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Sport, exercise & performance psychology
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  • Writer's pictureElliot Smith

Understanding self-control in sport performance

What is self-control?

Self-control refers to the ability to regulate and manage one's own behaviour, emotions, and impulses in order to achieve a desired goal or outcome. It involves making conscious decisions to resist immediate temptations or impulses in favour of longer-term objectives or values. Self-control is crucial in various aspects of life, such as personal development, relationships, and achieving success in different endeavours.


Individuals with strong self-control can delay gratification, resist distractions, and make choices that align with their long-term goals. Developing self-control often involves skills such as managing stress, maintaining focus, and avoiding impulsive actions. It plays a significant role in personal and academic success, as well as in maintaining healthy habits and behaviours.


Is there a difference between self-control and self-regulation?

While the terms "self-control" and "self-regulation" are often used interchangeably, there can be subtle distinctions in their meanings depending on the context. In general, both concepts refer to the ability to manage and control one's own thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, but they may emphasize slightly different aspects.



   - Often refers specifically to the ability to resist temptations, impulses, or immediate gratification in order to pursue long-term goals.

   - Focuses on inhibiting undesirable behaviours or actions.



   - Encompasses a broader range of cognitive, emotional, and behavioural processes to achieve a goal or maintain balance.

   - In addition to inhibiting impulses, self-regulation may involve positive actions such as planning, organizing, and adapting to changing circumstances.


In essence, self-control can be seen as a subset of self-regulation, with self-regulation encompassing a more comprehensive set of skills and processes. Both concepts involve managing oneself in order to achieve desired outcomes or adhere to certain standards. The terms are often used interchangeably in everyday language, and the specific meanings can vary depending on the field of study or context in which they are used.


Why is self-control important in sport performance?

Self-control plays a crucial role in sport performance for several reasons:


1. Focus and Concentration:

   - Athletes need to maintain focus and concentration during training and competition. Self-control helps them resist distractions and stay mentally engaged, which is essential for optimal performance.


2. Decision-Making:

   - Sports often require quick and strategic decision-making. Self-control enables athletes to make thoughtful decisions under pressure, avoiding impulsive actions that could negatively impact their performance.


3. Emotional Regulation:

   - Controlling emotions is vital in sports. Athletes may face various emotional challenges, such as frustration, anxiety, or anger. Self-control helps them manage these emotions, preventing them from interfering with their ability to perform at their best.


4. Training Discipline:

   - Achieving excellence in sports requires consistent and disciplined training. Self-control is necessary to adhere to training schedules, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and resist the temptation to deviate from the established training plan.


5. Resisting External Pressures:

   - Athletes may face external pressures, whether from the media, fans, or peers. Self-control helps them stay focused on their goals and resist succumbing to external distractions or expectations that may negatively impact their performance.


6. Performance Consistency:

   - Athletes with strong self-control are better equipped to maintain consistent performance over time. They can avoid overtraining, burnout, or behavioural issues that might hinder their long-term success.


7. Goal Setting and Achievement:

   - Self-control is essential for setting and working toward long-term goals. Athletes must resist the temptation to prioritize short-term pleasure over the pursuit of their athletic objectives.


8. Sportsmanship:

   - Self-control is crucial for maintaining good sportsmanship. Athletes need to control their behaviour, avoid unsportsmanlike conduct, and respect opponents, officials, and the rules of the game.


In summary, self-control is integral to an athlete's mental and emotional well-being, contributing significantly to their ability to perform consistently at a high level and to navigate the various challenges inherent in sports.


What factors might influence our ability to use self-control during performance?

Several factors can influence an athlete's self-control during sports. These factors may vary depending on the individual, the specific sport, and the context, but some common elements include:


1. Fatigue:

   - Physical exhaustion can lead to mental fatigue, affecting an athlete's ability to maintain self-control. As energy levels decrease, decision-making and impulse control may become compromised.


2. Stress and Pressure:

   - High-pressure situations, such as critical moments in a game or competition, can increase stress levels. Elevated stress may impair an athlete's self-control and decision-making abilities.


3. Emotional State:

   - Strong emotions, whether positive or negative, can impact self-control. Athletes experiencing intense emotions like anger, frustration, or excitement may find it challenging to regulate their behaviour and impulses.


4. Lack of Sleep:

   - Inadequate sleep can negatively affect cognitive function, including self-control. Athletes who are sleep-deprived may struggle with decision-making, concentration, and emotional regulation.


5. Nutrition and Hydration:

   - Poor nutrition or dehydration can contribute to physical and mental fatigue, affecting an athlete's self-control. Proper hydration and nutrition are essential for optimal cognitive function.


6. External Distractions:

   - Distractions, such as crowd noise, adverse weather conditions, or unexpected events, can divert an athlete's attention and challenge their ability to maintain focus and self-control.


7. Injury or Pain:

   - Athletes dealing with injuries or pain may find it more challenging to maintain self-control. Discomfort can contribute to frustration or impatience, affecting decision-making and emotional regulation.


8. Lack of Preparation:

   - Insufficient preparation, whether in terms of training, strategy, or mental preparation, can undermine an athlete's confidence and self-control during competition.


9. Personal Issues:

   - Outside factors, such as personal problems, relationship issues, or financial stress, can spill over into an athlete's performance and impact their self-control.


10. Lack of Experience or Skill:

    - Inexperienced athletes or those lacking specific skills may face situations that challenge their self-control more than seasoned competitors.


Awareness of these factors can help athletes and coaches develop strategies to enhance self-control during sports. Techniques such as mindfulness, stress management, and proper training and preparation can contribute to improved self-control in challenging situations.


What do we know about self-control?

Self-control can exhibit changes over longer periods of time, influenced by various factors such as personal development, life experiences, and environmental conditions. Here are some considerations regarding how self-control might change over time:


1. Maturation and Development:

   - Children and adolescents often display lower levels of self-control compared to adults. As individuals mature and their brains continue to develop, there is typically an improvement in self-regulation skills. The prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in self-control, undergoes significant development during adolescence and early adulthood.


2. Life Transitions:

   - Life transitions, such as entering adulthood, starting a career, getting married, or becoming a parent, can impact self-control. The responsibilities and challenges associated with these life changes may require individuals to develop and enhance their self-control skills.


3. Personal Growth and Learning:

   - Throughout life, individuals have opportunities for personal growth and learning. Experiences, both positive and negative, contribute to the development of self-control. Learning from mistakes and successes can shape one's ability to regulate behaviour and make better decisions.


4. Cultural and Environmental Influences:

   - Cultural and environmental factors play a role in shaping self-control. The values, norms, and expectations within a particular culture can influence how individuals develop and express self-control.


5. Health and Wellness:

   - Changes in physical health and wellness can impact self-control. For example, adopting healthier lifestyle habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, may positively influence self-control over time.


6. Adaptation to Stress:

   - Over the years, individuals may develop better coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. Effective stress management can contribute to maintaining self-control during challenging situations.


7. Technology and Social Changes:

   - Advances in technology and changes in social dynamics can introduce new challenges to self-control. For example, the prevalence of digital distractions and the constant availability of information may require individuals to adapt their self-regulation strategies.


8. Individual Variability:

   - There is significant variability among individuals. Some may naturally possess strong self-control throughout their lives, while others may experience fluctuations based on personal circumstances and individual differences.


It's important to note that self-control is a dynamic trait influenced by a combination of genetic, neurological, psychological, and environmental factors. While there may be general trends, individual experiences and choices play a significant role in shaping self-control over longer periods of time. Additionally, intentional efforts to enhance self-control through practices like goal-setting, mindfulness, and self-reflection can contribute to positive changes.


Theories and concepts related to self control

Ego depletion

Ego depletion is a psychological concept that suggests self-control and willpower are finite cognitive resources that can be depleted through use. The term "ego" in ego depletion does not refer to arrogance or self-centeredness but rather to the psychological concept of the self, including aspects of self-regulation and willpower.


The theory of ego depletion was popularized by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues. The basic idea is that exerting self-control or making decisions that require willpower consumes mental resources, and if these resources are depleted, subsequent attempts at self-control become more difficult.


Key aspects of ego depletion include:


1. Limited Cognitive Resources:

   - Ego depletion is grounded in the idea that the human mind has a finite pool of cognitive resources. Engaging in activities that require self-control depletes these resources, making it more challenging to exert self-control in subsequent tasks.


2. Willpower as a Depletable Resource:

   - Willpower or self-control is seen as a depletable resource, much like a muscle that can become fatigued with use. This means that, just like a muscle, the ability to exert self-control can become diminished after prolonged or intensive use.


3. Cross-Domain Effects:

   - Ego depletion is thought to have cross-domain effects, meaning that if you deplete self-control in one area of your life, it may affect your ability to exert self-control in unrelated domains. For example, resisting the temptation to eat a tempting treat might lead to reduced self-control in subsequent tasks requiring focus or decision-making.


4. Recovery and Restoration:

   - Ego depletion implies that individuals need time to recover and restore their cognitive resources after engaging in tasks that require self-control. Engaging in activities that are less demanding on self-control, such as rest or leisure, can aid in recovery.


5. Glucose Depletion Hypothesis:

   - One early hypothesis associated with ego depletion suggested a link to glucose metabolism. The idea was that acts of self-control depleted glucose levels in the brain, leading to reduced self-control. However, subsequent research has questioned the reliability of this specific mechanism.


It's important to note that while the concept of ego depletion has gained attention, it has also faced criticism and debate in the scientific community. Some studies have failed to replicate the effects of ego depletion, leading to discussions about the robustness of the phenomenon. The field continues to evolve, with researchers exploring factors that may influence the strength and persistence of ego depletion effects.


In practical terms, understanding ego depletion can be relevant in contexts where individuals need to manage their self-control effectively, such as in work settings, educational environments, or when pursuing long-term goals. However, it's essential to consider individual differences and the complexity of self-control processes in real-world scenarios.


Desire-goal conflict theory

The desire-goal conflict theory proposed by Ainslie (1975), is a psychological theory that aims to explain how individuals make choices when faced with conflicting desires and goals over time. The theory suggests that individuals experience internal conflicts between short-term, impulsive desires and long-term, goal-directed preferences. This conflict arises due to the temporal gap between the immediate gratification of desires and the delayed rewards associated with goal attainment.


Key elements of the desire-goal conflict theory include:


1. Hyperbolic Discounting:

   - One of the central concepts in the theory is hyperbolic discounting, which refers to the tendency of individuals to disproportionately devalue delayed rewards compared to more immediate rewards. In other words, people tend to exhibit a strong preference for smaller, more immediate rewards over larger, delayed rewards.


2. Time Inconsistency:

   - Time inconsistency refers to the phenomenon where individuals make choices that are inconsistent with their long-term goals when evaluated at different points in time. This inconsistency arises due to the changing valuation of rewards over time.


3. Dynamic Nature of Preferences:

   - According to the desire-goal conflict theory, individuals experience dynamic shifts in their preferences over time. Immediate desires may be more salient in the present moment, leading to choices that prioritize short-term gains, even when these conflict with long-term goals.


4. Procrastination and Impulsivity:

   - The theory helps explain phenomena such as procrastination and impulsivity. Procrastination can be seen as a result of individuals consistently valuing immediate rewards over future goals. Impulsivity, on the other hand, involves acting on immediate desires without adequate consideration of long-term consequences.


5. Commitment Strategies:

   - Ainslie proposed that individuals employ commitment strategies to overcome the desire-goal conflict. Commitment strategies involve making choices or commitments in advance to avoid succumbing to impulsive desires later. This could include setting clear goals, creating plans, or making commitments that limit access to tempting alternatives.


6. Pre-commitment:

   - Pre-commitment is a specific form of commitment strategy where individuals take actions in the present to restrict their future choices. For example, avoiding the purchase of unhealthy snacks to prevent the temptation of indulging in them later.


The desire-goal conflict theory has implications for understanding various aspects of human behaviour, including decision-making, self-control, and goal pursuit. It highlights the challenges individuals face in balancing immediate desires with long-term goals and provides insights into why people may struggle with self-control in certain situations.


While the theory has been influential, it's important to note that different individuals may exhibit varying degrees of desire-goal conflict, and the theory does not capture all aspects of decision-making and self-regulation. Research in behavioural economics and psychology continues to explore the complexities of decision-making processes in the face of conflicting desires and goals.


Different types of self-control

Self-control is a multifaceted concept, and researchers have identified different types or domains of self-control that individuals may exhibit. These types of self-control often overlap, and an individual's ability to exert control in one domain may influence their control in other areas. Here are some key types of self-control:


1. Cognitive Self-Control:

   - Involves the ability to control one's thoughts, focus attention, and resist distractions. It includes tasks such as maintaining concentration, avoiding mind-wandering, and staying mentally engaged.


2. Emotional Self-Control:

   - Refers to the ability to manage and regulate one's emotions. This involves controlling impulsive emotional reactions, staying calm in stressful situations, and responding thoughtfully to emotional stimuli.


3. Impulse Control:

   - Involves resisting immediate temptations or urges in favour of longer-term goals. This type of self-control is crucial in avoiding impulsive behaviours and making decisions aligned with one's values and objectives.


4. Behavioural Self-Control:

   - Relates to the ability to regulate one's actions and behaviours. It includes avoiding harmful or disruptive behaviours, adhering to rules and norms, and making choices that align with long-term goals.


5. Interpersonal Self-Control:

   - Encompasses the ability to manage social interactions and relationships. This involves controlling verbal and nonverbal communication, resolving conflicts diplomatically, and maintaining positive social behaviour.


6. Decision-Making Self-Control:

   - Involves making choices that are consistent with long-term goals, values, and priorities. This type of self-control is crucial in situations where immediate gratification may conflict with more significant, delayed rewards.


7. Financial Self-Control:

   - Specifically pertains to managing one's financial behaviours. It includes budgeting, saving money, and resisting impulsive or excessive spending.


8. Health-related Self-Control:

   - Involves behaviours related to physical well-being, such as maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding harmful substances, and adhering to medical recommendations.


9. Proactive Self-Control:

   - Focuses on taking pre-emptive measures to avoid situations where self-control may be challenged. This might include setting up a conducive environment for achieving goals or planning strategies to avoid temptations.


10. Reactive Self-Control:

    - Refers to the ability to respond effectively in the face of unexpected challenges or temptations. It involves adapting to changing circumstances and making controlled decisions on the spot.


It's important to recognize that these types of self-control are interconnected, and individuals may draw upon various aspects of self-control depending on the situation. Additionally, self-control is not a fixed trait but can be developed and strengthened through practice, mindfulness, and intentional efforts to improve self-regulation skills.


Self-control in endurance sports

Self-control is particularly important during endurance sports that last longer for several reasons:


1. Pacing:

   - Endurance sports require a strategic approach to pacing. Athletes need to distribute their energy efficiently over the entire duration of the activity. Self-control is crucial in resisting the temptation to start too fast, which can lead to fatigue and a decline in performance later on.


2. Nutrition and Hydration:

   - Maintaining self-control is essential when it comes to nutrition and hydration during endurance sports. Athletes need to resist the urge to consume all their energy supplies or fluids too quickly. Proper pacing in fuelling can prevent issues like dehydration or hitting the "wall."


3. Mental Resilience:

   - Endurance events can be mentally challenging, especially during the later stages when fatigue sets in. Self-control helps athletes manage negative thoughts, maintain focus, and stay motivated even when faced with physical and mental fatigue.


4. Decision-Making:

   - Endurance sports often present unforeseen challenges or changing conditions. Athletes with strong self-control can make thoughtful decisions during the race, adapting to circumstances and avoiding impulsive actions that might negatively impact their performance.


5. Consistency in Effort:

   - Maintaining a consistent effort level is key in endurance sports. Athletes must resist the temptation to push too hard early on, which could lead to burnout or a decline in performance later in the race.


6. Emotional Regulation:

   - Endurance events can evoke a range of emotions, from excitement to frustration. Self-control helps athletes regulate their emotions, preventing emotional highs and lows that can affect decision-making and overall performance.


7. Avoiding Overtraining:

   - Endurance athletes need to balance training intensity and volume to avoid overtraining. Self-control is crucial in following a well-structured training plan, avoiding excessive fatigue, and ensuring optimal recovery.


8. Adaptability:

   - Endurance events often take place in dynamic environments. Athletes with strong self-control can adapt to changing conditions, such as weather, terrain, or competition dynamics, without letting these factors negatively impact their focus or performance.


9. Goal Attainment:

   - Endurance events typically involve specific performance goals. Self-control is essential for adhering to race strategies and achieving these goals, especially in the face of physical and mental challenges.


In summary, self-control is a critical factor in the success of endurance athletes. It influences pacing, decision-making, mental resilience, and overall performance consistency. Athletes who can effectively manage their self-control throughout the duration of an endurance event are better positioned to achieve their goals and perform at their best.


What can we do to improve our self-control in sport performance?

Improving self-control before, during, and after sports performance involves a combination of psychological, behavioural, and lifestyle strategies. Here are some practical tips to enhance self-control in each phase:


Before Sport Performance:


1. Set Clear Goals:

   - Establish specific, measurable, and realistic goals for your performance. Having clear objectives provides motivation and helps direct your focus.


2. Create a Routine:

   - Develop a pre-performance routine to help calm nerves and enhance focus. Consistent routines signal to the brain that it's time to prepare for optimal performance.


3. Visualization and Mental Rehearsal:

   - Use visualization techniques to mentally rehearse successful performance scenarios. Visualizing success can enhance confidence and mental readiness.


4. Goal Setting and Planning:

   - Break down your performance into smaller, manageable goals. Create a detailed plan outlining steps to achieve these goals, both in training and during competition.


5. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques:

   - Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to manage pre-performance anxiety and stress.


During Sport Performance:


1. Focus on Process, Not Outcome:

   - Direct your attention to the immediate task at hand rather than fixating on the outcome. Focusing on the process helps maintain concentration and prevents distractions.


2. Positive Self-Talk:

   - Replace negative or self-doubting thoughts with positive affirmations. Encourage yourself with constructive and empowering self-talk to boost confidence.


3. Stay Present:

   - Practice staying in the present moment. Avoid dwelling on past mistakes or worrying about future outcomes. Concentrate on the current play or task.


4. Adaptability:

   - Cultivate adaptability by being flexible in your approach. Sports are dynamic, and the ability to adjust to changing conditions is crucial for sustained performance.


5. Use Performance Cues:

   - Develop performance cues or triggers that help you stay focused and in control. These can be specific words, gestures, or actions that remind you of your training and strategy.


After Sport Performance:


1. Reflect and Learn:

   - After the performance, reflect on your strengths and areas for improvement. Use this feedback to inform your training and enhance future performances.


2. Evaluate Goals:

   - Assess your goal achievement. If you fell short, identify factors that may have contributed, and adjust your goals and strategies accordingly.


3. Recovery:

   - Allow time for physical and mental recovery after intense performances. Adequate rest, hydration, and nutrition are crucial for restoring cognitive and physical resources.


4. Positive Reinforcement:

   - Celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Positive reinforcement reinforces the connection between effort and achievement.


5. Learn from Setbacks:

   - Instead of viewing setbacks as failures, see them as opportunities to learn and grow. Analyze what went wrong, adjust your approach, and use setbacks as stepping stones toward improvement.


6. Consistent Training:

   - Regular, consistent training builds not only physical strength but also mental resilience. Training under various conditions helps develop adaptability and self-control.


General Lifestyle Strategies:


1. Adequate Sleep:

   - Ensure you get sufficient sleep, as fatigue can impair cognitive function and self-control.


2. Nutrition and Hydration:

   - Maintain a well-balanced diet and stay hydrated. Proper nutrition supports cognitive function and overall well-being.


3. Physical Fitness:

   - Engage in regular physical activity to enhance overall health and fitness. Physical fitness is linked to improved cognitive function and self-regulation.


4. Stress Management:

   - Develop effective stress management techniques, such as mindfulness, yoga, or relaxation exercises, to cope with pressure and stress.


5. Build a Support System:

   - Surround yourself with a supportive network of coaches, teammates, and friends. Social support can positively impact motivation and self-control.


Remember that improving self-control is a gradual process, and consistency in applying these strategies can lead to enhanced performance over time. Additionally, working with a sports psychologist or coach can provide personalized guidance to further refine your self-control skills.

And what could happen if self-control fails?

When self-control fails during sport performance anyways, it can have various consequences that impact the athlete's overall effectiveness and success. Here are some potential outcomes:

1. Suboptimal Performance:

- Self-control is crucial for maintaining optimal performance levels. When it fails, athletes may struggle to adhere to their game plan, resulting in suboptimal execution of skills and strategies.

2. Impaired Decision-Making:

- Self-control is linked to effective decision-making. Failures in self-control can lead to impulsive or poorly considered decisions during critical moments of the game, affecting the athlete's overall performance.

3. Loss of Focus and Concentration:

- Self-control is closely tied to maintaining focus and concentration. Failures in self-control may result in distractions, loss of attention, or an inability to stay mentally engaged, impacting the athlete's ability to perform at their best.

4. Increased Risk of Injury:

- Impulsive actions or a lack of self-control can increase the risk of injury during sports. Athletes may make reckless moves or fail to follow safety guidelines, putting themselves at greater risk on the field or during training.

5. Emotional Distress:

- Self-control is essential for managing emotions during sports. Failures in self-control can lead to emotional outbursts, frustration, or anger, negatively impacting an athlete's mental well-being and ability to cope with pressure.

6. Inconsistent Performance:

- Athletes with poor self-control may struggle to maintain consistency in their performance. Fluctuations in self-control can lead to inconsistent results, hindering the athlete's overall development and success.

7. Strained Team Dynamics:

- Self-control is important in team sports for maintaining positive interactions and effective communication. Failures in self-control can lead to conflicts with teammates, disrupt team dynamics, and affect overall team performance.

8. Negative Impact on Goal Pursuit:

- Athletes often have specific performance goals. Self-control failures can impede progress toward these goals, whether it involves maintaining a training regimen, following a nutrition plan, or adhering to a specific game strategy.

9. Long-Term Development Challenges:

- Consistent self-control is essential for long-term athletic development. Athletes who repeatedly struggle with self-control may find it challenging to sustain the necessary discipline and commitment required for ongoing improvement.

It's important for athletes to recognize the significance of self-control in sports and to actively work on developing and maintaining this skill. Strategies such as goal-setting, mental preparation, mindfulness, and emotional regulation can contribute to enhancing self-control during sports performance. Additionally, seeking guidance from coaches or sports psychologists can provide valuable support in addressing self-control challenges.


Summary and final thoughts

In this blog, there has been a discussion about various aspects of self-control. We explored the definition of self-control, emphasizing its importance in different areas of life, particularly in sports performance. We distinguished between self-control and self-regulation, highlighting the nuanced differences.

We explored the concept of self-control in sports performance, identifying factors that can influence it during endurance activities in particular. We discussed how self-control can change over time, considering developmental, environmental, and individual factors. The conversation touched on the strength model of self-control, explaining the idea of ego depletion and the finite nature of self-control resources.

Lastly, we provided practical tips on how to improve self-control before, during, and after sports performance. These tips covered aspects such as goal setting, visualization, positive self-talk, and lifestyle strategies. We also discussed the different types of self-control, including cognitive, emotional, and behavioural aspects, as well as interpersonal and attentional control. The blog highlighted the interconnectedness of these types of self-control and their relevance in various life situations.

Food for thought?

Consider two different athletes, one athlete is very motivated to achieve their performance goals, and whilst they train very hard on a regular basis they do not look forward to the pain or discomfort that often accompanies their training sessions, but despite the negative perceptions of that pain and discomfort they are willing to exert self-control strategies to be able to push through that experience in order to achieve their longer term goals. But that undoubtedly comes at a cost, that cost is by using self-control they're having to utilise additional resources during their performance.

Then we have another athlete and they are equally motivated to achieve their performance goals and they or equally dedicated to go into training and putting in the hard work. However, the pain and discomfort that accompanies their training sessions, they view that experience as a necessity, in fact the way they see it, they can't achieve their goals without having to experience such pain and discomfort. Actually, to that athlete the pain and discomfort is part of their training and part of their achievement, and a means to the end. As a result, that athlete does not need to rely on self-control strategies to the same extent because they don't view that pain and discomfort as being in conflict with their goals.

The question then, by changing our perceptions of pain, and otherwise typically negative experiences, and turning them into something more positive, something worthwhile, the means then becoming the goal, must we need to use those self-control strategies so readily? Could we save that energy instead?


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