Arousal and Performance

So the title of the blog caught your attention, huh? Someone from the club a couple of weeks ago was explaining to me that they get so worked up before a race that they make mistakes, such as adopting a poor pacing strategy or poor technique, which has a negative effect on performance. Someone else from the club over the weekend told me something similar although this time the athlete explained he got so anxious that he just could not race the way he wanted to. It was impossible for him to breathe effectively while swimming adding to the anxiety and resulting in disappointment with the race overall.

Arousal can be described as the level of energy that an athlete develops and applies to any sporting situation e.g. in anticipating competition. This energy results from both psychological and physiological activity within the body. Many things can affect an athlete’s level of arousal, such as performance expectations, negative thinking, self-doubt, motivation, injury, preparation and readiness, general life stress, as well as external factors such as weather conditions, facilities, and spectators.

Over the years, sports psychologists have applied a number of theories to explain the relationship between arousal and performance. One of the most commonly used models is called the ‘Inverted-U Hypothesis’ (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). The Inverted-U Hypothesis suggests that when an athlete’s arousal level is low, performance is also low. The mind and body aren’t energised and prepared to face the demands of competition. As arousal level increases, performance increases up to an optimal point. You may have heard people describe this as being ‘in the zone’. You might even be able to tell when someone is in this state by the way they look. A facial expression, a look in the eyes, a certain posture or way of moving can all indicate when someone is in the zone.

When arousal increases past this optimal point to a very high level, an athlete may begin to feel anxious and performance is likely to decline. Excessive arousal can interfere with the body’s ability to perform both physically – muscles become too tense, coordination and skills break down and early fatigue sets in, or psychologically – difficulty concentrating, thinking clearly, making decisions and thinking positively or losing confidence.

Athletes face the constant challenge of trying to keep their arousal at the ‘optimal’ level in order to achieve peak performance. Each individual’s optimal arousal level is different. For example, Usain Bolt appears very relaxed before a race and plays to the crowd. Tyson Gay looks very serious before a race and points to the sky as if asking for some form of divine intervention. Furthermore, each sport and activity has a different optimal arousal zone. Even each discipline within a triathlon probably has a different optimal arousal zone. A rapid breathing rate at the swim start is likely to cause anxiety but is easier to deal with on the bike and run.

My main motivation to participate in triathlon is not to win or set a new PB every time I race. I do it because it’s great fun and helps me lead a healthy lifestyle which is of great importance to me. So if you are feeling too worked up or anxious at the start of a race just have a think about why you are there in the first place. Relax and enjoy the feeling of seeing what your body and mind is capable of. There are other ways to both increase and decrease arousal and get in the zone. But I’ll save these for next week.

It’s a tough run session this week with some sprints to get your running pace up and give you the confidence to cross the finish line flying. The swim session on Saturday will be more technique based so you can save your energy for the run to follow. Sunday will be threshold swim session to help build your race pace in the water. You will need fins and pull buoys for both.

I’m not sure I used the word ‘arousal’ so many times in a single sitting! See you at the track tomorrow or at the Lido Saturday. Tim (LFTC Coach)