By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Many athletes control arousal by deliberately changing their behavior to reduce the natural fight-or-flight stress response. They use strategies like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and biofeedback. These techniques all involve helping athletes relax, improve performance, and reduce arousal.
What Is Arousal?
An important topic in sport and performance psychology is: How do people perform in high-pressure situations, whether delivering a crucial speech or batting in the World Series?
Most people in high-pressure situations feel arousal, a blend of physiological and psychological activity. Arousal includes our body’s physical reaction—heart pounding, rapid breathing—but also our psychological reaction, how we think about, or interpret, the situation. We can think about arousal as a positive feeling, say exhilaration and intense excitement. Or we can think about it as a negative feeling: anxiety, nervousness, worry. And mostly, the negative feelings overcome the positive ones. So how do we mange them?
A way to reduce arousal and improve performance is to focus on managing our thoughts. It is based on the theory that relaxing the mind will in turn relax the body. Hypnosis, meditation, and mindfulness are all such cognitive approaches that direct people’s focus and attention in a particular way.
Athletes generally need to focus on reducing levels of arousal that are too high, but in some cases, athletes approach an important game, competition, or performance feeling very low in energy and arousal. In such situations, they deliberately engage in behaviors that create arousal: jogging, riding a stationary bicycle, jumping rope, or yelling encouragement to teammates.
Self-talk and Thought Stopping
Sportspersons also, at times, find listening to music, especially fast music, helpful in feeling more energized or psyched up. Coaches employ a different strategy and often, in order to energize athletes, give a ‘pep talk’ before a big game or at half time.
Another psychological approach most commonly used is self-talk, where one verbalizes, either out loud or in one’s head, specific thoughts and feelings. This can include motivational self-talk, which helps athletes build confidence, push for maximum effort, and create a positive mood.
Another strategy that athletes often use is known as thought stopping, which means stopping negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. This type of cognitive reframing can help reduce arousal and increase confidence.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Maintaining a Routine
Many athletes create and maintain routines during games and competitions. These could be with respect to what they eat—pasta the night before a race, what they carry—a lucky charm, or how they get dressed—always putting the right sock on before the left one.
These ritualistic routines create a sense of structure and familiarity, which in turn helps focus attention on the very routines themselves, instead of on unique features of a particular event.
Alternatively, an athletes’ mere belief in the power of these routines may reduce arousal, which in turn improves performance. In other words, these behaviors are really superstitions, which do work powerfully, but only because of people’s belief in them.
Probably the most famous and widely used type of psychological skill training is imagery. It involves using one’s senses to create a realistic image or experience in one’s mind.
People often think about imagery as visualization—an athlete picturing himself hitting a home run or landing a perfect triple axel. But this technique can actually utilize many different senses.
One can use auditory senses too to create a realistic image —hearing the sound of the bat hit the ball; tactile senses—feeling a cashmere sweater wrapped around your shoulders; olfactory senses—smelling freshly baking bread.
And yet, the most important type of sensory imagination for athletes and dancers is kinesthetic, the sensation of the movement of muscles and joints. A baseball player might use kinesthetic sense to imagine rocking back and forth waiting for the pitch and taking practice swings.
People can also use different imagery perspectives. One option is internal imagery, which is imagining a situation from our own perspective, as if we were engaging in the behavior. Thus, a baseball player might imagine the ball approaching and how they would react. A person preparing to give a keynote speech might imagine watching the crowd respond to their message.
In other cases, people use external imagery, imagining a scene from the perspective of an outside observer. This type of imagery is basically like watching a movie of ourself performing a specific skill: hitting a baseball, giving a speech.
Activating the Muscles
How exactly does simply imagining something help improve performance? One theory is that imagining certain motor skills actually activates the muscles, much in the same way that physical practice does.
So, imagining is basically a very low-level version of physical practice. Athletes who are recovering from injury, and therefore, can’t engage in physical practice, may find imagining a useful way to at least mentally rehearse some of their sport’s fundamental skills.
Acquiring Skills and Movement Patterns
Another theory is that imagining helps people understand and acquire specific skills and movement patterns. Playing through a complex skill in our mind—a tennis serve, a golf putt—may help us plan our movements, understand weaknesses in our technique, and, ideally, fix any problems.
It can also give athletes confidence in their ability to carry out a particular skill or movement.
Imagining can also help athletes learn and practice strategies for specific situations they may encounter. A softball pitcher might imagine the different types of pitches she would throw to different players, and a soccer goalie might imagine how he will react to different types of penalty kicks.
This type of mental practice, anticipating different potential challenges, can help athletes feel more prepared and confident in their ability to react effectively.
Common Questions about How Athletes Manage Arousal and Improve Performance
Thought control help athletes focus before and during competition, which prepares them mentally to perform well.
The most important type of sensory imagination for athletes is kinesthetic, the sensation of the movement of muscles and joints.
Internal imagery is imagining a situation from our own perspective, as if we were engaging in the behavior. Thus, a baseball player might imagine the ball approaching and how they would react.