Monday, 17 March 2014

Arousal & Anxiety

What are arousal and anxiety and how are they linked?

When preparing ourselves to do an activity (whether that be preparing a meal or running a marathon), our body will be in a specific state of alertness, although this will vary dependent on the activity and how motivated we are to do it – this is known as arousal.  Weinberg & Gould (2011) define arousal as:

 ‘a general physiological and psychological activation, varying on a continuum to from deep sleep to excitement’

It is simply a pattern of activities, both physiological and cognitive, that prepares us for a task (Cashmore, 2008).  Considering that arousal changes as the environment does, the type of task and its requirements may mean that our level of arousal is not ideal and it may affect our ability to perform that task efficiently.  It is important to identify at this point that arousal is not automatically associated with either positive or negative events – it may be due to either.

However, when we do feel negative emotions which are associated with arousal we are said to be suffering from anxiety.  Weinberg & Gould (2011) state that:

'Anxiety is a negative emotional state in which feelings of nervousness, worry, and apprehension are associated with activation or arousal of the body'

These unpleasant changes result from a stimulus, but it is subjective and presents itself when an athlete perceives that stimulus to be threatening.  There are two components of anxiety: cognitive and somatic, and relate directly to physiological and psychological activation.  Cognitive anxiety is concerned with the though process (e.g. worry and fear), whereas somatic anxiety is the sympathetic nervous systems response to stress (e.g. increased heart rate and sweating) (Martens et al, 1990).

Trait and State

As with all the other psychological concepts we have discussed, we can distinguish between two types of anxiety: trait and state.  Trait anxiety is a behavioural disposition that predisposes a person to perceive a wide range of objectively non dangerous circumstances as threatening, and state anxiety is the moment to moment changes in feelings of nervousness, worry and apprehension (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).  State anxiety is reduced once the stressor has been removed (e.g. an athlete may have high state anxiety before running 100m, but it goes after), whereas trait anxiety is long lasting.  Performers who are highly trait anxious are also more susceptible to state anxiety, compared to those who have low state anxiety – which is known as competitive trait anxiety.

Theories of Arousal/Anxiety

Initially, it was thought that arousal had a linear relationship with performance, and as one increased so did the other.  This is known as the Drive Theory, which was initially researched by Hull (1943) and further developed by Spence and Spence (1966).  This means that as arousal increases so does the performer’s dominant response or behaviour, leading to an improved performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).

[Accessed 17th March 2014])

The drive theory might be viable in situations when the performers is at the autonomous stage of learning or the skill is simple, but in other instances the dominant response (or learned behaviour) may be incorrect and this will lead to a decrease in performance (Hays, 2006).  However, even the most experienced performers still don’t display this behaviour, because if they did they would continue to excel, which isn’t the case.  We also know from our own experiences as performers that we sometimes ‘choke’ no matter how high our arousal levels are, and performance ceases, and so this theory is too simplistic as arousal isn’t the only factor which effects performance.

An alternative approach to the drive theory (one which is preferred by many psychologists) in the Inverted-U Hypothesis presented by Yerkes and Dodson (1908) (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).  Similar to the drive theory it states that at low levels of arousal performance will be below average, but it will increase as arousal does.  The difference however, is that performance only increases to a certain point (the optimal zone of arousal) where performance is at its best.  After this point, even though arousal continues to increase performance will decrease, symmetrical to the graphic at which it improved. 

(Image taken from: [Accessed 17th March 2014])

Even though this theory gives a generally accepted framework for under, optimum and over-arousal, this one curve is too structured and simplistic to use for all tasks (e.g. discrete and gross skills).  Different athletes experience optimal arousal at different points on the curve, and this is usually dependent upon the task and the skill movement required.

Because of these concerns psychologists started to look at different zones of optimal arousal dependent on the task and athlete, and Hanin (1980, 1986, 1997) developed an approach termed Individualized Zones of Optimal Functioning (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).  It looks at three different athletes who different zones of optimal functioning (IZOF): low, moderate and high. If their levels of arousal fall either side of this optimum arousal they are thought to be ‘out of the zone’, and the quality of their performance will decrease.  For example, a golfer needs low levels of arousal when putting because it’s a discrete skill which requires precise movement, therefore they will have a low IZOF.  On the other hand, a boxer needs to be highly aroused because they use gross body movement, and so their zone of optimal functioning will be high.  The difference between these models and the previous ones is that there is no optimal point, but an optimal zone of performance and it considers that this optimal zone may not always be at the midpoint of arousal (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).

(Image taken from:
 [Accessed 17th March 2014])

Another theory which has been derived from the Inverted-U Hypothesis is Hardy’s Catastrophe Theory (1990, 1996).  The Catastrophe Theory looks not only at arousal, but also at cognitive anxiety, and how these two concepts interact to effect performance.  Hardy believes that when cognitive anxiety is low, arousal and performance are related as the Yerkes & Dodson (1908) state above, except that performance never reaches the high peak Yerkes and Dodson believe it does (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).  However, when cognitive anxiety is high, performance increases with arousal to an optimal point, but once it passes this point there is a catastrophic drop in performance.  This is displayed in the diagram below.

(Image taken from: [Accessed 17th March 2014])

It is thought that after this catastrophic decrease, the athlete is able to recover and re-join the curve, although they may find it difficult and so they might not be able to (e.g. when a footballer comes back after an injury, but they don’t play to their full ability again because of the negative emotion they associate with the game and the fear of being injured again).  To re-join the curve, the athlete needs to completely relax both psychologically and physiologically and gain control over their negative thoughts and arousal.

Weinberg & Gould (2011) believe that the key information to take from this theory however is that an individual is likely to perform better when they are experiencing high state anxiety (which can be seen on the model above).  Hardy’s theory also progresses from the idea that performance is dependent upon only one other variable, but it is dependent upon the interaction of a number of variables. 

The final theory of arousal is the Reversal Theory by Kerr (1999).  It is slightly different from the other theories, in that Kerr believes arousal only affects performance dependent on how the performer perceives this arousal.  Performers with low arousal may perceive this with either negative or positive feelings: boredom or relaxation, similarly performers with high levels arousal may also perceive this either positively or negatively: excitement or anxiety.  As the diagram shows below, performers who perceive their arousal levels as pleasant perform at a higher level than those who perceive arousal as a negative emotion (Kerr, 1999).

 [Accessed 17th March 2014])

Whilst few tests have been done on the Reversal Theory, and so it remains unscientifically proven, Weinberg & Gould (2011) believe it has given two key contributions to the understanding of arousal and performance.  Firstly, Kerr believes athletes perceive arousal differently, and this perception determines how arousal affects their performance. Secondly, the theory introduces the idea that an athlete’s perception of the environment may change (moving along the continuum of pleasant to unpleasant), and in turn their level of performance may alter.

Attentional Narrowing

As your levels of arousal increase, you experience a phenomenon known as attentional narrowing.  In most environments you have a broad attentional field – meaning you are not concentrating on anything in particular and pick up a lot of cues from the environment, but this would not be ideal in a competitive situation because you would take in irrelevant cues of information.  However, as you become aroused, your attentional field narrows slightly meaning you are concentrating on the relevant cues (e.g. focussing on the players in the game and blocking out the crowd) (Eyesenck, 2013). But as your arousal continues to increase your attentional field continues to narrow and it may become so narrow it begins to debilitate your performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).  For example, you may be watching one player in particular and it leads you to miss relevant cues from others players but pick up irrelevant cues from the player you are watching.  So by finding your optimum level of arousal you should also find optimal attentional field, which will enable you to perform more efficiently. 

Arousal/Anxiety and Performance

Considering that arousal is a physiological and psychological activation (Gill, 2000) we should expect that it will have an effect on our ability to produce a movement or skill – whether that is for cognitive or somatic reasons (e.g. increasing heart and muscle tension would hinder the performance of a fine motor skill such as darts). For arousal to have the most beneficial effect on performance, the athlete must be at their optimal point (or zone) of arousal, and performance will deteriorate either side of this point.  The optimal point of arousal is highly specific to both the individual and the task, so a coach must look at how different emotions interact and affect that athlete, in order to produce their best performance.  Performance usually declines when athletes become over aroused or anxious, because the somatic and cognitive symptoms hinder them from performing the skill efficiently - as they would when they’re relaxed.  Cashmore (2008) explains it as an optimal level of arousal, with the aim of the athlete being able to calibrate that level of arousal whilst remaining composed.  It’s important to remember however that anxiety is not always debilitative, it very much depends on how the performer views the arousal/anxiety.  If the athlete is confident and feels in control of the situation, then anxiety may become facilitative to performance as it helps them remain focussed, and for that reason the athlete needs to employ coping mechanisms (see the post on stress) which allow them to use anxiety constructively.


Cashmore, E. (2008) Sport and Exercise Psychology: The Key Concepts (2nd Ed.) Routledge: London.

Eyesenck, M. W. (1992) Anxiety: The Cognitive Perspective. Psychology Press: Oxon.

Gill, D. (2000) Psychological Dynamics of Sport and Exercise.  Human Kinetics: Illinois.

Hays, R. (2006) The Science of Learning: A Systems Theory Approach. Brown Walker Press: Florida.

Kerr, J. H. (1999) Motivation and Emotion in Sport: Reversal Theory. Psychology Press: Oxon.

Martens, R., Vealey, R.S., & Burton, D. (1990) Competitive Anxiety in Sport. Human Kinetics: Illinois.

McConnell, A. (2012) Exam 1 [online] Available from: [Accessed 17th March 2014]

Teach PE (n.d.) Motivation [online] Available from: [Accessed 17th March 2014]

Teach PE (n.d.) Stress and Anxiety [online] Available from:[Accessed 17th March 2014] 

Weinberg, R. & Gould, D (2011) Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. (5th Edition). Human Kinetics: Leeds.