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Effects Of Arousal And Anxiety On Sports Performance

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

Freestyle Skiing- Arousal Or Anxiety?

Freestyle skiing for some ilicits arousal, whereas others will feel great anxiety in sport.

Freestyle skiing for some ilicits arousal, whereas others will feel great anxiety in sport.

Understanding The Relationship Between Sports Performance, Anxiety And Arousal

"When can athletes perform at their best psychologically?" is a key question asked by many coaches, athletes and students. Many of us recognise the lack of control we feel when we become nervous or how our levels of arousal can alter our reactions in certain situations.

A case in point is that of the biathlete who needs to be able to stay calm to make those critical shots, yet quickly switch to a mode of aggression and power for a cross-country skiing section.

The effect of both arousal and anxiety on performance is a key relationship in sports and when an athlete can develop control of those characteristics their competitive edge can be greatly enhanced.

Understanding The Relationship Between Sports Anxiety And Arousal

Sports psychologists have studied the effects of both physiological and psychological arousal on performance over many years. Examining how it can affect sporting performance both negatively and positively.

Even in our own performances levels of sport related arousal can fluctuate dramatically during an event. In order to improve our performance we need to establish ways to control these anxieties and their subsequent effects.

While sports psychologists have never reached any distinct conclusions on the relationship they have noted many specific theories which will be discussed in detail further down the page.

Theories Of Arousal And Anxiety In Sport

A number of theories have been put forward over the years. Over time these thories have been shaped by psychologists who have refined them.

Chasing Another Rider Can Lead To Anxiety In Cycling Races

Chasing another rider in a cycling event can lead to increased arousal levels. Whereas the chased rider could experience anxieties about being caught

Chasing another rider in a cycling event can lead to increased arousal levels. Whereas the chased rider could experience anxieties about being caught

The Inverted-U Relationship Between Arousal And Sporting Performance

The inverted-U theory on the effect of arousal in sporting situations gives explanation to poor performances when an athlete is showing either a relatively low level of physiological or psychological arousal where they are not 'psyched-up' for the event.

As arousal increases within the athlete it leads to improvements in performance which can be psychological or physiological. The graph (below) is then seen to decline once an optimal point of arousal is reached and tails off dramatically after that point to the detriment of sporting performance.

The Inverted-U Relationship Between Performance And Arousal

The inverted-u relationship between performance and arousal in sports

The inverted-u relationship between performance and arousal in sports

Arousal, The Inverted U Theory And Your Reaction Times In Tennis

If you consider your reaction times when you play sport and in this example- Tennis.

You're Andy Murray getting ready to face a Novak Djokovic serve in the Australian Open Men's Final.

If you're under aroused you're likely to not be up for the challenge of returning the serve. Your reaction time will be significantly slower and the subsequent result will either be a poor return or at worst you simply do not react at all and Novak Djokovic shoots an ace. 15-Love Djokovic.

However if your level of arousal is too high there's a likelihood that you'll force things and either try to play the shot too quickly- thus taking the wrong option and setting yourself up for a bad point or in the worst case scenario you may be so 'psyched-up' that you end up swinging at fresh air. 15- Love Djokovic.

If your level of sports related arousal is just right you can react to the service and take control of the point leading to Love-15 Murray.

Criticisms Of The Inverted -U Hypotheis

The idea of the Inverted-U hypothesis is generally accepted by many coaches and athletes although there have been criticisms made with regards to the actual shape of the curve in it's effects on performance. General questions for students on this could involve whether there is actually a plateau for a small selection of levels of arousal in athletes which elicits the same sporting response and how the steepness of such a curve can be greatly different between differing athletes.

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Yuri Hanin's Individualized Zones Of Optional Functioning For Sports Performance

Russian Psychologist Yuri Hanin's adaptation of the the Inverted-U Hypothesis allows for two distinct manners of variation in performance anxieties and arousal levels.

  1. Optimal levels of arousal and anxiety do not always occur at the mid-point on the continuum but can occur at differing points within different individuals. This means that some sportspeople can have a zone of optimum sporting performance levels towards either ends of the continuum.
  2. Hanin also argued that optimum anxiety level was not a set, single point on a graph but a bandwidth between a selection of points specific to that athlete.

The image below showcases how the relationship between state anxiety and performance may look for 3 distinctly different athletes. Athlete A would follow a pattern similar to the Inverted-U Hypothesis where optimal performance is seen in the middle of the graph. However Athletes B and C perform better at significantly different anxiety levels- can you think of sports where each situation might be beneficial for performance anxiety levels?

Yuri Hanin's Zones Of Optimum Functioning in action for 3 distinctly different athletes- Can you name a sport where each level might be best suited?

Yuri Hanin's Zones Of Optimum Functioning in action for 3 distinctly different athletes- Can you name a sport where each level might be best suited?

The Catastrophe Model And Sports Performance

The Catastrophe Model in Sport was put forward by Hardy (1990) to address another missing piece of the sports psychology jigsaw- The complex interactions that occur between our level of arousal and cognitive anxiety.

The catastrophe model follows a similar curve to the Inverted-U theory however takes into account that this should only be true when the athlete is free from external stresses and anxieties which could adversely affect their mood states.

If cognitive anxiety (worry) is deemed to be at a high level within the sports competitor increases in performance can follow the 'U' on the graph based on heightened arousal and sporting performance. However beyond a certain point it is possible for catastrophe to occur and a subsequent dramatic decrease in performance is the result.

We all know of situations where we've had a lot of anxiety built up inside us related to sporting and external factors. This cognitive anxiety highly likely led to a weaker performance. Unfortunately it is difficult to test the catastrophe model for many athlete.

The Catastrophe Model showcases the need for a managed lifestyle for enhanced sporting performance.

An Individual's Interpretation Of Their Anxiety Level Can Affect Performance

It may sound surprising but your own interpretation of your anxiety or arousal levels can significantly affect your sports performance.

Two different people will have differing interpretations of what high arousal means to them. One athlete could sense with their heightened arousal a sense of pleasure and excitement. Whereas a second athlete could see their high level of arousal as an unpleasant situation signifying a lack of personal control; thus pushing up their level of anxiety.

Reversal theory in sports psychology signifies that it is the individuals interpretation that governs whether a level of arousal is seen as positive or negative to themselves in two ways

  1. Emphasizing that individual's interpretation of the arousal level has personal significance
  2. An athlete has it in their power to reverse their interpretations of a level of arousal's impact based on situation and time.

Anxiety In Sports Psychology Is Not Always Seen As Negative

It's easy to assume that anxiety is always going to lead to negative aspects within sporting performance. However that thought is often misconstrued and anxiety can be directed and controlled to help improve the anxiety- performance relationship.

If you consider reversal theory from above it is the individual's interpretation of anxiety and it's effects that has the greatest significance. And individual can view their anxieties as a positive factor which can help facilitate performance or as a negative, inhibiting factor depending on their personality, as well as aspects of the situation they find themselves within.

Can you think of any sports where a level of anxiety can be facilitative towards sporting performance?

Controlling Your Arousal Levels For Sports Performance

If you can take control of your levels of arousal and had the sports psychology tools to do so- imagine what it could do to your levels of event performance?

By establishing what factors can affect your state anxiety and lead to heightened arousal you can help to establish coping mechanisms and tools to put in place. No two people are the same and therefore no single specific approach will work but there are a couple of explanations on how arousal affects our sporting performances

  1. Changes to your attention and concentration
  2. Increased muscle tension and subsequent muscle coordination issues.

Changes To Attention And Concentration Levels

Landers, Wang and Courtet (1985) analysed both experienced and inexperienced shooters to establish links between stress conditions and peripheral narrowing. It was found that increased levels of arousal subsequently result in a narrowing of the athlete's field of attention (as pictured below)

An athlete is looking to achieve their optimal level of arousal and anxiety to enhance their potential.

Narrowing Of A Performer's Attention Field In Cycling

The narrowing of attention fields based on arousal levels. A cyclists mind and anxiety in sport in action.

The narrowing of attention fields based on arousal levels. A cyclists mind and anxiety in sport in action.

The Effects Of Arousal On Muscle Tension And Coordination

The key influence of arousal on our muscle tissues is it's ability to stimulate blood flow as a result of increased levels of adrenaline forcing the heart to beat stronger and faster to pump more blood around the body. This stimulation leads to increases in muscle tension.

A degree of muscle tension is essential for enhancing an athlete's sports performance. However an excessive increase in muscle tension as a result of overly-heightened arousal levels can lead to inhibited performance as stiff muscles are often slower to respond to stimuli. With potential issues with reaction times and strength of the reaction.

Enjoyed This Article? Did It Help You?

We're always looking for your feedback on whether we've been able to satisfy your thirst for knowledge or answers. Therefore if you have any further questions or would like to leave a comment please do so in the box below.

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Thank You

Liam Hallam - CyclingFitness on Hubpages


Hardy. L., (1990), A catastrophe model of performance in sport. In J.G. Jones and L Hardy (eds) Stress and performance in sport. (81-106) Chichester, England: Wiley.

Landers, D.M., Wang, M.Q., Courtet, P. (1985) Peripheral narrowing among experienced and inexperienced rifle shooters under low- and high-stress conditions. Research Quarterly. 56, 122-130.


H on September 07, 2015:

Thanks Liam, for a aesy reading, yet comprehensive article. I'm doing an assignment on anxiety and performance in a sporting context and your article provided some useful information.

Regards Dustin

Liam Hallam (author) from Nottingham UK on February 25, 2013:

Thanks Tony. Sports Psychology is one of those things we find it so easy to put off as athletes but paying attention to those psychological factors can really make subtle differences to performance, It's the different between going too hard on that first uphill drag because we're too 'pumped up' for a fast time or judging it just right. Thanks for your comment. Liam

Tony Capon from Upminster, Essex, United Kingdom on February 24, 2013:

Liam, I passed over this hub about 6 times before I finally read it, but once I read it I did find it useful as I was able to reconcile the points made with my actual experience. EG. the number of times I've started an early morning 25 mile TT and only realised it had turned into a nice day 2 minutes after I'd finisted.....Tony

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