How does your arousal level affect your training?!

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Optimal levels of arousal

It is important to find your optimal level of arousal if you want to perform at your highest level consistently. 

Remember! Psychology changes from one person to the next, it’s up to you to decide how this relates to you.     


What is arousal??

A continuum of excitation ranging from a comatose state to one of intense excitement (Malmo,1959).

So errrrr, what does that mean?! Arousal is a term for describing how awake or alert you are. For example: our arousal levels are likely to be much lower when relaxing on the sofa watching a film than on the day of a competition.

How do I know my arousal level right now?

Arousal manifests itself in a few ways :

Mentally - fast or slow thinking, ability to respond appropriately to situations....we might worry about our ability to perform leading to negative emotions ie. anxiety.

Physically - the activation of your autonomic nervous system indicated your arousal level - increased or decreased heart rate, breathing rate or muscle tension.

Stop and reflect - do a quick body scan checking for muscle tension, take your pulse, measure your breathing rate, look for clues like sweaty palms, whether your holding your breath or clenching your jaw. These are all clues! 

If you experience these things then your arousal levels may be too high.  This can lead to behavioural changes in the form of incorrect decision making or it could affect physical aspects of your performance like catching or close control.

So what is an 'optimal' point of arousal?!

The inverted U hypothesis suggests increasing arousal leads to improvements in performance but only up to the ‘optimal point of arousal’.  As arousal increases beyond this point, performance decreases. 

The diagram below shows this relationship and the differences between novice, intermediate and elite performers. 

  • Novice performers only require a low level of arousal in order to reach peak performance and anything above this level results in a decrease in performance quality. 
  • Elite performers require a much higher level of arousal as motor skills have become automated and more attention can be afforded to other external stimuli but again, too much arousal and quality of performance decreases.

Arousal image henri

Eg: Imagine a professional footballer, playing in front of thousands of spectators for the first time.  Excitement, nervousness, anxiety.  The more this player experiences these feelings and emotions, the more accustomed they become.  Their baseline of arousal becomes higher, playing in front of 10,000 people does not phase them but playing in front of 100,000 at Wembley in the FA Cup final still might.

How does this happen?

Electrocortical arousal refers to increased electrical activity in the brain


Increasing or adjusting this can lead to confused thinking and changes in attention and concentration.  Poor concentration, bad decisions… guess what? Potential for poorer performance 

Then we have autonomic arousal....

Autonomic arousal refer to physiological changes such as muscle tension and increased breathing heart rate.

If your sport requires fine motor skills: golf putting, a conversion, a penalty kick, a tennis serve, anywhere an increase in muscle tension can affect your technique and in turn the ability of success. 

How does this relate to me?

Do you find you play your best golf when under pressure? Or do you play great in practice and fail to perform at the monthly medal? Being aware of your optimal level of arousal is important to making sure you perform to your maximum potential.  By taking a moment of consideration, you’ll soon realize when to use a relaxation technique to decrease arousal or when to ‘fire yourself up’ with some positive self-talk.

What can I do to change my arousal levels?

2 ways to fire yourself up!

  • Self Talk - use positive, motivational phrases or key words either in your mind or say them out loud. You need to use a word that rings true for you, it should be chosen by you to create the feelings and emotions you want to achieve, in this case: increased arousal.

A weightlifter might repeat the word 'power' before a lift.

A sprinter might say 'lightning' or 'rocket' for a quick start.

  • Imagery - visualise successful past performances; making shots, scoring goals, winning games or trophies. Recreate the feelings, sights, sounds, smells, re-live that moment. Hit those performance levels again. This works really well in tandem with positive self talk.

2 ways to Chill the **** out

  • Self talk - your friend for all occasions! This time, use more relaxing, calming words.

Stay calm, relax, focus, chill - whatever works for you

  • Diaphragmatic breathing - deep breaths in that fill your lungs all the way to their base = More oxygen to the brain and lowers the heart rate, a good way to combat the physical symptoms of high arousal.



Tod, D., Thatcher J. & Rahman, R. (2010). Sport psychology. Palgrave Macmillan

Malmo, R.B. (1959). Activation: a neuropsychological dimension. Psychological review, 66, 267-386


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Headstart Sports Injury and Performance Clinic is owned and run by experienced sports massage therapist Vicki Marsh. We are based in Cambridge, UK, and specialise in resolving complex injuries that are causing acute or chronic pain,affecting quality of life and sporting performance. Vicki has over 12 years experience delivering sports massage to rowers, runners, international athletes and Olympic medallists.

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