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

November 24th, 2015 3 comments

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.

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