Performance killers: Not managing athletes' arousal levels
We talk with a lot of coaches about inconsistency. In fact, I’d go so far to say this is the #1 issue that we’ve seen this year. As an athlete, I remember being frustrated with my team’s and my own inconsistency. We’d often ask ourselves:
- Why would we play great one half and poorly the next?
- Why did I score 30 points one game and 10 the next?
- Why was I ready for the big game and lackluster for a minor game?
While the competition was part of it, I’ve realized that a big part of the problem was arousal management. We never effectively nor proactively managed our arousal level.
What is arousal?
Your “Arousal Level” is your state of readiness and refers to your physical, emotional and mental state. In simple terms, it is a measure of your internal energy level (also known as butterflies). It includes psychological (anger, confidence, fear, nervousness, aggression, etc.) and physiological (pulse, breathing, temperature, etc.) elements. The Inverted U Theory states that each of us has an optimal arousal level.
Why is managing arousal critical?
We all have an optimum arousal level where we can perform at our best. Too much energy, you are nervous, lose confidence and can’t flow. Too little energy, you are flat and lack the ability to concentrate and execute. In both situations, you are falling short of your potential.
Each athlete has their own arousal level that they will need to find. However, there is a twist to this. Based on research by Yerkes-Dodson, there is a level of arousal for various tasks.
- Complex/unfamiliar tasks (learning a new skill, taking a test): Recommended low arousal
- Familiar tasks (playing their sport): Recommended medium arousal
- Easy tasks (riding a bike): Recommended high arousal
Developing a routine for targeted arousal
Developing a set routine with your athletes is the first step. To do this, I’d recommend you first test this out with 1 or 2 of your athletes. Follow these steps:
- Education: Set a common understanding of what and why arousal management is critical to performance (use this page as a starting point).
- Identify Target Arousal: Set a target arousal level (recommend a 7 out of a 1-10 scale). While each athlete and sport is a little different, 7 is a good starting point.
- Create Routine: Develop a set routine for increasing, decreasing or maintaining arousal levels.
- Implement: Create time for athletes to implement. Set a commitment between the coach and the athlete to follow this process and that failure is part of the learning process. It is highly likely that it will take some work before the right routines are established so commit to the process.
- Feedback loops: Create constant and consistent feedback loops that measure the effectiveness of each routine. Get feedback after each game if possible. The closer to each competition the better.
- Adjust & Refine: Make adjustments to the routines based on the athlete's feedback.
As a coach, there are three things you should know:
- Failure is part of the process: Expect it to take 6-8 competitions before your athletes identify their optimum arousal level and understand how to get there.
- Manage outside influence: Even your own behavior can influence arousal. Be careful of what you say and do, especially pre-game as this can have a big impact.
- Stick to the routine: Setting and sticking to a routine will help athletes manage their arousal. Treat the big game like a normal game.