Picture this: it’s 1-1 in extra time, and the away team is on the attack. Our players can’t get to the opposition in time, they shoot, and the keeper catches it. Or at least that’s what it looks like — he actually drops the ball because of the pressure, and it counts as an own goal.
This is an example of over arousal in sports.
The goalkeeper was in a high pressure situation, was likely feeling some anxiety, and the pressure was too much. It caused him to choke, drop the ball, and the other team won.
But that’s only one side of the coin — there’s also what’s known as under arousal or low arousal levels. This is the opposite — the keeper feels less motivated, potentially bored, tired, and doesn’t want to be there. As a result, he’s likely to give a poor performance.
A lot of people would describe this as their “head not being in the game.”
Ideally, an athlete would not be under or over aroused. Instead, they’d be somewhere in the middle — the sweet spot for peak performance.
What is arousal in sport?
This blog post will explain arousal in sport in more detail, highlighting the inverted U theory and actionable tips to help increase or decrease arousal as needed to achieve optimal performance.
Arousal in sport is the level of activation, alertness, and anxiety experienced by an athlete. If arousal is too low, they might not feel up to the task, but if it’s too high, they may choke or make crucial mistakes. A balance is needed for optimal performance.
Think of an under aroused athlete as the player who doesn’t want to be on the pitch and doesn’t care whether they win or lose, while an over aroused athlete is uncoordinated, jerky with their movements, and more likely to drop the ball or make a mistake.
Mastering arousal equals better sports performance. But it’s a hard thing to perfect — let’s explain it in more detail using the inverted U model.
The inverted U theory
The inverted U theory perfectly describes the necessary level of arousal to achieve successful task performance.
Image Credit: Inverted- U of the Yerkes-Dodson’s law.
For example, if someone is under aroused (e.g., feels unmotivated and fatigued), they will likely underperform. The same applies to over-arousal — feeling intense pressure, stress, and anxiety will also result in poor performance.
Think of the inverted U theory in the application of an exam.
You want to be well rested, motivated, and feel some pressure so you can focus, but you don’t want to feel too stressed and anxious that you can’t concentrate.
Now let’s apply it to sports.
Athletes should aim to find a sweet spot between the two extremes. Just like in the exam example above, the athlete should feel some stress to perform, but not crippling anxiety and a lack of recovery that may cause vital mistakes.
This is the sweet spot athletes should aim to achieve.
Arousal and performance are directly linked — find your ideal arousal to help lessen anxiety and improve sporting performance.
How to control arousal levels in sport
Learning how to control arousal levels directly impacts sports performance.
The very best athletes know how to find the perfect balance — it’s what defines those game-changing moments.
Want to see an example of perfect arousal? Watch David Beckham’s free-kick against Greece during the 2002 semi-finals — three minutes into injury time, Beckham scores the goal that takes England to the world cup finals.
If Beckham were over aroused, the pressure and anxiety would likely get to him, and he would miss the shot. And if he was under-aroused, he wouldn’t have the concentration to put it in the top left corner.
How to increase arousal levels in sport
If athletes feel under-aroused, they can try:
- Prioritizing rest and deep sleep
- Listen to music or binaural beats
- Have a pre-competition routine that “gets you in the zone”
- Perform reaction tests
- Light exercise (such as jogging)
- Team talks before a game or during half time
No two athletes are the same. For example, one athlete may struggle with under arousal, while another experiences too high an arousal, causing them to choke or underperform due to the intense pressures.
Athletes should find what works for them and adjust their arousal levels accordingly. You need to come up with your own pre-game rituals and routines to facilitate the correct level of arousal.
How to decrease arousal levels in sport
If athletes feel too aroused, they can:
- Use imagery
- Use positive self-talk to decrease stress and calm nerves
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Perform deep breathing exercises to reduce stress
Coaches and arousal
Sports coaches are heavily invested in their athletes and competition.
This can also cause an increase in arousal. If a coach experiences too high arousal, for example, during the final of a football game, they make poor decisions that can impact the outcome of the game.
Many people forget just how involved coaches are in sports. If you’re a coach, ensure to prioritize sleep and rest and practice some of the advice in this blog post so you can perform your best for your athletes.
Prime your athletes for optimal performance with Rewire
Reaching the optimal arousal state for sports performance is difficult, but Rewire for teams can help.
Rewire athletes gain an average of 30% increase in focus and readiness to perform with just 5-10 minutes of daily use.
Athletes can use the Readiness Assessment to better understand their cognitive, emotional, and physical readiness. They also gain access to a mix of mindset recovery sessions to reduce stress and prepare athletes for training to reach the right level of arousal for peak performance.
“The combination of an integrated Training, Recovery and Readiness system means that I can take a holistic approach to improving my athletic performance.” – Laura Kline (Elite Ultra Runner & Endurance Athlete).
What is the definition of arousal in sport?
Arousal is often defined as the cumulation of both physiological and psychological factors that can affect performance, including sleep, excitement, anxiousness, and others.
What is under arousal in sport?
Under arousal in sport is when an athlete does not feel the drive or need to compete at a high level. For example, the athlete could be in too low a pressure environment, or they could feel boredom.
- Kerr, J.H., 2021. Anxiety, arousal, and sport performance: An application of reversal theory. In Anxiety in sports (pp. 137-151). Taylor & Francis.