sports psychologist & clinical psychology


Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Sept 1, 1995 – Dr. John F. Murray – The psychological and sport psychological literature is replete with studies examining the relationship between arousal and performance.

Despite this abundance of data, no theory has gained universal acceptance. Definitions of arousal and its effect on performance are hotly debated issues. In my opinion, this reflects the nature of a complex beast, as sports performance varies from sinking a two foot putt to landing a crushing blow on the fullback. Add to these task differences the various skill levels and personalities of the performers and this once clear relationship gets scary! Our current focus on optimizing arousal in tennis makes this job a whole lot easier, and proper arousal management will do wonders for your game.

Arousal was defined by Singer and Associates (1993) as a multidimensional construct that refers to an energizing function of the mind and body, varying on a continuum from low (deep sleep) to high (extreme excitement). It involves both a physiological response (e.g., increased heart rate) and cognitive processes (e.g., appraisal of an event). Sage (1984) described arousal as motivation which energizes, or directs one to a specific goal, and Cox (1990) equated it with alertness. Many have used the terms arousal and activation interchangeably.

Arousal should be distinguished from anxiety and stress. Although anxiety usually involves increases in arousal, it is also accompanied by worry, concern, and negative thoughts and feelings. Stress refers to any external or internal stimulation that tends to grossly disturb homeostasis or stability.

One of the oldest psychological theories on the relationship between arousal and performance is the “Inverted-U Hypothesis” or “Yerkes-Dodson Law.” Simply stated, this theory suggests that optimal performance is achieved with increases in arousal until further increases in arousal lead to performance decrement. Some prefer to describe “zones of optimal functioning,” reflecting the view that it is impossible to pinpoint the precise level at which performance is optimized. What does all this mean in tennis? It is clear that being either under- or over-aroused will impair you game. Sport psychologists, including Loehr (1991), have used heart rate monitors on tennis players to determine the arousal levels corresponding with an individual’s best match play.

Researchers maintain that an athletes’ optimal arousal level will vary depending on the nature of the task and skill level of the performer. Oxendine (1984) stated that more complex tasks require lower arousal levels, and that tennis, like baseball pitching and fencing, requires “some arousal” (more than “slight arousal” but less than “medium arousal”). Cox (1990) concluded that highly skilled athletes and those performing simple tasks need a moderately high level of arousal for maximum performance, whereas less skilled athletes and those performing complex tasks require a low level of arousal for maximum performance. Since the demands in tennis are relatively complex, and tennis is a game of errors rather than winners, it might be wise to heed scientific wisdom and guard against over-arousal. This is especially true for beginners and intermediates! Using this logic, professionals and those with more highly developed skills should benefit from slightly higher levels of arousal.

Despite this advice, there are no fast and ready rules, and individual differences prevail. It is necessary for each player to assess their own levels of arousal and corresponding performance. One way to do this is to practice increasing and decreasing arousal while noting changes in performance.

The following techniques have been used to increase or decrease arousal. As always, the maximum benefit is obtained through consultation with a qualified sport psychologist.

To increase arousal:

(1) Increase your rhythm and rate of breathing

(2) Focus on the task at hand and distract yourself from fatigue

(3) Stretch and exercise more prior to play

(4) Listen to upbeat music prior to play

(5) Visualize powerful forces (e.g., leaping cheetah, rocket blast)

(6) Draw energy from the crowd

To decrease arousal:

(1) Breath deeply and slowly from the diaphragm
(2) Engage in a popular form of meditation

(3) Quietly repeat a key word or phrase to yourself (e.g., calm, easy, cool)

(4) Direct your focus on performance rather than outcome

(5) Engage in Progressive Muscle Relaxation-briefly tensing and relaxing muscle groups, noting differences between tension and relaxation

(6) Dictate your own pace and take your time between points

Practice adjusting your level of arousal on a regular basis until you find the level at which you perform best. You’ll know it when you are optimally aroused!

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