I have been helping with a provincial tournament this week, convening at arenas to check in players and coaches, and support the officials with “fan control” by just doing a walk about the arena.  Usually, when they see the “Volunteer Tag” around your neck, it is enough to have people slow down in the verbal abuse to official.  However, for some spectator groups, that doesn’t work.  They may have experienced what is called the amygdala hi-jack.

According to Wikipedia, “an amygdala hijack is a person’s emotional response that is immediate, overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat. (The term was coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”). Wikipedia

We have all been there, when something happens, and you lose it!  An emotional outburst that you can’t control. I must admit, fans in the stands yelling at officials is an absolute trigger for me.  The ref can make all the bad calls in the world, and it has no effect – I understand that they are human, mistakes happen and many of them are learning the skill of officiating.  Peoples reactions, on the other hand, induce my own amygdala hi-jack.  And it did.  The fans were standing up and yelling at the officials, and I matched their hi-jack with my own and told them to “zip it”.  Not one of my finer moments.

The amygdala is in the Limbic brain, or sometimes referred to as the emotional centre.  “When the amygdala goes into overdrive, it activates the Limbic area of the brain, which stores all of our old memories” states Judith Glaser of Conversational Intelligence®.  She goes on to stay that emotional threats send us into states of fear triggered by actions, and even one word.  “Once we have a bad experience and begin to become distrustful of someone, that notion becomes embedded in our brain and can be difficult to dislodge,” states Glaser.  (Benchmark Communications, Inc. and The CreatingWE® Institute. All rights reserved).  For some, that distrust is in the officials. Mine is in the spectators.

Understanding your triggers is the first step in being able to manage the hi-jack.   If a fan is frustrated, it is not a trigger, however, when they are angry and loud, I can turn into them.  The other piece is hubris – when a spectator has an “I know best”, even though they are not on the playing field, haven’t considered the variance in positioning, or has any training in officiating – I can get triggered.  The icing on the cake is when the ref has his hand up to call a penalty and they are too busy yelling to even notice. “PAY ATTENTION!” (triggered again).

So what can you do.

  1. Become self aware – what are your triggers – and get specific;
  2. Prepare for them. I know a ref will miss a call and I know there will be a reaction from the stands. (I really shouldn’t be surprised…..which is just sad all by itself).
  3. Breath – 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. A 10 second breath is enough to reduce stress by decreasing cortisol (stress hormone) in the body.  And if you want to take it to the next level, you can use a HeartMath® Technique called Heart Focused BreathingTM.  Put your attention to the area of your heart – put your hand on your heart to help keep your focus there.  Imagine that your breath is coming in and out through your heart, breathing a little slower and deeper then normal.  Try to slow it down to a  10 second breath.  Breath like this throughout the whole game if you need to.  You will enjoy the game more.  I am living proof!

Heart Focused BreathingTM activates the parasympathetic nervous system to help calm down the sympathetic nervous system which is activated in a fight or flight response when an amygdala hi-jack is triggered.  A slower pace of breathing will help to get you out of your primitive brain, where your focus narrows in on the perceived threat, and opens up the pre-frontal cortex, or the executive brain where you can think more clearly.  (For more information visit www.heartmath.org or www.heartmath.com)

This week, I had an opportunity that I totally missed.  Instead of telling them (unsuccessfully) to “zip it”, I could have had them do Heart Focused BreathingTM in between periods to help bring down their (and mine) cortisol levels and engage in a completely different conversation.

For more information on Spectator Intelligence© and tools you can use to help build emotional resilience with your organization visit www.whatnottoyell.com.

Melanie Wanless, CYO, What Not To Yell Inc. Breathing my way to calmness.                                                     Certified Conversational Intelligence® Coach