, describes Meyer as her “secret weapon.”

Meyer says that while there is a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting the role of emotional intelligence in sport, it hasn’t been subjected to rigorous academic scrutiny. To make her case, she goes back to the basics. “We know that there is cognitive intelligence, or IQ, but we also know that the people with the highest IQ are not necessarily the most successful in business, music, academic pursuits, etc.”

So, what else is there besides IQ that contributes to success?

Impact of emotional intelligence
Meyer, Alisa Camplin and a bronze medal moments after the medal ceremony for Aerial Skiing at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Meyer points to the beginnings of the study of emotional intelligence in 1920s and 30s, when psychologists reasoned that there must be some other kind of “intelligence” at work. The definition of “perceive, understand, utilize and manage,” in that exact order, is based on the concept that “I can’t manage my emotions if I don’t understand what I’m feeling, and how what I’m feeling influences what I think and what I do.”

Emotional intelligence has been studied in business and health care, not just from an administrative standpoint but also in examining patient care. Research findings show that people who are more emotionally intelligent are able to handle stress better. They tend to be able to deal with conflict better, able to interact with and manage people better. They also have better coping skills and are less likely to use and abuse various substances. While less likely to smoke or drink at all, the more emotionally intelligent also are much less inclined to excess.

While all of these elements said “sport and athletes” to Meyer, she first had to do foundational, basic research “to see if this really was a construct we could apply to sport. Was there a pre-existing model of emotional intelligence that is most consistent with sports performance?”

Traditionally, there are two models of emotional intelligence: one is based on the model that emotional intelligence is a trait, highly related to personality. This “mixed model” views emotional intelligence as fixed, since after the first years of life, core personality is stable (unless an individual has a major trauma or years of psycho-therapy).

Meyer in Torino
Meyer at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy
The “ability model” explains that emotional intelligence is an ability, like cognitive intelligence or IQ, that can be developed over time. This is consistent with the applied sport psychology that Meyer practices. The ability model is based on the premise that it’s possible to change the way someone thinks and behaves − that thought and behavior is dynamic and malleable

Meyer then had to go to the basic science and look at what tools could be used to measure emotional intelligence. She needed to see if those tools would be relevant to sport. The next step was to replicate some of the original emotional intelligence studies within athlete populations. “Would we get the same sort of normative data with athletes that we do with the general population?” was the question. The answer was “yes,” that athletes respond in similar patterns as the general population.

Next step: design online study

Because the existing paper and pencil assessment tools for emotional intelligence are expensive, Meyer delved into “something that I never thought I would be doing,” and designed a study that would be conducted completely online.

“We also needed to compare the paper/pencil versus online version to see if we could even measure emotional intelligence online,” she explains. Meyer did this, and found clear consistencies between paper/pencil and electronic responses.

Researching athletes from around the world
Now Meyer and her collaborators, UWM graduate students as well as colleagues from this campus and others, are preparing to do sizeable studies with the online assessment.

“This is exciting,” Meyer says. “Besides being more economical, online doesn’t limit us geographically − we can study people from all over the world.” While Meyer has collected data on athletes and emotional intelligence over the years, there is a huge advantage in collecting information from a much larger group of coaches and athletes.

The questions she looks to answer through this research are intriguing, whether you’re a hardcore fan or professional athlete, Little League parent or Big Ten coach.
  • How do athletes fare in terms of overall emotional intelligence and the four branches: perceiving, understanding, utilizing and managing emotion?
  • Are there differences in emotional intelligence corresponding to age, gender or team sport athletes/individual sport athletes?
  • How does emotional intelligence compare in elite and novice/beginner athletes?
  • Do coaches with a certain emotional intelligence profile relate better to their teams?
With a significant amount of data, Meyer hopes to quantify the relationship between emotional intelligence and benchmarks such as performance and satisfaction.

“While we’re targeting sports, with all of its emotional drama, the foundational aim of our research is that of all science…to describe, predict and explain a specific phenomenon.”