A HUGE part of performance psychology is managing your arousal.
On some occasions, you need to crank it up.
While less common and potentially less problematic than over-arousal, under-arousal is a very real threat to performance. There will be times when you’re under-aroused. This is particularly true of veterans who have ‘been there, done that’ and competition is simply perceived as less of a threat. This is also true of better athletes who less competition, particularly when racing in early season. While the latter may not apply to many individuals, a fair number of individuals have achieved ‘veteran’ status and may find themselves under-aroused during competition.
Fortunately, if the competition provides little perceived threat, it’s likely the competition isn’t that important to you and under-performance may be less disappointing. That being said, no one likes to underperform against competition they should defeat handily, or simply fail to race as well as possible. Overwhelming favorites are beaten by underdogs because they ‘play down’ to their opponent’s level. This is often the result of lowered initial arousal and the inability to increase arousal when necessary.
Outside of the competition environment, these dynamics can take place in training. If you’re consistently under-aroused in training, you’ll consistently under-perform in training. Over time, this can add up to less improvement in training. This is particularly true for individuals that don’t LOVE to train. If this describes you, you may find yourself needing to increase your arousal in training with some regularity.
All of the strategies below are directed towards increasing arousal. The main concept is to increase the pressure you might feel and make the situation MORE important. Some of these strategies involve shifts in psychological perspective while others focus more on physical activation. The appropriate mindset will get you moving, and more movement will help to shift your mindset. You may find that one strategy more effectively gets the process moving. Start there.
Magnify the consequences. Part of the problem with low arousal is that there is little perceived threat. You don’t feel like there is anything at stake and there is little to lose. To shift this dynamic, consider the worst that could happen. Magnify that reaction. Try to feel the emotions that will be present if that worse-case scenario plays out. As most will want to avoid these scenarios, the negative consequences can spur you to action to ensure that the worst-case outcome doesn’t play itself out. You need to increase the pressure by increasing the threat. This can be accomplished by strategically catastrophizing.
You’ll often see this happen with professional sports team. When a top-class team will be facing a weak opponent, coaches will often speak to the media about how dangerous their opponent really is, how concerned the team should be, and in extreme cases, coaches will label their clearly superior team as the underdog. These are all strategies to magnify the consequences to ensure the team is adequately aroused for the competition. You can use these same strategies. As we’ll explore later, this is the opposite of what you’d want to do if you’re over-aroused. In that case, you’re underplaying the significance of the competition. Both strategies work as a result of the relationship between arousal and the perceived importance of the competition.
Act as if. Even if you’re unable to convince yourself that the consequences of a poor performance are real and significant, act as if they are. Tell yourself that you’re excited. Tell yourself how important the competition is. Walk around with a purpose. Behave in the manner you want to perform. Take control of the situation. At first, you will absolutely have to pretend, and you’ll have to act. Do it anyway. Fake it until you make it. Rather than acting and thinking listlessly as if the competition doesn’t really matter. Think and act as if it does, and you’ll find that you’re moving towards a level of arousal that is more conducive with competing at your best.
Move. Psychological arousal is closely tied to physical arousal. As movement creates arousal, you can use movement to increase your arousal. If you’re feeling under-aroused, simply start moving around. The more you can move, and the more you can move vigorously and aggressively, the more success you’ll have at increasing your arousal. If you’re not ready to warm up yet, rather than just sitting around, get up and walk around or do some light mobility work. Just get moving.
This strategy applies even more so to your warm-up. Be aggressive with your intensities and your intention, more so than you normally would. This will help you increase the physical activation required to get the process moving. Further, the focus a more intense warm-up requires will further aid in increasing your arousal. In this context, you’re not simply warming up your body, you’re warming up your mind and your attitude, and this will increase your arousal levels.
Control your breathing. Deep, slow breathing is great for helping you slow down and control your arousal. To increase arousal, you’ll do the opposite. Focus on shallower, rapid breathing for short periods of time. You should be able to feel yourself beginning to get moving once you do so. Simply take 20 rapid, shallow breaths where you feel your chest ‘puffing up’ as if you were inflating your body. Take a break and breathe normally for a bit, then repeat the process. You can do so periodically throughout the warm-up period and in preparation for your races. You could even do during training sessions leading up to the competition, or simply during training sessions where you want to ensure you’re optimally aroused. Just as with competition, an optimal level of arousal is important for training, and there is a greater chance you’ll be under-aroused.
Simply practice this strategy at any point in the day for practice. You’ll feel a shift in how you’re feeling psychologically and physically, which will reinforce your belief in the effectiveness of the strategy. However, avoid using this strategy during the day to specifically increase your activation. While arousal is good for competition, excessive arousal outside of the training and competitive environment is simply going to make you tired. Learn how to use your breathing to quickly increase your arousal without needing to stay in a constant state of activation.
Know the signs. If you’re aware that you may be under-aroused, you can begin the process of mobilizing yourself and increasing your arousal. Some typical signs of low arousal include sluggishness, indifference, boredom, and thinking about other aspects of life. Basically, you’re not particularly engaged or invested in the competition or training session. There is little sense of anticipation and physical or psychological excitement. You’re bored and indifferent. It just doesn’t matter.
One behavior that is potentially NOT a sign of lower arousal is yawning. If you’re yawning and completely bored out of your mind, you’re probably under-aroused. If you’re yawning and a little antsy, it’s a sign of high levels of arousal. Look for clues from other areas to determine what to do, and act accordingly. Like yawning, indifference and apathy can sometimes be a sign of over-arousal. In these cases, it’s almost like you ‘shut down’ as a result of the pressure. While this isn’t particularly, it’s important to be aware of the potential issue.
Know the context. Know the potential exists for you to underperform when you don’t feel challenged, there is less on the line, it’s an early season competition, or it’s part of a routine you’ve been through before. It’s possible that you’ll be under-aroused in any of these situations, and that’s particularly true if more than one of these situations exist simultaneously.
Timing. The closer you get to the competition, the more you should focus on the physical aspects of increasing the arousal process. Prior to that simply reflecting on what you want to accomplish and magnifying the consequences of poor performance will suffice. As the competition approaches, get physical. Importantly, you never want to increase arousal too much until you’re getting close to competing. If you’re under-aroused a week before the competition, that’s not a problem. However, that’s a great time to start to reflect on the consequences.
Next time, we'll cover how to control arousal.