Skip to main content

Drive Theory in Sport Psychology

Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist and a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

A cyclist hitting a tight turn. Is his arousal level related to his performance?

A cyclist hitting a tight turn. Is his arousal level related to his performance?

An Insight Into The Relationship Between Arousal and Sports Performance

Drive theory in sports psychology terms was first put forward by Clark Hull (1943)

Drive theory summarises a direct linear relationship between arousal and sporting performance; In effect meaning the more an athlete is ‘psyched up’, the better their performance potential in any given event. Hull believed that heightened levels of arousal would lead to increases in the dominant response of the sporting performance.

Visual Representation of Drive Theory

Driver Theory In Sports Psychollogy

Driver Theory In Sports Psychollogy

Drive Theory In Sports- Expert Versus Novice

For many successful sports-people who are accustomed to performing a skill it is likely that a heightened arousal level will lead to an increase in the dominant response (performance). However difficulty arises once an untrained individual such as a beginner becomes involved. Their dominant response may not translate as being adequate in the sport they are performing with a potential manifestation of deterioration in performance.

The Downsides Of Drive Theory

Unfortunately the linear graph initial proposed for drive theory doesn’t take into account that arousal can actually have a negative effect on performance at certain levels. Can you think of any sports where a high level of arousal might be detrimental to performance?

The other question that arises is should the graph really be linear? Would a certain increase in arousal always lead to a comparably similar increase in performance?

Scroll to Continue

Adding Specificity to Drive Theory- Habit Strength (Spence and Spence 1968)

Due to the non-specific nature of drive theory Spence and Spence (1968) saw a need to add additional clarity to the theory and came up with a simple equation which added an insight into the mastery of the elite or high level athlete.

Habit Strength Theory In Sports

Visual representation of Habit Strength theory

Visual representation of Habit Strength theory

As with many early sports psychology theories- Drive Theory is very basic in its approach and has subsequently been discredited with the knowledge that even the best performers have a tendency to experience deterioration in performance at the highest levels of arousal. Whether it’s a footballer who misses a penalty kick after being hacked down in front of goal or Lindsay Jacobellis in the Boardercross final knowing the gold medal is hers.

Over-arousal In Sport. Jacobellis Falls in 2006 Turin Olympic Boardercross

Drive Theory Helped To Shape the Inverted-U Hypothesis

The negatives aspects of drive theory helped to shape arguably one of the most well known sports psychology theorems. The Inverted-U Hypothesis is accepted by most coaches and sports psychologists as the general notion of how arousal and sporting performance are directly linked.

Read more on the Inverted-U Hypothesis


Hull, C. L., (1943), Principles of behavior. New York: Appleton- Century-Crofts

Spence, J.T., & Spence, K.W. (1966). The motivational components of manifest anxiety: Drive and drive stimuli. In C.D. Spielberger (Ed.), Anxiety and behavior. New York: Academic Press.

Related Articles