• FROM THE OFF

Keeping composure on the pitch: the adaptive mental mode

How do emotions impact us on the pitch? And what can we do to manage them? Stephanie Cunha, co-author of Maximum Composure: Dominate Emotions With the Adaptive Mindset System and co-founder of sports performance company Mental Accelerator shares her experience and gives us an insight into the adaptive mental mode.



Like so many athletes, I would get extremely angry on the field. I cannot count how many times I lost my cool and I let my emotions control me. One game that I will always remember was when my teammate was tackled hard and she got a broken ankle. I lost it, arguing with the other team and the referee. Forget about refocusing on the game. My mind was stuck with what just happened and my concentration drifted away. My mind was suddenly crossed by a thousand thoughts that had nothing to do with the game.


It's that feeling when you possess the ball and you don’t know what to do with it because you can’t even see the game. You lost your lucidity, you can’t analyse what’s happening on the field, you are paralysed and you can’t make a decision. I wasted all my energy in this burst of anger. 

I then started getting anxious before every game. I started to anticipate the worst and it impacted the joy I was having playing. The sport I had been playing since I learned to walk, that I loved the most and brought so much happiness in my life, now became a source of frustration. I know you understand what I am saying. Your team, your tribe, you wear your heart on your sleeve. You want to give the best of yourself for your team and letting your emotions go wild will not serve your purpose. Believe me. I have been there. 


You want to give the best of yourself for your team and letting your emotions go wild will not serve your purpose.

To be lucid while facing a challenging situation is to be able to have a clear mind. There is no clear mind when you are angry and when you are unable to manage your emotions. There is a close link between emotion and lucidity. Being lucid, having a clear mind, we are able to think quickly about the situation and this faculty is fundamental in football. You have the ball and you have to pass it or shoot and those decisions have to be made quickly. Decisions need to be quick because sport demands speed and extreme precision, and for that you need lucidity. If you are clogged with emotions, you become unable to respond in an adjusted and consistent manner.

In a game, football players are exposed to repeated crisis situations in an uncertain and complex context. They have highly-developed physical abilities and technical gestures, but above all, they must rely on their situational intelligence. This ability is the key to performance. Players need to get into a mode in which they are moving quickly while remaining calm and lucid. This is what allows them to observe the opponent team's game strategy in order to find faults, openings and potential for counterattacks. This serenity allows a broader awareness of the environment while maintaining intense activity and concentration on the goal.


In a game, football players are exposed to repeated crisis situations in an uncertain and complex context. They have highly-developed physical abilities and techniques, but above all, they must rely on their situational intelligence.

In a crisis situation – and in a situation where you lose lucidity – the natural tendency is to do more of the same thing because of the activation of our automatic mental mode. Our brain uses two modes of governance to respond to a situation:

  1. the automatic mental mode, which is perfectly adapted to simple, known situations

  2. the adaptive mental mode, which is adapted to manage new, unknown, and complex situations.

The transition from one to the other is often prevented by our strong adherence to the automatic mode, for example routines, which generates stress and restricts our creativity and ability to manage complex situations. When a situation becomes challenging you can lose your composure – synonymous with losing your cool, control, perspective and confidence.


This can translate to experience fear, anxiety, and anger, impairing your decision-making skills because you are in a fight or flight reaction, triggered by the automatic mental mode. This isn't recommended in a game where your movements become predictable and you need to consistently adapt to the situation. Breaking a rhythm is the most effective response to getting out of a crisis. What you need is audacity, and it must be cultivated. Audacity is vital to the development of the adaptive mental mode.


Breaking a rhythm is the most effective response to getting out of a crisis. What you need is audacity, and it must be cultivated.

In sports science, it is common to observe differences in cognitive performance according to the complexity of the problem to be solved – memorise, calculate, anticipate, adapt, for example – according to the intensity of the exercise, the degree of training of the individual, their emotional state and their level of fatigue, hydration, or environmental conditions. In other words, the potential to choose quickly and well is personal, and it never happens the same way twice. 

In fact, the ability to maintain lucidity can be improved with practice. This means that at the beginning of the game, the same technical or tactical choice, launching or reacting to an offensive move for example, can be carried out more quickly and more wisely.

To learn more about anxiety, confidence, fear, anger and self-doubt as an athlete check out the book Maximum Composure: Dominate Emotions With the Adaptive Mindset System.


To find out more about the author and Mental Accelerator visit maximumcomposure.com and follow @mentalaccelerator on Instagram.

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