Catastrophe Theory in Sport Explained

What is Catastrophe Theory In Sport?

The Catastrophe Theory describes the relationship between arousal and performance. The theory, hypotheses that when arousal levels go too high, there can be a sudden, or a catastrophic drop in performance. The theory also looks at how the physical (somatic) and mental (cognitive) components of anxiety interact and influence an athletes performance, which builds on the Multidimensional Anxiety Theory (MAT).

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. The theory also proposes that even if an athlete can return to feeling “calm,” they will not immediately return to the level of performance they were at before the decline. 

Understanding the Catastrophe Theory as a 2D model

The left hand side of the image shows arousal levels that are too low for peak performance. The peak of the curve highlights the optimum level of arousal for peak performance. Beyond this point, increased arousal leads to a dramatic decline in performance, hence the name catastrophe theory.

Understanding the Catastrophe Theory as a 3D model

Hardy & Fazey (1987) have also outlined the theory using a 3D model. As shown on the left of this model, when arousal levels are low cognitive anxiety will benefit performance. However, where arousal levels are high, cognitive anxiety will lead to decreases in performance.

When low levels of cognitive anxiety are maintained, a graph outlining the relationship between physiological anxiety and performance forms the inverted u shape. When high levels of cognitive anxiety are maintained, and only when this happens, a high level of physiological anxiety causes the ‘catastrophe’, or sudden performance decline.

Why is the Catastrophe Theory in Sport Important?

The Catastrophe Theory model explains the relationship between anxiety/arousal and performance. It’s useful for athletes and coaches to understand this relationship, which is that a high level of anxiety/arousal past an “optimum point” leads to a catastrophic decline in performance. 

If a coach and athlete are aware and understand the relationship between anxiety/arousal and performance that the Catastrophe Theory proposes, then they can (1) monitor anxiety/arousal levels before and during a performance and (2) identify the “triggers” that increase arousal/anxiety levels to above optimum. This might support the athlete and coach to work with a sport psychologist to prevent the increase in anxiety/arousal levels past optimum so that the athlete doesn’t experience the sudden decline in performance. This could look to target and change the thoughts and emotions, or perhaps address the resulting behaviours and physiological symptoms through methods such as meditation.

Sporting example of Catastrophe theory

The Catastrophe Theory could be applied to Rory McIlroy’s 2011 US Masters performance. At one point, McIlroy held a four-shot lead but then proceeded to drop six shots over holes 10, 11, and 12. It is thought that this is where the dream of winning the 2011 US Masters came crashing down.

By applying the catastrophe theory to this performance, it could be that, whilst in the lead, McIlroy’s arousal levels increased beyond the optimum level, ultimately leading to the loss of six shots over three holes.

The theory could also explain why after the sudden drop, McIlroy did not immediately return to his previous tournament-leading form.

Figure 3. Rory McIlroy at the 2011 US Masters.

Who invented Catastrophe theory in sport?

Fazey and Hardy invented the Catastrophe Theory of anxiety in sport and performance in 1988 after identifying problems with the ‘Inverted-U hypothesis’, including the lack of consideration for the multidimensionality of the stress response. This states that an increased arousal gradually improves performance up to a certain point, after which further increase in arousal gradually decreases performance.

Other arousal theories in sport performance

There are many other theoretical models (including the Inverted-U Hypothesis, Drive Theory, Multi-Dimensional anxiety Theory and Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning Theory) which have been developed to explain optimum arousal levels and it’s relationship to performance. You can see a brief description of each in the list below:

Inverted U-Hypothesis

As arousal levels increase, performance levels will increase gradually. After arousal levels reach the optimum point, performance gradually declines as arousal levels continue to increase. When plotted, this forms the shape of an inverted U.

Drive Theory

There is a linear relationship between anxiety and performance – higher anxiety levels lead to better performance.

Multi-Dimensional Anxiety Theory

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.

Multidimensional Anxiety Theory

Zone of Optimal Functioning

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

How to measure cognitive and somatic anxiety? 

The Catastrophe Theory explains the interactions between cognitive and somatic anxiety, and any resulting influence on performance. There a numerous measures that have been designed to measure both cognitive and somatic anxiety.

Scales that are validated and widely used include the State-Trait Inventory for Cognitive and Somatic Anxiety (STICSA; Ree et al., 2000) – 21 items measured on a 4-point Likert scale – and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; Spielberger, 1983) – 20 items rated on a 4-point Likert scale. State anxiety can be described as a transitory emotional state, one that can fluctuate over time. In contrast, trait anxiety refers to a proneness to experience state anxiety.

How to measure performance arousal?

Where performance arousal is cited in research as an independent variable, it is commonly measured using an individual’s heart rate.

Catastrophe Theory

When both cognitive and somatic anxiety is high, performance suddenly decreases.

High cognitive and low somatic anxiety produces an inverted U performance curve.


The catastrophe theory in sport psychology provides an explanation for sudden drops in performance. It is though this occurs when both somatic and cognitive anxiety level are high. When somatic anxiety levels are low, the interaction between cognitive anxiety and performance creates an inverted U curve.

The catastrophe theory is one of many theories that explains a relationship between anxiety and performance.

If you’d like to learn more about anxiety in sport, check out our other articles:

  • Anxiety in Sport
  • Inverted U-Theory


Fazey and Hardy (1988) – The inverted-U hypothesis: catastrophe for sport psychology.

Ree et al (2008) – State–Trait Inventory for Cognitive and Somatic Anxiety (STICSA)

Spielberger (1983) – State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults (STAI-AD)

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