Arousal In Sport – What Does The Research Suggest?

Arousal is important in sport as it can have a significant impact on sporting performance, whether that be not hitting a performance peak due to being under-aroused, or arousal levels increasing to the point of being detrimental to performance.

In this article, we’ll explore what arousal is and its impact on sport performance, drawing insights from key theories in sports psychology. 

Defining Arousal in sport performance

Arousal is the level of activity and alertness we feel in relation to a task, performance or situation. Arousal levels can change over time, so someone might feel high levels of arousal directly before competing in their sport, compared to much lower arousal levels several hours after their competition.

A state of low arousal can be described as being relaxed, asleep, or potentially bored. In contrast, anger, anxiousness and excitement are signs of high arousal levels. High arousal levels can be identified through physiological symptoms, including increased heart rate, faster breathing, and a feeling of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach.

Why is arousal important in sport?

Arousal is important in sport as it can have a significant impact on sporting performance, whether that be not hitting a performance peak due to being under-aroused, or arousal levels increasing to the point of being detrimental to performance.

Below, we’ll explore the importance of arousal and its relationship with sporting performance further by drawing insights from key theories in sports psychology. 

Theories of Arousal in sport

There are numerous theories that describe different relationships between arousal and performance. Here is a brief overview of each of these theories.  

Inverted U hypothesis

The Inverted U Theory describes how an optimal level of arousal correlates to peak performance. Deviations from this optimal arousal level, whether too high or too low, can result in a gradual decline in performance. The theory derives its name from the distinctive curve that emerges when performance is plotted against arousal, which was initially established by Yerkes and Dodson (1908).

Yerkes and Dodson first established the Inverted U Theory when trying to understand the relationship between the strength of a stimulus and habit formation in mice. They found a negative relationship between the two, meaning, the harder it is to form a habit, the less strong the stimulus needs to be to make the habit stick. Similarly, after the peak arousal level has been reached, this theory says that getting even more excited can make our performance worse. 

Showing a graph of inverted u theory

Catastrophe Theory

The Catastrophe Theory describes a relationship whereby performance increases as arousal levels increase, up to a point of optimal arousal and where peak performance is achieved. The difference between the two theories lies in how they describe the relationship if arousal levels continue to increase beyond the optimal level.

The catastrophe theory describes a sudden and dramatic decline in performance levels if arousal levels continue to increase. The theory also describes how a return to original (lower) arousal levels will not immediately result in improved performance.

Fazey and Hardy (1988) invented the Catastrophe Theory of anxiety in sport and performance after identifying problems with the ‘Inverted-U hypothesis’, including the lack of consideration for the multidimensionality of the stress response.

A visual representation of the catastrophe theory.

The catastrophe theory also explores interactions between somatic and cognitive anxieties and performance.

Somatic anxiety explains the physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, having ‘butterflies’, and sweating. Cognitive anxiety refers to the mental aspects of anxiety, such as finding it difficult to concentrate, and experiencing fears.

The Catastrophe Theory proposes that if an athlete has high cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety, they will experience a severe and sudden catastrophic decline in performance. It is thought that increased cognitive anxiety and low levels of somatic anxiety could contribute to optimum performance.

A 3-dimensional chart outlining the catastrophe theory.

Multi-Dimensional Anxiety Theory

The Multi-Dimensional Anxiety theory suggests that an increase in cognitive anxiety will have a negative impact on performance.

An increase in somatic anxiety will display a similar performance curve to the inverted u hypothesis, where performance increases up until a certain point, before gradually decreasing after a peak.

A visual representation of the Multidimensional Anxiety Theory

Drive Theory

The Drive theory describes a positive linear relationship between anxiety and performance. In other words, suggesting that higher anxiety levels lead to better performance.

A visual representation of the drive theory

Zone of Optimal Functioning

The Zone of Optimal Functioning theory considers the relationship between stress, anxiety, and arousal, and the resulting impact on performance. The zone of optimal functioning theory also considers how factors such as personality, the task, and stage of learning can impact on arousal levels. Therefore, not all athletes’ zones of optimal functioning will be the same.

Some athletes may perform at their best when they have a low level of anxiety (athlete A in the image below) whereas other athletes may perform at their best when they have a moderate level of anxiety (athlete B) or a high level of anxiety (athlete C). If the athlete’s anxiety level falls outside of their optimum zone, then it may have a negative effect on their performance.

A visual representation of Zone of Optimal Functioning

Effects of anxiety on sporting performance

The effects of anxiety and arousal, as can be seen by the theories we’ve discussed above, can have varying levels of impact on sporting performance. This could be a mild decline as outlined by the inverted u theory, or a significant decline in performance as the catastrophe theory might suggest.

However, not all arousal or anxiety is bad. As can be seen in the curves that depict the arousal theories, peak performance is not likely to be achieved with no arousal at all.

Summary

In summary, there are a number of theories that describe the relationship between arousal and performance, and in varying levels of detail. Generally, theories suggest that there is an optimal level of arousal for peak performance to be achieved. Some describe how too much arousal can result in declines in performance, either gradual or dramatic declines.

Arousal can be managed through coping strategies, including mental skills training, although these will vary based on individual differences and the situation in question.

Further Reading

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