Sport Psychology: How to Find the Optimal Level of Arousal for Peak Performance

Sport Psychology: How to Find the Optimal Level of Arousal for Peak Performance

Dick Moss, Editor, Physical Education

Every athlete has a level of arousal - or nervous excitement - that will produce optimal results during competitions.

Under-arousal and over-arousal are common problems. For example, most coaches have heard the excuse, "I just couldn't get psyched up for it, coach." This comment refers to a level of mental arousal that was too low: a common cause of sub-standard performances.

Over-arousal can also be a problem. Getting too psyched up can cause athletes to lose concentration, act before thinking and perform with tight muscles and a lack of fine motor control.

Arousal Requirements in Different Sports
Sport psychologists have found that different sports - and even different positions within sports - require different levels of arousal for peak performance.

For example, football linemen usually operate best when highly aroused Their task requires explosive, large-muscle movements and more reaction than analysis. On the other hand, quarterbacks must remain calm during games because their job requires a high degree of motor control and mental analysis.

Archers are similar to quarterbacks. They must remain calm because too much arousal can cause trembling in small muscle groups and interfere with accuracy.

Regardless of the sport or position, the optimal level of arousal for peak performance will vary from individual to individual. The trick is to find that optimal level.

Finding the Optimal Level of Arousal
One method for finding your athletes' optimal level of arousal is to have them experiment with it during early competitions. First, inform them of the role that arousal plays in sport (you might call it "psyching") and the fact that it can be controlled.

During these less important competitions, have your athletes try different amounts of arousal, starting with the two extremes. For example, have them get really hyper before one competition, then really relaxed and nonchalant before another. Degrees of arousal between these two extremes can be used in subsequent competitions.

As your athletes experiment, they will soon learn how much arousal they need to perform at their best. Eventually, they will learn how that level of arousal feels and be able to evoke that feeling when needed.

1. The Search for the Comfort Zone." SportTalk, October 1988.
2. Terry Orlick and John Partington, Psyched, Coaching Association of Canada.

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