The Emotional Game – Part 1: Arousal.


I have decided to write a blog post about the emotional side of sports but after planning  I think that there is too much info to digest in one post. So I decided to split this into three parts: Arousal, Anxiety and Stress. This blog post will be covering the emotional aspect: Arousal.

Arousal: “In the context of psychology, arousal is the state of being physiologically alert, awake, and attentive.”

So if arousal is about being alert awake and attentive how can this be explained in sport? It refers to the performance of both body and mind it can produce both positive and negative effects on performance. Every single action requires a level of activation, for example eating an apple takes activation of our body and mind all be it not very much. More complex actions such as completing an attempt of a high jump will take a lot more arousal and activation of the body. Does this mean that more arousal is better? In some cases, yes, but too much arousal can actually give a negative impact on performance. In earlier studies into how arousal affects sport, it was thought that the more aroused you were the better you performed this was known as the drive theory which was developed by Hull and Spence in 1956. Of course research half a century ago is likely to become outdated and in 1970 Oxendine found that an inverted-U graph would be better suited to explain how arousal works.

Oxendine, J.B. (1970) Emotional arousal and motor performance.

By looking at the graph it is easy to identify many different states of arousal which sports athletes experience on a daily basis. As part two and three are going to discuss stress and anxiety today I am going to focus more on the optimal level of performance (the middle of the graph). Of course in sports the levels of arousal needed will vary, putting in golf is going to need a lot less arousal than catching a cricket ball that is travelling 100mph+.

Before we can dive into the practical applications of optimal level arousal first we need to work out how the body becomes aroused. Looking at a penalty in football as an example and the goalkeeper, in particular. The goalkeeper will already be in a state of arousal before the penalty taker starts their run-up, this is obvious because the goalkeeper knows what is going to happen before it starts. Due to this, the body will start to react to the increased level of arousal, mostly physiological the body will experience increased heart and breathing rates, increase muscle tension and the body will release sugar into the bloodstream. All of these bodily functions are to increase performance =  the chance that the keeper saves the ball. So if the keeper has an advantage created by the body through arousal, this would obviously be something very interesting for coaches as who doesn’t like an advantage in a competition? Unfortunately, it isn’t this simple, by being too aroused the keeper can reach a state of stress, anxiety or even panic!


How can a coach or player use their understanding of arousal to an advantage during sports? Simply then need to realise two main things: 1. Arousal is varied between different skills and in open skilled sports such as hockey different levels of arousal are needed during the whole match. 2. The level of arousal needed or optimum performance is usually in the middle straying too far from optimum (too high or too low) can cause negative effects.

Looking at the first point, in my sport of hockey, arousal is something that is spoken about often during training and especially matches even if the word arousal is not mentioned every time. As recently as three days ago from the day I am writing this blog I was giving a team talk and the most important point during the halftime was arousal. Translated and put simply I told the girls I coach that if they do not work harder and give more attention to winning they will likely lose. After telling the girls this they worked a lot harder in regards to the number of meters they ran but they also played a lot sharper.

If a player is under-aroused they will seem ‘sluggish’ and seem bored to the coach and other players, in this instance it is logical to arouse the player more so they are working in optimum level and in turn will perform better. This is exactly what I did during the match during my team talk, fortunately, I know the team very well so I know exactly what to say to the players as a group or individuals but often this is not the case for coaches. If a coach tries to arouse a player by telling them to work harder more often than not they take it as negative feedback and actually work with less arousal instead of more.


Dealing with under-arousal:

If a player is under-aroused take the time to motivate them and make it clear what you need from them. Of course, every player is different and at varying levels of performance the goals of the team as a whole are different but the main thing to focus on is making demands less threatening, reducing uncertainty and have the players focus on actions and not outcomes.  Telling an under the aroused player to try to run more meters or pay more attention to where the ball is travelling will work a lot better than telling someone to ‘be more focused’ or ‘score more goals’.

Dealing with over-arousal:

Over-arousal is more obvious to the coach, players who are showing levels of anxiety or even stress will need to be calmed down in order to come back to optimal levels of arousal. For example, telling a player “try to score another goal” will likely lead to increased levels of arousal if it does not work. Instead, the coach should focus on someone the player is able to control. A useful technique is to explain a list of things the player can not control (scoring, the other team, the crowd, their team) and then straight after telling them things they can control (work rate, positivity, communication, attitude). By using this “what can you not do, what can you actually do” technique it is actually quite easy to get players to become less aroused and in turn perform better.

This concludes the introductory part for The Emotional Game, next post I will begin to talk about the anxiety and how it affects performance but most importantly how it can be controlled to get players to perform at a higher level.


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