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Ego depletion and sports: How controlling emotions can lead to success

Perhaps you'll find something useful for your life. Perhaps the only takeaway here is that science backs sledging.

Feature 10 May 2016, 17:13 IST
A group exercises in a park

Why do some people manage to exercise regularly and others don’t? Is it the intention? Probably not, because we make enough noise about resolutions and new starts on the first days of the year, month or week. Most people have the intention of exercising.

Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour(please note the numbers after the words are linked to the references at the end of the article) coined the phrase “intention-behaviour gap”. We know from our own lives that this is no mythical place. Some seem to have shorter gaps while others seem to chronically fail to bridge that gap.

Like they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

So why DO some people manage to exercise regularly and others don’t? The answer is not simple and many factors affect this. It is hard to offer only one explanation. But let’s try to explore this from the standpoint of self-control.

“Willpower is like a muscle” is a common refrain that the mainstream media has latched on to in the last few years, possibly from one of many studies by Roy Baumeister titled “Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle?”

Baumeister and his colleagues introduced a theory which came to be known as “the strength model of ego-depletion” (ego-depletion means a temporary loss of self-control) to suggest that self-control is a limited resource – a theory that has been tested and proved several times after the landmark study2 in 1988.

The theory says that self-control is akin to strength – human beings have limited strength. To draw a direct analogy, let us say that you have the strength to lift weights that add up to a cumulative of 1,000 kg. Would you, then, spend the whole morning lifting weights?

Probably not, because you would like to preserve your energy reserves and not waste your limited capacity for tasks for the entire day. But perhaps we all do this obviously silly thing with our limited willpower resources. Prior acts of self-control can lead to a temporary loss of self-control, which can impair subsequent self-control acts.

Researchers have experimentally induced ego depletion (i.e. eaten away at the limited self-control resource) in many forms:

  • A physical test. Tests not just physical reserves but mental as well
  • Asking to resist pain or discomfort
  • The famous Stroop Test tests cognitive ability
  • Asking to pay attention
  • Asking to perform fairly easy tasks under various distractions
  • Asking to resist temptation to not eat chocolate chip cookies that stare at them and instead eat radishes has been one of the most cited examples2
  • Asking to do boring, routine tasks
  • Asking to suppress emotion* (please check the definition at the end of the article) 

Doing any of the above affects the ability to perform a variety of tasks – logical ability3, reflexes, decision making2, hand-eye6, endurance ability5 and skill in sport8 and many more.

All of these or a combination of these abilities/tasks/skills are applicable to exercising or participating in sports. Subjects that had been asked to exercise self-control prior to performing tasks that require the skills mentioned above performed significantly and consistently poorer than subjects that did not have to exercise self-control.

The urban lifestyle consists of a plethora of tasks in a span of a day. People have numerous responsibilities and expectations to fulfil. Some of these might not be the most pleasant. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most of us are overwhelmed with decisions right from the moment we want to wake up.

Pondering over whether or not to sleep for “just five more minutes” while hitting the snooze button on our alarm clocks will already eat at our reserve of willpower.

The typical adult undergoes a great deal of stress. Be it studying, jobs, relationships, commitments, dealing with difficult people, achieving goals or losing loved ones. Somewhere in that list, personal health has to feature too.

For instance, the choice of eating healthy and exercising versus the temptation of eating junk food and lazing is just one of many decisions that we face. Some of us try to follow a diet and while it is easy to surround oneself with healthy options to eat, it is impossible to ignore the fact that you can as well get access to sugary food. This requires self-control not once but several times in a day.

So, perhaps, schedule your important priorities early enough in the day as opposed to later, when self-control instincts are still strong. A lot of the challenges faced during the day that may or may not be significant by themselves, but when taken as a whole, account for massive ego depletion.

Some more people that could benefit from these findings are competitive teams. Taking Dave Brailsford’s world famous marginal gains approach, when a cycling team can spend so much time, effort and money on ridiculously small changes for very marginal payoffs (that apparently add up), certainly they can see value in internalizing lessons from this theory. It is a relatively cost-free approach to bring a significant improvement.

Most smokers are aware of the harmful effect(s) of smoking. Yet we have a booming industry in tobacco lobbies and manufacturers. It has been proven time and again that a lot of the food we eat fattens us. People are aware of this. Yet, there is a huge market for it.

Smoking is a choice, indulging in the wrong foods is a choice, and exercising or not is also a choice. It’s time to get aware of the rationale behind making these choices. This theory could be a step forward in educating people to become more aware of how they come into risky situations, and not just the risk itself.

*Suppressing emotions, even to the extent of a few minutes in a controlled experiment, can affect subsequent tasks and sports performance. Participants in a cycling study9 were asked to watch a disturbing video.

They were divided into two groups that were instructed to – 1. express themselves after watching the video, 2. suppress their emotions and bottle up your reactions. Those in group 2 cycled slower. Trash talking and sledging DO have a scientific basis, after all.

Next time you’re playing against the arch enemy, take a dig at their mom and hope that they suppress their reaction. Science backs you. Jokes apart, group #2 probably did worse because it took self-control to resist reacting to something that bothered them. In reality, human beings in the 21st are perhaps faced with much more complex and chronic levels of stress and poor emotional hygiene.


  • 1 Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179-211.
  • 2 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(5), 1252.
  • 3 Englert, C., & Bertrams, A. (2012). Anxiety, ego depletion, and sports performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 34(5), 580.
  • 4 Englert, C., & Bertrams, A. (2013). Too Exhausted for Operation? Anxiety, Depleted Self-control Strength, and Perceptual–motor Performance. Self and Identity, 12(6), 650-662.
  • 5 Englert, C., & Wolff, W. (2015). Ego depletion and persistent performance in a cycling task. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 46(2), 137-151.
  • 6 Englert, C., & Wolff, W. (2015). Neuroenhancement and the strength model of self-control. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
  • 7 Furley, P., Bertrams, A., Englert, C., & Delphia, A. (2013). Ego depletion, attentional control, and decision making in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(6), 900-904.
  • 8 McEwan, D., Martin Ginis, K. A., & Bray, S. R. (2013). The effects of depleted self-control strength on skill-based task performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, 239-249.
  • 9 Wagstaff, C. (2014). Emotion regulation and sport performance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 36(4), 401-412.
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