Dr. Steve Ingham


Emotional Contagion in Sport – How are you Infectious?

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In the realm of sports performance, the pursuit of excellence goes beyond physical skills and strategic gameplay. Behind every successful high-performance team lies a hidden element that can greatly impact performance: emotions. Emotions are not just personal experiences; they have the potential to spread among team members like wildfire, shaping the collective mood and ultimately influencing outcomes.

We’ve all been there, in a team meeting and someone chooses to ‘pee on the fire’, by offloading all of the criticisms and problems that could go wrong or tutting and shaking their head or just not engaging. Equally, we’ve all been there in a team that is uplifting, positive and constructive…

This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion.

Understanding Emotional Contagion:

Emotional contagion ignites a spark within teams, as individuals mirror and adopt the emotions of their peers. It is a captivating phenomenon that can significantly impact team dynamics and ultimately influence performance outcomes. Whether it’s the fervour of excitement, the heat of anxiety, or the intensity of determination, emotions have the potential to spread rapidly, shaping the collective mood of the team. We do as others do – so we need to choose our responses carefully.

The Influence of Sigal Barsade:

Sigal Barsade, a trailblazing researcher in the field of organisational behaviour, has extensively explored the depths of emotional contagion. Her transformative work shows how people copy others, how negative and positive behaviours spiral others down or up, respectively.

Emotional Contagion in Sport

In the high-stakes world of competitive sports, where victories are often decided by the slimmest of margins, the phenomenon of emotional contagion emerges as a pivotal yet often overlooked determinant of success. It’s the silent pulse that courses through the veins of a team, capable of elevating a group of individuals to unprecedented heights or, conversely, ensnaring them in a web of collective despondency.

Within this delicate balance lies the power of emotional influence—where a single spark of confidence from a coach or a burst of enthusiasm from a teammate can ignite a firestorm of collective zeal. This invisible force shapes not just the physical, but the emotional battlefield, proving that the heart’s fervor, when synchronized among teammates, can be just as critical as the strategies played out on the field. As we delve deeper into the intricacies of emotional contagion in sport, we uncover a truth as old as team competition itself: the strongest teams are not just united by skill and strategy, but by the shared heartbeat of their collective emotional state.

Implications for Sports Scientists:

As sports scientists working with high-performance teams, understanding the power of emotional contagion is crucial. Let’s explore its implications:

Igniting the Emotional Climate:

  • Sports scientists have the opportunity to ignite a positive emotional climate within the team. By fostering positive emotions, facilitating strong interpersonal connections, and nurturing a supportive and inclusive environment, you can fan the flames of team camaraderie and collaboration.
  • Take home idea: Choose positive reactions, curiosity and uniqueness – not being the mood hoover, negative and suppressing influence.

Stoking Emotional Awareness:

  • Developing emotional intelligence and awareness enables sports scientists to identify and monitor emotional contagion within the team. By recognising the spread of emotions, you can promptly intervene to mitigate the negative impact of contagious negative emotions while fuelling the diffusion of positive emotions.
  • Take home idea: Watch teams spiral negatively and switch the focus to positives.

Fuelling Leadership Influence:

  • Emotional contagion is particularly potent when it comes to team leaders. Sports scientists can collaborate closely with leaders to help them harness the power of emotions effectively. By providing strategies to manage emotions and lead by example, by choosing your words and reactions wisely, you can not only nudge the team in the right direction, but influence up to leaders who in turn inspires and motivates the entire team. Take home message: Leadership isn’t just about leading, it means showing leader-like qualities from within a team.


Emotional contagion is a captivating phenomenon that holds immense potential for high-performance teams. Sports scientists, drawing inspiration from the groundbreaking work of Sigal Barsade, you have an opportunity on your teams to be the change agent, or in other words the person who gently optimises the team performance from within. By focusing on the positives you will be developing the emotional climate, fostering emotional awareness, fuelling leadership influence, and developing communication and motivation in teams.

Listen out for the negatives – switch the focus and be contagious!

Frequently Asked Questions about Emotional Contagion in Sport

Does emotional contagion impact sports teams?

Emotional contagion in sports teams refers to the process by which emotions, both positive and negative, are transferred among team members, affecting the overall mood and performance of the team. This phenomenon can significantly influence team dynamics, cohesion, and ultimately, the outcomes of their collective efforts

How does emotional contagion affect sports performance?

Emotional contagion can impact sports performance by altering the psychological state of team members. Positive emotional contagion can enhance motivation, increase resilience, and improve team unity, leading to better performance. Conversely, negative emotional contagion can lower morale, increase stress, and lead to a decrease in performance levels.

Can coaches manage emotional contagion within their teams?

Yes, coaches play a crucial role in managing emotional contagion within their teams. By fostering a positive emotional climate, promoting emotional intelligence, and leading by example, coaches can mitigate the spread of negative emotions and amplify positive emotional contagion, thereby enhancing team performance and cohesion.



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