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Managing Pre-Performance Arousal:

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Do you ever find yourself needing time to ease into matches, or unable to perform at your best when your name is called?

Athletes across all codes are drilled to complete warm-up exercises prior to performing in order to reduce the frequency of injuries and prepare their body so that they’re physically ready to perform.

An area that you could be under-emphasising with your pre-performance routine is monitoring and managing your emotional and mental state.

At elite levels, athletes cannot afford to ease into matches – physically or psychologically.

Giving your opponent a break of serve, an uncontested shot at goal, or conceding a cheap foul/penalty can strongly impact the result and assessment of your performance.

Some codes are even less forgiving: lacking focus and subsequent slow reaction-times (e.g. taking off from the starting block of a 100m sprint) can be the literal difference between winning and losing.

If we discount ability and confidence from the potential causes of sub-optimal performance, this could be due to ‘arousal’.

Arousal: your overall level of ‘activation’ or ‘excitedness’, which affects coordination, decision-making and muscular tension.

The state of arousal is closely linked to stress, anxiety, motivation and attention.

When lacking focus, is the solution to simply get extremely hyped?

This is common practice by emerging athletes that are relatively inexperienced and still developing their self-discipline and knowledge of how to consistently maximise their performance.

Unfortunately, this can deliver similarly sub-optimal results if taken too far.

The relationship between arousal and performance can be illustrated by the ‘Inverted-U Hypothesis’.

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Essentially, too much or too little arousal will negatively impact performance.

Being too energetic and nervous can cause a drop in confidence and lose the flow you would normally perform with.

Feeling flat and lacking energy can hinder your ability to concentrate and execute.

Without techniques to manage arousal levels, you can expect a variance depending on your personality, environment, and current stressors and/or sources of motivation.

This variance in arousal outside of the optimal zone present opportunities for athletes to fall short of their potential, and could be potentially costly in terms of results.

So, what can you do?

1. Understand the optimal level of arousal for the task

Each athlete will differ in their standard arousal level, and what their optimal level is.

Self-rating your arousal levels on a scale of 1-10 (higher level per point) with an aim of around 7 initially is a good starting point.

As you become more accustomed to gauging your level and what is required for the task, you can work on adjusting your arousal accordingly.

Additionally, it’s worth considering research by Yerkes-Dodson, which suggests that there are varying optimal levels of arousal depending on the nature of the task:

· High arousal: easy tasks e.g. simple motor skills

· Moderate arousal: familiar tasks e.g. standard performance of your sport

· Low arousal: complex and/or unfamiliar tasks – when learning or refining new skills

2. Identify signs of sub-optimal arousal


  • Atypical lack of coordination; awkward execution of ability

  • Mind racing; potentially filled with negative thoughts

  • Atypically high heart rate; short of breath

  • Excessive muscle tension


  • Feeling flat, moving slowly/lethargically, lacking energy

  • Lacking concentration; mind wandering

  • Lacking motivation or enthusiasm

3. Utilise proven strategies for managing arousal

Increasing arousal levels:

  • Self-talk with emotive language: aggressive, strong, fearless etc.

  • Positive, energetic communication: talk with your teammates and/or coaches how you’re feeling, rehearse the game-plan

  • Positive, energetic body language: high-five your teammates and/or coaches, stay active and physically engaged after completing injury prevention exercises

  • Listen to up-beat, up-tempo music

  • Short, sharp breaths to activate the central nervous system, and increase state of awareness

  • Mental imagery can be used to increase athlete’s motivation and focus on specific, critical aspects of performance

Decreasing arousal levels:

  • Taking controlled, deep, slow breaths using your diaphragm (stomach). Try to comfortably draw out your exhales so they’re longer than your inhales – aim for twice as long, but reduce to suit what is comfortable for you.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: systematically tensing and relaxing muscle groups to teach your body how to release tension.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques can be useful for identifying stressors and developing coping mechanisms to suit you

  • Meditation and mindfulness techniques can help with common issues such as overthinking: trusting your ability and preparation, and thinking less about future performance

4. Develop a routine to manage your arousal

Determining your optimal level of arousal and how to get to that point can be challenging: there are complex processes involved, and the suitability of approaches will depend on the individual athlete.

Athlete IQ can help you discover your own optimal state of performance, and develop personalised routines, habits and strategies to consistently attain arousal levels consistent with this – thereby assisting to maximise your performance.


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