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How to Control Arousal Level in Sport (AKA How to Keep Your Cool)

You’re standing and waiting at the last leg of the 4x4 100m relay final – this is the most important race you’ve ever run. After all, the end is all down to you, there’s a huge crowd, and even a TV crew broadcasting the event. Your heart is hammering and you’re ready to go now. The pistol fires. You bounce on your toes and wipe your hands on your shorts. You’ve practiced countless times for just this very moment. Where’s your teammate? Come on, come on. Here they are… now! In your haste you fumble, don’t have a good grip on the baton and it falls.

What happened? You were too hyped up and over stimulated to focus. This is called being over-aroused.

Now think about the same race, but you’re sure you’re not going to win. The team you’re in isn’t good enough. You’re tired, you’ve already done your individual races, and you want to get this over with so you can go home. The pistol fires, and you wait. And wait. To your surprise, your teammate is the first to get to you, thrusting the baton into your hand and shouting “Go!” You do, but you weren’t ready and weren’t prepared to win. You’re overtaken by two other teams and end up in third.

What happened? You weren’t ready in the moment. This is called being under-aroused.


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What Does Arousal Stand for in Sport?

Put simply, arousal is the level of mental and physical energy that your mind and body will apply to the current task. It goes from deep sleep to panic, and although it is sometimes put down to “your current state of mind” you can learn techniques to alter your arousal level and maximize your athletic potential.

Your arousal level can lead you to be under-stimulated, and thus underprepared mentally and physically for the task at hand, over-stimulated, and thus more likely to make silly mistakes because you’re so ready to go, or help you be in just the right place to perform.

Why Is Balancing Your Arousal Level Important?

If your arousal level is too high your muscles will tense up, your coordination decline and you can easily slip into anxiety. Too low and you won't have the concentration you need and your lack of drive will lead to underperforming.

The degree of arousal required is individual to each athlete and each situation they find themselves in. Only self-knowledge can help you fine-tune those levels for your unique physiology and mental make-up.

To be “in the zone” is the aim of everyone involved in sport and by discovering methods that control our arousal level we can achieve that level more easily and sustain it for longer. If we can prepare mentally for this, it will allow us to perform at our peak of physical readiness, not before or after it.

Learning to balance your arousal level is key if you reach the highest level you are capable of. So how do we do this?

How to Decrease Arousal Level in Sport

If you are about to take part in an important game or track meet it is all too easy to let the moment get to you and let your arousal level soar, which reduces your chances of success. It is important in these situations that you take steps to control that level and stay in a relaxed-but-ready state.

There are two aspects to arousal: cognitive (mental), and somatic (physical), and you have to address both.

Here are some methods you can practice to reduce each of these states of anxiety:

1.) Cognitive:

  • Meditation allows an athlete to center themselves and clear the anxiety that can threaten to reduce their performance levels. The ability to remain calm and focused is an important one to master.
  • Positive self-talk – the inner dialogue we all have can be used to reduce arousal levels quite dramatically by calming us and reducing stress. Tell yourself what you know you need to hear, and dismiss anxious thoughts.
  • Imagery – imagining serene life situations can significantly decrease arousal levels.

2.) Somatic:

  • Slow deep breathing from the diaphragm is a proven method for reducing anxiety and stress in many situations.
  • Progressive relaxation – tensing and relaxing muscles one by one trains muscles to be relaxed and lowers the tendency to feel taught and anxious. Take each muscle or muscle group one at a time, tense for 5 seconds and then relax. Methodically go through your body and it will soon feel loose and stress-free.
  • Have fun and enjoy yourself. Smile. The reason we take part in sports at all has its roots in enjoyment and it is helpful to remember that fact.

How to Increase Arousal Level for Sport

Clearly, a certain amount of arousal is vital if we are to perform to the best of our abilities. At a competition that is often not a problem but in a more run-of-the-mill situation, training for example or at the gym, we must take steps to up our arousal level if we are to get as much out of the session as we should.

Again, there are several methods we can use to raise our arousal level:

1.) Cognitive:

  • Visualization – a very important skill for today’s athletes allowing the mind to prepare for the competition ahead. Visualize positive outcomes, practice your skills in your head, and see yourself succeeding.
  • Positive Self-talk – as in decreasing arousal level your internal conversation can also drive up arousal levels. Repeating positive statements and believing those statements will allow your mind to ready the body for peak performance.
  • Listening to music can also prepare your mind and body to perform both during training and in preparation just before an event.

2.) Somatic:

  • Warm-up properly – this will prepare your body for the exertions ahead, get your heart rate up and your muscles warm and stretched.
  • Act energized – never forget that what the mind tells the body is paramount. Tell it that it is full of energy and it will become so, keep moving and practicing the skills that you will need for your chosen activity.
  • Have a routine. Going through a standardized preparation before a game, a race or a training session will tell your body that it should ready itself for the task ahead.

To implement all these methods effectively, you need to be actively training the mind, as well as the body. This means you need to be practicing how you raise and reduce your arousal level long before you’re in a situation where you need to use them.

This is often easier said than done, and while there has been a lot of research on the effects of arousal level on athletes, there are few resources for helping you train the mind and manage your mental wellness. That’s what we do at Restoic – we give athletes the opportunity to train the mind long before they’re faced with a challenge on the field, track, or court.


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