Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Arousal and sporting performance

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Arousal and sport performance:
How does emotional arousal affect sporting performance?


With sport psychology being an ever growing field, it is important that sports psychologists understand the effects of emotion and how they can influence an athletes'[grammar?] performance. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines arousal as "a state of excitement or energy expenditure linked to an emotion" (APA dictionary). Based off this we can see that arousal of emotions particularly in a sports setting can affect how an athlete performs in that situation.

APA definition of an emotion (APA dictionary)[grammar?]: a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioural, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event.

Most of the research conducted on arousal levels and sport revolves around anxiety,[grammar?] this is because it has been shown to have such an important role on the performance of athletes. For example, if a marathon runner is extremely anxious they may run too fast initially and expend all of their energy before they are able to complete a race,[grammar?] on the flip side, they may have no anxiety and are too relaxed so will run slower and have energy in reserve when they complete the race so could have run faster and achieved a better time.

So how do we know what is the best arousal level we should aim for, prior to or during a sporting context?

There has been a lot of research done in this area of sport and several theories have emerged. This chapter will focus on comparing three of the theories and how they affect sport performance:

  • The inverted U hypothesis
  • The zone of optimal function theory
  • Drive reduction theory
  • Catastrophe theory

This chapter will also compare different positive and negative emotions and how they can affect performance. These emotions will be:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Excitement
  • Happiness

Theories of arousal[edit]

Figure 1. The inverted U hypothesis

[Provide more detail]

The inverted U hypothesis[edit]

The inverted U is the oldest of these three theories, proposed in Yerkes & Dodson in (1908),[grammar?] the basis of the theory, is that optimal performance will occur when intermediate arousal levels of certain emotions are seen. Too little arousal and performance will not be sufficient and over arousal will result in declines of performance from optimum. In regards to the Inverted U hypothesis, most of the research to support the theory has revolved around anxiety and it's[grammar?] effects on performance.

A further component to the inverted U is that the optimal anxiety levels to task performance changes depending on the task characteristics of the sport (Raglin & Turner, 1993), if a task requires fine motor skills such as darts or archer[missing something?], then anxiety levels are much lower than that of a gross motor task such as shot put or javelin[explain?]. Although, anxiety levels should remain similar for different athletes performing the same task (Raglin & Turner, 1993).

Zone of optimal function theory[edit]

Originally proposed by Hanin (1978), the zone of optimal function theory indicates that optimal performance when an emotion, such as anxiety, is within a narrow range that is unique to each individual, for example, Roger Federer appears very calm during a final game in a competition and that's when he performs his best, whereas Rafael Nadal appears to have high arousal to perform optimally as shown through fist pumps and other actions during a final in a major competition[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Hanin (1986) has provided a lot of empirical evidence to[Rewrite to improve clarity] this theory by showing that a large percentage of athletes in his studies actually performed optimally at either low arousal levels of anxiety or high arousal levels of anxiety and not moderate levels[Provide more detail]. Furthermore, in the same study, Hanin (1986) also provided evidence that task characteristics did not actually influence optimal arousal levels as found in the inverted U[Provide more detail].

Figure 2. Drive reduction theory

Drive Reduction Theory[edit]

Drive reduction theory was orignally[spelling?] proposed by Clark Hull (1943),[grammar?] the theory suggests that the more aroused an athlete is, the better their performance will be (Jones, 1995). A basis on this theory is that the athlete must be well learned in the skills that they are using, otherwise the theory proposes the opposite, that athletes performing less known skills will perform worse the more arousal they experience Jones, 1995).

Catastrophe Theory[edit]

Figure 3.Catastrophe theory

Catastrophe theory was proposed by Hardy and Fazey (1987) as they were critical of the inverted U theory,[grammar?] their research arose because of the performance drop that could be seen by athletes as soon as arousal of anxiety peaked too high, causing a "catastrophic" decline in the performance (Hardy, 1990). The theory suggests that like the inverted U theory, moderate amounts of arousal will provide an athlete with the optimal performance, although once an athlete over arouses themself, there will be a sharp decline in performance (Hardy, 1990).

Emotions and how they affect performance[edit]

[Provide more detail]


APA definition of anxiety (APA dictionary): An emotion characterised by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune. The body often mobilises itself to meet the perceived threat: muscles become tense, breathing is faster, and the heart beats more rapidly.

When research is undertaken regarding negative emotions, the focus is usually on anxiety.  This is primarily due to the negative impact of anxiety on mental health.  It is therefore unsurprising that anxiety is the most common emotion researched when it comes to impacts on sports personnel.  [missing something?]Jones, 1995; Raglin & Hanin, 2000; Englert & Bertrams, 2012).

Furthermore, due to the unique stressors that athletes are exposed to (Jones, 1995; Hammond, Gialloreto, Kubas, Davis, 2013), it is understandable that initially researchers would aim to understand how anxiety has a negative effect on sporting performances. Consequently, based off meta analyses, research indicates that there is typically a negative relationship between anxiety and sporting performances (Jones, 1995; Craft, Magyar, Becker, & Fetlz, 2003; Woodman & Hardy, 2003).  Although, as of more recently, it is understood that having little to no anxiety leading up to, and during a competition, can also be detrimental to an athlete's performance and results (McCarthy, 2011).

The most obvious and most understood way that anxiety can have an effect on sporting performance is through the physiological effects that it has upon a sports person's body. When they experiences[grammar?] anxiety, it results in an arousal of the autonomic nervous system, which is an increase in heart rate, increased blood pressure, respiration, sweating etc. This response from the body is perceived as being a negative response and is known as state anxiety or stress (Landers, 2013). In perceiving this automatic response as maladaptive, it has been shown to further increase the elicited response (Landers, 1980). Once state anxiety or stress, the by-product of anxiety, has been over aroused it leads to a decrease in task performance (Landers, 2013) both short term and longer term if not appropriately addressed.

In a general sense, anxiety is an emotion that reflects apprehension towards goal attainment and coping (Jones, 1995). This can be further related to sports performances by realising that being overly anxious and experiencing an unknown or unanticipated situation within a sporting context can result in an uncertainty on how to cope and react in that situation.

Furthermore, if the unanticipated situation is not positively dealt with, there is a feeling of failure and incompetence,[grammar?] these feelings can lead to an increased anxiety by causing the athlete to think about the situation repetitively internally, or cause stress on the situation being a possibility again in the future (Jones, 1995). Thus, leading to even further decreases in performance, this can create a downward spiral in the performance of the athlete[grammar?]

Another way in which anxiety impairs performance is through its effects on an athlete's selective attention. Selective attention is the ability of a person to maintain focus on specific environmental stimulus and ignore other stimuli which could otherwise capture the person's attention (Schmeichel & Baumeister, 2010). Anxiety has the effect of impairing an individual's ability to focus on selective information and causes the individual to focus on threatening stimuli, whether that stimuli being internal, such as mistakes, error predictions or worrisome thoughts, or external, such as the audience, thus having less attention to focus at the task at hand leading to impaired performance (Vickers & Wilson, 2007; Bar-Haim, Lamy, Pergamin, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & van Ijzendoorn, 2007; Wilson, Vine, & Wood, 2009).

Anxiety is also associated with the discontinuation of sports activities (Gould, Feltz, Horn, & Weiss, 1982; Scanlan, Babkes, & Scanlan, 2005)

Anxiety has been linked to an increase in performance in several studies (Parfitt, Hardy, & Pates, 1995),[grammar?] this is by providing a feeling of motivation towards being suitably equipped to handle an upcoming situation. Examples might be: being anxious prior to a running race can provide motivation for the athlete to train more diligently and frequently, so they experience increases in performance, gain more confidence in their abilities and thus experience a reduction in anxiety. If no such anxiety was felt, the athlete may not train to their fullest extent, or push themselves to achieve more as they have little to no motivation to be better. It is frequently reported that even the most elite and successful athletes in most types of sport still experience a level of anxiety before important events.  Therefore:

  • Too little anxiety can lead to under performance due to lack of motivation
  • Too much anxiety and lead to under performance due to its effects on the mind and body


APA definition of Anger (APA dictionary): An emotion characterised by tension and hostility arising from frustration, real or imagined injury by another, or perceived injustice.

Lane (2008) concluded that "success is associated with amongst other things, low scores of anger". This sentence reflects the majority of the research conducted regarding anger (Lazarus, 2000). This is a similar finding to anxiety, which has been negatively associated with positive performances, although as with anxiety there is also evidence that anger can be used as an emotional tool to enhance performances in some ways (Lazarus, 2000), particularly contact sports such as boxing, wrestling, ice hockey and rugby football.

Anger has always been an emotion that has been linked with aggression and violence When experienced by an athlete engaged in a non-contact sport this can lead to negative performances (Isberg, 2000). An excellent example of this is Zenedine Zidane, considered one of the best soccer players in the world, who was described as feeling intensely angry when he headbutted his opponent during the final of the World Cup in 2006 (Kerr, 2008). This action resulted in him receiving a red card reducing his team down to 10 men causing Italy to win the game and thus the World Cup. Another such example from a different sport is the ice hockey player Bertuzzi. He was described as feeling intense anger during a crucial game (Kerr, 2008), the same as Zidane, he punched another player in the back of the head when his team had essentially already lost the game, this extreme action left his opponent unconscious and requiring medical help, leading Bertuzzi to be ejected from the game. Both of these examples reflect that anger when too aroused can cause even the most elite of athletes to "lose their cool" and have a very negative consequence on their performance.

Boxing is probably the best example of the effects that anger has on sporting performance, considering that boxing is already a violent and aggressive sport, it would not be too far-fetched to assume that anger would have an integral association with the sport. This has been found to be the opposite,[grammar?] Smit and Louw (2011) interviewed several boxers about the psychological aspects of boxing,[grammar?] their findings revealed that the boxers all evaluated success in the ring with the ability to be able to control their anger and aggression. Being unable to control their anger would lead to a negative performance and most likely a loss in the sport.

Although with anger being an accepted emotion in almost every sport, it has from time to time been encouraged and elicited to improve athletic performance (Brunelle, Janelle, & Tennant, 1999, pg. 283).

Lane & Terry (2000), Beedie, Terry, & Lane. (2000) performed a study examining the positive aspects of anger within sport,[grammar?] they concluded that anger can be effectively channelled externally towards the source of frustration, and if controlled, can be associated with enhanced performance.

Consequently, we can conclude that if arousal levels are too high for anger it will have a negative effect on sporting performance, but if controlled and channelled, can be used to enhance sporting performance positively.


APA definition for excitement (APA dictionary): An emotional state marked by enthusiasm, eagerness or anticipation, and general arousal.

Due to excitement being seen as generally a positive result from a positive performance[grammar?]. Therefore, the research conducted into excitement tends to have been minimal (Jones, 2005). Although there is evidence that excitement has been linked to increased motivation and commitment by athletes, which are essential psychological attributes for successful performances. With that being said, it has been also closely been linked with anxiety. Burton & Naylor (1997) reported that excitement is similar to anxiety but was reported by individuals to be a high intensity positive feeling rather than a negative one, which is also often accompanied by physical symptoms such as feeling sick. Excitement is experienced in very similar situations and ways as anxiety but usually minus the physical symptoms, except it is the result of coping and attaining goals in a sporting performance.

Excitement is utilised by athletes as mainly a motivation tool to help them train harder and concentrate more effectively at the task at hand (Robazza, Bortoli, & Nougier, 2002; Gould & Maynard, 2009)

Physiological arousal is another effect of excitement, similar to anxiety. It leads to increases in the autonomic nervous system, the perception of this increase though, is affected by the realisation that it is attributed to a positive emotion (Kerr, 1997). The effects of which have been related to positive increases in performance by channelling this increased arousal to the task at hand (Lane & Terry, 2000).

Furthermore, there is evidence that excitement has been found to decrease performance in some respects due to over arousal and loss of concentration (McCarthy, 2011). This has been proven by (McCarthy, 2011) causing a loss in focus on the prescribed task and attention to be automatically focused elsewhere, again this is very similar to the effects that anxiety has on selective attention. Therefore, excitement can be:

  • Used mainly as motivation for the sporting event
    • Specifically, can cause athletes to be better prepared prior to the event causing an increased performance during the event.
  • Over excitement can cause athletes to lose focus leading to a lower level of performance than they are capable of.


APA definition for happiness (APA dictionary): An emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction, and well-being.

While happiness is again a poorly researched area of emotion in regard to sporting performance (Jackson, 2000; Lazarus, 2000), it is an emotion which has been mostly linked with increases in performance (Lane & Lane, 2008). Happiness is an emotion that tends to be linked with psychological well-being, as well as increased attention (McCarthy, 2011), Psychological well-being has also received much more attention from researchers recently due to the mental health benefits that it provides in day to day life.

These findings are easily transferable to a sporting context as happy athletes are much more likely to attend training sessions, have positive effects on upcoming competitive events, increased resilience, self-esteem, self-belief, self-control and decision making abilities., Athletes are able to use all of these positive feelings to increase their performance (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Feldman-Barrett, 2004).

There have been a few studies conducted (McCarthy, 2011) that have indicated that an over arousal of happiness can lead to decreased performance though. An example of this is during a sporting performance, such as a rugby game, a player once scoring a try will be extremely happy, and as their team is winning by a large margin may already have experienced feelings of satisfaction leading to a decrease in effort and attention (McCarthy, 2011). This could then lead to loss of concentration and mistakes being made by the player and other team mates. This over aroused[grammar?] caused by happiness, can result in a "comeback" by the other team and a loss. There is evidence of this during important cup finals, for example the annual English soccer cup final, where on many occasions’[grammar?] goals are scored in the closing minutes leading to either a win by the team that was losing or the game going to extra time and penalty shoot outs.  Therefore, happiness can:

  • Be found to increase motivation and focus during sport more so than negative emotions such as anger,
  • Be concluded that a general well being of happiness is optimal for sustaining peak mental and physical performance


All four of the proposed theories have been critically reviewed and while some have claims against them, they all have a plethora of research that supports the original hypotheses. It should be noted however, that the Hanin's Zone of Optimal Performance seems to be the most widely accepted due the the nature of individuals experiencing and reacting to each of the emotions differently. Furthermore, the arousal levels of each emotion can be different from person to person, so it is recommended that athletes and people participating in sport grasp an understanding of their own optimal levels for optimal sports performance.

There is an influx in research done more recently that supports the evidence that positive emotions are more likely to improve performance in the general population, and negative emotions are more likely to decrease performance.

See also[edit]


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