The Effects of Arousal on Physical Performance

What’s the optimum level of arousal for physical performance and how can you attain it? Most athletes are asking themselves this question at some point in their career. Arousal can help or hurt your overall performance. This psychological and physiological state affects your balance and coordination as well as your focus rhythm, decision-making speed, and muscular tension.

Arousal and Performance in Sports

In order to achieve optimum arousal, it’s essential to understand what this state is and how it affects your athletic performance. Most experts define arousal as a mental, emotional, and physiological state that prepares your body for action. It’s the readiness for action that motivates an athlete to run faster, lift heavier weights, or hit their opponent harder.


Arousal and physical performance are strongly connected. You need the appropriate level of arousal for the things you want to do, whether it’s working out, jogging, or digesting a meal. This state is closely related to stress, anxiety, motivation, attention and other factors that affect your mood. Too much or too little arousal will work against you.   Research indicates that this state can affect your performance in various ways. Several theories highlight the connection between arousal and sports performance:

  • Drive Theory – According to the Drive Theory, the more arousal you experience, the higher your performance will be. This approach also explains why beginners find it difficult to perform well under pressure.


  • Reversal Theory – Arousal effects on sports performance are influenced by how you perceive this state.


  • Catastrophe Model – This theory explains the link between anxiety, arousal, and performance. If anxiety levels are low, you’ll perform best at a medium level of arousal. If anxiety levels are high, your level of arousal will drop off suddenly. The catastrophe model takes into account both cognitive and somatic anxiety.


  • Anxiety direction and intensity – According to this theory, a positive interpretation of anxiety leads to better performance.


  • Multidimensional anxiety theory – Anxiety causes poor performance, regardless of your level of arousal. This theory is still being researched.


  • Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning – The optimum level of arousal that an athlete requires to perform his best depends on his individual needs. Each individual will react differently to anxiety and arousal.


  • Inverted U Hypothesis – Too much or too little arousal and anxiety will cause poor performance. A medium amount of anxiety and arousal will result in optimum performance. The relationship between these two factors is influenced by activity type, level of expertise, and personality types. For example, introverted people are more likely to perform well under low arousal conditions.

performance U hyp

Each of these theories has its own strengths and weaknesses. Most experts seem to agree that when anxiety becomes severe, performance declines even if your keep arousal at optimal levels.   The most widely use approach to the relationship between anxiety, stress, and physical performance is the inverted-U hypothesis, which claims that these factors are interrelated. However, many health experts claim that these theories are oversimplifying the relationship between performance and competitive anxiety.

How to Reach Optimal Arousal Levels for Peak Performance

Not all athletes are able to reach optimal levels of arousal. Additionally, different sports require different arousal levels. In a game of rugby or football, higher arousal levels will lead to increased strength, power, and aggressiveness. On the other hand, shooting, gymnastics, and archery require lower levels of arousal. Many athletes and teams rely on sports psychologists to help them develop the mental skills needed for reaching peak performance.   Professionals use various techniques for attaining optimal arousal, such as:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Biofeedback
  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Autogenic training

relax training

Practice is required for controlling arousal and stress. You’ll know it when you’re optimally aroused! To increase your chances of success, use the techniques listed above. Start with progressive muscle relaxation, which is being used by many athletes to maintain arousal at optimal levels before a competition. This technique involves tensing and relaxing your muscles systematically.   Meditation has proven to be effective too. This popular relaxation method requires you to focus attention on a single object or thought. When done properly, it relaxes your mind and body, improves your overall performance, and prepares you for competition. You can also try deep breathing, which is one of the easiest ways to reduce your arousal levels.

guided visualisation

Guided imagery or visualization has excellent results for most athletes. This technique helps control anxiety and arousal. Another popular technique involves self talk and positive thinking. Many coaches teach sports players and athletes how to “self-talk” positively using statements like “I can score a goal,” “Keep running,” or “Don’t give up! You’re almost there.” These techniques can be used anytime for reducing or increasing arousal. In general, athletes are using them before competitions and other important events. For best results, practice until you find a level of arousal at which you perform best.