Sports can be a high-pressure situation. And, during high-pressure situations, we all feel arousal, which is 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, one of exhilaration and intense excitement. Conversely, arousal can also manifest as a negative feeling, one of anxiety, nervousness and worry.
When it comes to arousal, it is these negative feelings that typically disrupt performance. These disruptive feelings can include fear of failure, fear of negative social evaluation—feeling we have disappointed fans or colleagues, or in some cases, fear of physical harm—fear of injury if we twist our back or aggravate our tennis elbow.
Thus, a central question for performance psychology is: When is arousal good? When is it bad?
Drive Reduction Theory
Different theories answer this question in different and sometimes even contradictory ways. The first theory to describe the link between arousal and performance was the drive reduction theory. According to this theory, for experienced athletes, as arousal increases, so does performance.
Hence, athletes who ‘psych-up’ before a big game are thought to play better, as are highly accomplished actors or musicians.
And yet, this positive correlation between arousal and performance is only true for people who are already very good at the relevant skill or sport. For people who are new to a given skill or sport, more arousal actually harms performance.
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LeBron James and the 2015 NBA Finals
Drive theory also helps explain why some athletes seem to perform their best when the stakes are highest—the so-called clutch players. For example, in the 2015 NBA Finals series, LeBron James was under intense pressure to help his team.
He was playing without injured teammates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and played out of his mind. He became the first player in NBA history to lead both teams in points, rebounds, and assists and received several votes for series MVP, even though his Cleveland Cavaliers team lost to the Golden State Warriors.
Social Facilitation Theory
Drive theory also explores how other people influence, and sometimes even improve, performance. Known as social facilitation theory, this view was developed by Norman Triplett, a social psychologist at Indiana University.
Triplett observed that cyclists were faster when they raced with other cyclists than when they raced alone. According to social facilitation theory, the presence of other people creates arousal, which influences performance in different ways; again, depending on how good a person is at a particular task.
Consequently, if we’re good at something, more arousal leads to better performance; if we’re not very good, it leads to worse performance. As noted earlier, this added arousal leads to better performance only in the case of skilled people.
Effect on Concentration
Why does the presence of other people influence performance in dramatically different ways? One explanation focuses on ways that other people are distracting. If we’re doing something easy, then the presence of others has no bearing.
However, if the task is hard, this distraction makes it harder to concentrate, which in turn impairs performance. Thus, for a novice golfer, the presence of other people hurts their game.
Clearly, athletes should be focusing on the task at hand: where the ball is, where the other players on their team are, what their coach is shouting at them. But in reality, they can become distracted by competing thoughts: how much time is left on the clock, why did they miss that last shot they took.
They can even become distracted by totally irrelevant thoughts: what are they going to do after the game? This is also why fans on the opposing team often deliberately try to distract players by shouting things from the stands or creating distractions during free throw shooting. Even players often trash talk as a strategy for causing a distraction in order to interfere with their opponents’ performance.
On the other hand, another explanation emphasizes that the mere presence of other people is, actually, energizing. So, one might run faster on a treadmill in a crowded gym, in which people all around us are also exercising, than when we are running on a treadmill alone at home.
This extra energy provided by the presence of other people may help explain why home teams, who play in front of more supportive crowds, tend to do better than visiting teams.
Arousal and Choking
Yet another more astute observation claims that it’s not just the mere presence of other people that can be distracting or energizing, but rather our belief that these people are evaluating or judging our performance.
Arousal borne out of this extra pressure can create anxiety, which disrupts athletes’ ability to execute and leads to worse performance—choking.
For example, NBA players have a lower free throw shooting percentage than their typical average when their team is behind only by one point in the final minutes of the game. Why? They feel intense pressure to hit their shot, since it may well determine the outcome of the game.
Exceptional pressure may lead even the most elite athletes to underperform, such as the pressure of a possible Grand Slam on defending champion Serena Williams when she lost to unseeded Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi-finals.
In conclusion, whichever way we look at it, other people do have an influence. Its effect is directly linked with how we perceive it—as a judgment or a support. Nonetheless, our skill set does come to our rescue, making us immune, to a certain degree, when we find the task easy and one not requiring too much concentration. However, as each of these decide not only the level of our arousal, but also if it’s positive or negative, it is bound to have an impact on our performance.
Common Questions about Arousal and Performance
The first theory to describe the link between arousal and performance was the drive reduction theory. According to this theory, for experienced athletes, as arousal increases, so does performance.
Arousal borne out of extra pressure can create anxiety, which disrupts athletes’ ability to execute and leads to worse performance—choking.
The social facilitation theory was developed by Norman Triplett, a social psychologist at Indiana University.