Optimal Arousal
Providing the Mental Edge, Part IV
February, 2019
How many clutch, game-winning shots have you seen Jordan, Kobe, or LBJ make? How many game winning TD passes/catches or field goals have you seen executed flawlessly? Everyone has seen an athlete who seems to never be shaken or rattled by situations, their composure is off the charts.

But what does it take to be so composed? It begins by being in control of yourself, not too high, not too low, but just right in that ‘Goldilocks zone’ – controlling yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally. To do so requires controlling your arousal level. Arousal is your level of ‘up-ness’ on a physiological (pumped up) and psychological (psyched up) level. For a better understanding of arousal, let’s first get some brain basics covered.

Your prefrontal cortex is responsible for your ability to reason, critical thinking, planning, focus, attention, and concentration. It is definitely not impulsive.

The hippocampus is part of your limbic system, which can be thought of as your emotional brain and is responsible for memory, emotions and motivation.

The cerebellum is located in the brain at the back of the skull (in vertebrates) and its function is to coordinate and regulate muscular activity.

Lastly on our brain basics is the amygdala which is an automatically functioning part of your brain responsible for survival which operates in milliseconds – think fight, flight, or freeze model. Although the famous Waterboy scene directs us solely to the Medulla Oblongata as the source of alligator anger, the amygdala can easily be hi-jacked too.

An amygdala hi-jacking can lead to detrimental physiological symptoms such as hyperventilation, dramatic increase in heart rate, increase in blood pressure, and an increase in several stress-induced hormones. These responses, which culminate to what’s more commonly known as ‘freaking out’ can make it near impossible to even think. This hinders your ability to use your complex thinking skills and good judgement that’s required for sport. Even more, what we often don’t realize is the after effects of such an event – it can take up to three to four hours to recovery psychologically from an amygdala hi-jacking. A series of responses as impactful as this must learned to be controlled with optimal arousal.
Figure A
Figure B

Optimal arousal can be demonstrated by Figure A above called the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal, where the optimal zone is dependent upon the person, the task, the day, and the given set of conditions. Each person in each situation requires a different amount of arousal – think a 1 rep max on back squat versus getting in some seven on seven reps. Each scenario has its own optimal arousal zone and each is equally important for the given task.

To be able to perform your best, you must get your arousal to the right level for you. As shown in Figure B, you can be under or over aroused and you will be unable to perform your best. To perform your best, you must find your optimal arousal, find your zone.

Luckily for all of us, finding our arousal level is well within our control – it’s a choice. We can learn to dial it in perfectly every time by developing the skill using three controls: thought control, breath control, and physical activity control.

Thought control is controlling your self-talk and choosing the right thoughts, specifically by choosing arousing affirmations that take you up or relaxing affirmations that bring you down depending on your need for each.

Physical activity control is performing active and explosive actions to bring you up or passive and slow actions to bring you down.

Lastly, breath control can have huge impacts – a cleansing breath followed by deep abdominal breathing is how you begin breath control. By choosing to emphasize the exhale you will relax and calm down; or you can choose to emphasize the inhale which will energize and excite and bring you up.

By choosing to use these three means of control you are literally able to choose the quality of our performance! Check out the following videos for ways to control your breathing. 

With all the external influences on arousal (bad/great plays, crowd noise, turnovers, weather, coaching) it becomes more important to control the internal influences on arousal and be able to recognize the negative internal influences such as negative or inappropriate self-talk, fatigue, or a minor injury. Once you’re able to recognize the negative internal influence you can use a predefined routine to deactivate and re-focus.

Learning composure and being composed is about being in control of yourself, not too high, not too low, but just right. Be in control mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Example routine:

  1. Stop …
  2. Take a deep breath …
  3. Positive affirmation …
  4. Focus and park it …
  5. Review your strategy (know the play, know your assignment) …
  6. Trust …
  7. Go deliver!


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