It’s easy to think of emotional displays as simply a reflection of how someone is feeling. For example, in sport we see a winner and they’re dancing around the place, smiling, laughing and hugging their teammates. They must be happy.
But, we also use the emotional displays of others to make judgements about the kind of person they are and their values and attitudes. This can be an important consideration for the emotion ‘displayer’, particularly in televised professional sporting contexts where a professional attitude is paramount.
Here’s an example where it turned out to be important. It comes from a recent media interview with a Los Angeles Lakers basketball player, actually with several (uninvited) players, after a victory. Watch it below, or here.
On the face of it, this seems relatively unproblematic and somewhat entertaining. The interviewees have won and they are happy. They have beaten a rival in the Boston Celtics and they are displaying how happy they are in a range of different ways, including by hijacking a teammate’s interview.
However, the behaviour of these players caught the ire of senior members of the Los Angeles Lakers camp, including Kobe Bryant (the team’s injured superstar) and the coach Byron Scott (himself a Lakers legend). Why? According to these leadership figures, these displays were unprofessional.
Byron Scott said, “That’s not us as Lakers. That’s not how we act. It showed a lack of professionalism.”
“As a coach of this team I was very disappointed”
“That’s not how I act, win or loss. I want our guys to know that.”
Kobe didn’t say anything, but then he didn’t really need to as his silence did the talking (see here).
So, what is it about this emotional display that is unprofessional? And, as an example, what can it tell us about emotional displays in professional sporting contexts?
Seen in context, we can identify the ‘professionalism’ problem. Despite winning this game, the team is second bottom of the Western Conference and last in the Pacific Division. They are struggling to win two games in a row and may end up posting their worst season finish in over fifty years. All this is unusual for a franchise that is used to winning titles and not just the odd game against an also-struggling Boston team. What may have irked Kobe and Byron Scott is inability to capture this bigger picture in their emotional displays. In other words, they weren’t unhappy that the players were happy… they were unhappy that the players were too happy.
This suggests that professionalism can involve getting the emotional display appropriate for the occasion. Moreover, it shows that emotions are not black and white. There are ‘degrees’ of emotion, degrees of happiness or degrees of disappointment, and understanding how to orient to these degrees may be an important skill for professional athletes to develop, particularly when presenting themselves in public.
Add to that, the example here highlights that being ‘entertaining’ in the media can be a risky strategy, and needs careful thought. There are many ways to provide an entertaining media interview for fans. However some strategies, like the ones used by the ‘interrupters’ in this example, can potentially get you offside with those who have a say in your involvement in the team, i.e. leaders and coaches. This perhaps provides one reason why post-match interviews, despite often receiving criticism from fans, are measured, balanced and predominantly, dare I say it, boring. Players are looking after themselves, and can we blame them when more than their value as entertainers is at stake?
Emotion is far more than a reflection of one’s inner state. It is also a social action, and one that needs care and thought if a player is to appropriately (or safely) negotiate the public space. This is not just the case for emotional displays in the media, nor is it unique to sport. In all areas of life where our emotional reactions are on display, we are potentially ‘communicating’ information about who we are and what we value, and these displays can have implications for our professional lives.
Kieran File is director of Reactive Sports Media, a media education consultancy that provides research-informed media education to professional athletes, coaches, managers and sporting executives. Follow Kieran on Twitter @KieranFile or visit www.reactivesportsmedia.com for more information.