The Optimal State of Arousal, an Introduction

When I talk about “optimal states of arousal” I usually get one of 2 reactions:

  1. disinterest because it sounds too academic, theoretical and boring; or
  2. snickering because it sounds like a vaguely dirty-minded topic

If you stick with me for a minute I think you will see how this sports psychology concept can actually be very useful and practical, ESPECIALLY if you compete.

Arousal is a psychological term used to describe how mentally and physically stimulated an athlete is. If someone is highly aroused then his heart is pumping, lots of adrenaline is flowing, and the ‘fight or flight’ reflex is going full bore. If someone is at a low state of arousal then they are relaxed and possibly even lethargic.

Each competitor, and each sport, has an optimal level of arousal – at this state of mental and physical excitation the athlete will have his best performance. In some sports the level of arousal should be fairly low: target shooting for example. Most target shooters want to keep their heart rates low and their breathing under control. On a scale of 1-10 target shooters probably want to be at a 2 or 3 (since being at 1 would mean that they are asleep).

In other sports (such as powerlifting) the level of arousal should generally be high. You can see powerlifters psyche themselves up before lifting: slapping themselves in the face and body, screaming loudly, and so on. Some lifters function best in a white rage (which would be 10 out of 10 on the arousal scale). In this state intensity triumphs over finesse, emotion over reason, and tunnel vision replaces keeping an eye on the big picture..

In combat sports (grappling, jiu-jitsu, judo, wrestling, etc.) the level of arousal should be high but not too high. I would guess that most combat athletes perform best at an arousal level of 5 to 7. To use an analogy, you don’t want the general of an army to be in a white rage when he makes strategic decisions: he could walk his troops right into a trap. In combat sports the competitor is simultaneously general AND trooper, responsible for making and executing decisions, so both rational thought and intensity are both required. If a fighter is too aroused then his technique, strategy and endurance will suffer. On the other hand, if a fighter is too relaxed then he might underestimate his opponent or fail to seize available opportunities.

Next week we will look at determining your own personal optimal state of arousal, as well as looking at some ways competitors increase and decrease their arousal for maximum performance.

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