Sport psychologists often study the impact of human arousal (energy) on athletic skill acquisition, development, and performance. General findings reveal there is, in fact, an optimal arousal level (known by athletes as the “zone,” and sport psychologists as flow). Finding the optimal arousal level, however, is an individual pursuit that is unique to each athlete.
When thinking about arousal you might first envision a continuum, where on one side is low arousal and the other side high arousal. When we are in a low arousal state we are very relaxed, our focus is loose and wide, and our reactions are slower. Conversely, when we are in a high arousal state (like when we hear a fire alarm), our anxiety often spikes, and can actually interfere with the mind-body synchrony needed for effortless muscle-memory movement. Neither low or high arousal is ideal when it comes to optimal performances in sport, so the key for athletes is to learn how to control and regulate arousal.
Managing arousal for peak athletic performance
From my professional experience I find that athletes generally struggle more with low arousal during routine, mundane practices; and tend to experience high arousal more often in games and other pressure situations (i.e. working out at a combine). Below are a few quick tips to help with both arousal states:
Low Arousal (pumping up). Athletes often battle low arousal when dealing with boring practices, watching film, and other more mundane events.
- Physically move. Going through a good warmup with lots of activity will help increase arousal.
- Self-talk. Telling yourself positive things and keeping a good attitude can help athletes pick up their mental game.
- Imagery. Athletes can use imagery that is action-oriented to help with alertness.
High Arousal (calming down). Athletes generally experience high arousal when dealing with pressure and expectations related to sport competition.
- Deep breathing. Inhaling slow, deep breaths into your stomach and releasing can help lower arousal and nervous energy.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Take one muscle group at a time and tense/relax for about 3-5 seconds. Systematically go through the body one muscle group at a time until your body feels more loose and relaxed.
- Self-talk & Imagery. Similar to pumping up when arousal is low, these techniques can be used for arousal reduction, too. Repeating calming phrases and thinking of calm life experiences can have an immediate and dramatic effect on lowering human arousal.
Being bigger, faster, and stronger will only last so long — eventually you will need more than natural abilities in order to beat the competition. When working on mental toughness, learning how to moderate arousal needs to be a primary goal as this skill serves as a foundation for all other mental toughness skills. Only when your mind and body work in synchrony will you play your best, making this skill one that all athletes should pursue learning.