by Jake Norton
When most people think of arousal, the mind immediately reverts to something sexual. The truth is that, put simply, arousal is the amount of attention the mind or body is giving to a particular stimulus.
For all activities there is an optimal arousal level and this directly affects decision making speed or focus level. A high level of arousal will increase blood flow and therefore oxygen flow into the brain, neural and muscular systems and stimulates adrenaline production. This is commonly known as getting nervous or being ‘stressed’. In sports performance it is often a case of knowing what to concentrate on and focusing attention on these factors. Concentration can vary in both intensity and focus.
Some people have high arousal levels prior to performance or competition and this can positively or negatively affect sporting performance as muscular tension, decision making ability, concentration, rhythm and coordination are affected by arousal levels.
Arousal is important at all levels of competition; it can be the difference between winning and losing an event. A golfer or darts player would do better reaching their optimal arousal levels while lower on the scale where the muscles are more relaxed and the player is able to take a narrow focus. In competitive team and individual sports like squash or football the optimal arousal level would be higher.
An individual with low arousal levels may exhibit concentration levels similar to someone who has just woken up. Their movements may be sluggish and inaccurate, reaction times slow and they may display poor decision making. With muscular tension and concentration too low, delayed reactions and low force production are the result because the performers have less capacity to respond to relevant sensory information.
Even though increased muscular blood flow is beneficial to sporting performance, excessive muscular tension can cause stiffness and effect general movement and reaction times and force production in the performer. Excessive arousal may also lead to hypersensitivity to irrelevant stimuli and the performer led to distraction and this can reduce rhythmic ability and coordination in performance.
A performer is able to prepare for high ‘stress’ situations by identifying relevant cues and practicing scenarios or producing a plan of what to do in particular situations. Debriefing with a coach or team-mate following an event may assist in seeing where performance may be improved. Video analysis is also very useful in seeing where a player may need to work on arousal levels.
Emotions (anxiety and excitement) play a large role in an athlete’s performance. anxiety can be characterised as feelings of nervousness and tension with excitement displaying as liveliness and optimistic thoughts of success. Both can have positive and negative effects on performance as excessively high arousal can cause both relevant and irrelevant cues to be ignored and performance to deteriorate as a result.
Goal setting and routine can be beneficial to athletes as they can assist in maintaining concentration through an event. These goals may relate to points scored, defensive play or technique. Word cues can also be used by athletes to stimulate (“run harder”) or calm (“breathe”).