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Does Self-Control Depletion Have A Negative Impact in Sports?

Have you ever been so angry and frustrated at something that you begin having irrational thoughts or actions? Say you stub your toe and begin screaming profanities at the bureau that you stubbed it on. In your normal state of mind, you would know that it’s ridiculous to be screaming at inanimate objects when the cause of your frustration is entirely on you. So why do these irrational thoughts or actions happen in the first place, and why does our self-control seem to disappear in these instances? Self-control depletion, or losing the ability to control oneself has been recently looked at in greater detail, and real world implications of self control depletion are being discovered. An area that self-control depletion can have a large effect is in sports competition. Anyone who has played competitive sports knows the feeling of being so frustrated with an aspect of the game that they no longer act as themselves, and rather act on frustration and anger. Whether it comes from a ref blowing an obvious call or an opposing player performing a blatant foul on you or one of your teammates, a normally rational and unaggressive player can lose their self-control quickly. A study in 2014 by Englert and Bertrams looked at self–control depletion, focusing their study on the effects that self-control depletion has in sports. Being able to have self-control is a very important part of most competitive sports. From flipping over a chess table because you are frustrated by your lack of strategy, to hitting an opposing football player with the truck-stick because they badmouthed your teammate on the previous play, self-control comes into play more often than not in competitive play. Understanding the effects of self-control depletion in sports may just give you the competitive edge.


Self-control can be defined as the process of voluntarily controlling an impulse or habitual action, such as choosing to eat an apple instead of a piece of cake when you are on a diet. Much like how attention is a limited resource, self-control is also limited in its capacity. In sports, attention is spread to many different things, and since it is a limited resource, it is difficult to pay attention to self-control while attending to so many other distractions. Attention has often been described as a “spotlight”, and you must move the spotlight around to focus your attention on different things. In sports, that spotlight is constantly moving around, trying to focus on the most important aspect of the game. Since you are trying to focus on so many different things, you are spending much less time focusing on your self-control, and allowing it to get out of hand when presented with situations requiring utmost self-control.

After a first act of self-control, the resource is depleted for a certain amount of time, and it is not replenished instantly (Baumeister et al., 1998). This time period where the resource has been depleted is called “ego depletion”, and further acts of self-control are temporarily impaired during this period. This study also aimed to look at how certain aspects of sporting competitions can actually deplete self-control strength. In order to do this, the experimenters relied on the effect of vicarious depletion. Vicarious depletion can be described as mentally reliving the actions of a person who had to exert self-control and having your own self-control depleted as well.

In the study, a sample of 40 participants was split into two groups, and each group was given a reading prompt. Both of the reading prompts were about a soccer player, and the participants were asked to take the perspective of the soccer player in the prompt. In one group, the prompt was about a player who had to strongly regulate himself in the match since he already had a yellow card, the ref was biased and only calling fouls on his team, and the opposing team scored a goal after blatantly committing a foul beforehand. In the other group, the soccer player did not need to regulate himself at all. After each participant read their prompt, they took a computerized version of the Stroop task. This task is designed to inhibit automatic processes and focus attention on a different, conflicting task. This task is a great way to measure response times of the participants to see who is regulating themselves, and who is not. In this task, a color word written in a different colored font is displayed on a screen, and the color of the font is either congruent of incongruent with the color word displayed on the screen (i.e., congruent trial: “blue” written in blue font color. Incongruent trial: “Yellow” written in a red font color). Participants were told to always name the font color of the word, and not the actual color word written on the screen. The various response times from the participants were looked at to determine just how strongly they regulated themselves during the Stroop task.



Here is an example of how words would appear in the Stroop task.

The Stroop task has been well-established as a method to measure self-control performance (e.g., Sibley, Etnier, & Le Masurier, (2006), Williams, Tonymon, & Andersen, 1991), so the relationship between performance on the task from both the control and the experimental group shows us how effectively the prompt vicariously affected the participant. Since participants in this study are told to take the perspective of a soccer player who has to strongly regulate himself or not, the Stroop task is a great way to measure if participants are really regulating themselves. The study showed that those who read the prompt in which the soccer player had to strongly regulate himself performed significantly worse on the subsequent Stroop task. Since participants who read the prompt in which the athlete had to strongly regulate himself took the point of view of the athlete, they found themselves regulating themselves on the Stroop task. This shows that the prompt was successful in vicariously depleting the self-control of the participants who read the prompt about the player regulating himself.

Since the Stroop task is good at inhibiting automatic processes and focusing a person’s attention to different tasks, it can also show us how effectively someone is using their self-control. A person with poorer self-control skills will take longer on the Stroop task because it is a very controlled process for them. The Stroop task puts an emphasis on controlled processes in this study, so the ones who struggle most with self-control may have the longest response times on the Stroop task. In sports, many automatic processes are involved because they have been practiced so often that they no longer have to be thought about. Many masters of their sports are so efficient that most of what they do is an automatic process, and they can focus their attention on other aspects of the game that novice players cannot attend to. Since automatic processes do not tax cognitive resources, they can be “spent” on controlled processes that require cognitive resources. Self-control for most athletes is one of these controlled processes since it is not commonly practiced. However, if an athlete practiced their self-control every day in practice, and emphasized on it when in difficult situations in sports, it can begin to turn into an automatic process and take up less cognitive resources.

Sometimes it is inevitable to avoid losing your patience and keep a clear head. When a player has to regularly use self-control to contain himself or herself, each time it becomes harder. This can lead to poorer performance in the competition, because your actions become negatively effected by your lack of self-control. For example, in soccer if a player has been tackled aggressively by the same player on multiple occasions, they may act aggressively back by committing blatant fouls themselves, or in football if an opposing play is talking trash to a player, they may lay a particularly dirty hit on them the next play. This is a problem in sports today with so many athletes having to regulate their self-control many times during a competition. This is an important problem to address because the negative actions can be stopped, but there are also positive implications for improving self-control strength. Although self-control strength can be depleted, it can also be trained to be strengthened which can lead to better self-control in the future (Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall, & Oaten, 2006). This technique has potential to be an effective way of helping athletes overcome self-control depletion in competition, which would provide support to be a better competitor. This study also advocates for positive behavior by role models or coaches. Since self-control can be vicariously passed on to others, if a coach or captain is having a hard time regulating their self-control, their athletes could be affected negatively by their attitude and have trouble with their own self-control. This puts greater emphasis on role models, as they must be looked up to and counted on in difficult situations. Self-control is one of the most difficult things to conquer in competitive sports, and taking steps to improve your self-control strength may just give you a 1-up on the competition.

To read the original study, click here.


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252- 1265.

Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74, 1773–1801

Englert, C. Bertrams, A. (2014) What is self-control depleting in sports? Effects of vicarious experience on performance. International journal of sport psychology, 45, 1-10

Sibley, B. A., Etnier, J. L., & Le Masurier, G. C. (2006). Effects of an acute bout of exercise on cognitive aspects of stroop performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 28, 285–299.


Image of shouting soccer player

Image of example Stroop Task


  1. December 11th, 2015 at 20:24 | #1

    As an athlete, and someone who has, in the past, regrettably given into my impulses directly ignoring any sense of self-control out of pure frustration, this article effectively explains the underlying processes of “losing it.” Furthermore, after reading this post a couple questions come to mind.

    As you talk about, when you “lose it” you enter a stage of ego depletion in which you have lost your self-control, and it takes time for this resource to “rebuild.” However, my question is how exactly long does this period of ego depletion last? Furthermore, you talk about how further acts of self-control and judgment are impaired once you have entered this period, but I’m curious to see if other cognitive processes are impaired as well, such as attention and perceptual awareness of your surroundings. Because losing your self control, specifically in sporting events, is often accompanied by severe frustration and anger, I’d expect a person who is in the ego depletion stage to be less aware of their surroundings and more tunnel visioned. I also think attention, or lack thereof, plays a large role in decreased performance when losing self control; as the person spends a lot of attentional resources on the source of their frustration resulting in less attentiveness on the actual competition and methods of succeeding.

    Lastly, I’d be interested to see how self-control regulation, specifically in sporting events, varies across different age groups. It’s safe to say that younger children seem to have a lower threshold of self-control regulation, and more easily act on impulse, but it in sports it seems like young children are the least likely to act on aggression and lose self control in sports, when compared to older age groups.

  2. December 9th, 2015 at 14:09 | #2

    Nice post, I really enjoyed reading it because I frequently find myself it high-stress/high-anger/loss of self-control situations when in a game (I play lacrosse for Colby). To be honest, the source of my frustrations often seems to come from referees! In your post and the study that you used, if I am looking at this correctly, it sounds like self-control and attention are strongly related to each other. That can be seen in the experiment when your manipulate the need for self-control, it has an impact on the stroop task (part of which is looking at the use of attentional resources). So do self-control and attention pull from the same resource pool? Or moreover, is self-control actually a particular manifestation of attentional allocation? I think it would be good to clarify this in the content of your post.

    To me, the second question that I posed would make a lot of sense, if it is true. If self-control is actually a form of attention, in order to control anger or frustration, you must actively direct your attention to your emotions and whatever is frustrating you, and regulate how you instinctively would react to that. Since you attentional resources are directed at this task, your performance on other tasks (particularly athletic performance, game strategy, awareness of surroundings, etc) will be impaired, until you are able to release your attention from the frustrating task.

    You mentioned training to improve self-control, and I would love to see a specific example of that, because I am sure a lot of people reading your post would benefit from it (athlete or not)! Also, you mentioned the transfer of self-regulation between people, and how that encourages positive role modeling. What are the cognitive mechanisms in use that make this true (if any)? If I could hypothesize, I would actually jump to social psychology, and be interested to learn if it is related to people’s inherent nature of mimicking others. Cognitively, this could also be related to attention, because during a heated/frustrating situation if you see your coach with a loss of self-control, your attention is easily going to be drawn to that stimuli (the coach) and then that will impact how you react. Of course, this is just me speculating, but it could be a cool topic to look into in the future. Thanks for the post Max!

  3. Zhichun Yu
    December 7th, 2015 at 22:39 | #3

    I find this post very interesting because it makes really good connections to real life situations. Self-control issues have been problems for a lot of players across all kinds of sports for a long time. This post addresses and proves the connection between being irritated and inpatient, and poor self-regulation. The post doesn’t address the relationship between the intensity of the irritation gained from the sport and the lost self-regulatory ability. This is also a very interesting point to make. It seems the more physically intense the sport is, the more easily the player may lose his self-control ability. It is probable that physical irritation may reduce more self-control ability than mental irritation does. You must have hardly seen chess player who loses his or her game roaming and pushing each other.
    The study introduced in this post uses Stroop task to show the level of self-regulation. This task, in most cases, is used to measure people’s working memory system. The inhibiting power of central executive helps people self-regulate and tells the right things. People who worry about getting a second yellow card are paying more attention to self-regulation, thus making fewer mistakes. People who do not worry about getting a second tallow card are not paying enough attention, thus making more mistakes.
    It seems paying attention to inhibit improper behavior is important. However, it is also common that a player with a yellow card cannot control himself and make an aggressive move. This, I think, is related to the capacity of working memory (inhibiting power). If a player has a high inhibiting power, he can always pay attention to his behavior and be self-regulated. Player with lower inhibiting power may not be able to keep attending all the time, thus more likely to lose control again.

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