Learning to Manage Your Arousal Levels with Imagery

Nicole Westlund, PhD Candidate
Western University, London, Ontario, Canada
Mental Coach, Eclipse Performance

Similar to confidence, an athlete’s arousal level during a competition can have significant effects on their performance. You do not want it to be too high or too low. A popular theory in sport psychology, known as the Inverted-U hypothesis1 can help explain this. The Inverted-U Hypothesis suggests that for optimal performance, athletes must find a ‘happy medium’ in terms of their level of arousal – not too high but not too low. This optimal level of arousal varies across different sports, the type of skill being performed, and individuals. For example, a football player would need a much higher level of arousal than a golfer, due to the nature of each sport and the tasks required.

optimal arousal

What happens if your arousal level is not at its optimal level? How many times have you felt anxiety, either excitement or nervousness before your game? Were your hands shaking and heart beating quickly? On the other hand, can you think of a time when you felt fatigue, especially towards the end of a gruelling game or event? In this case, you are under-aroused and need to pump yourself up to the proper performance level.

Here are some ways that imagery can help you get to your optimal arousal state:

• In the case of anxiety, try picturing your anxiety as a piece of rope with a bunch of knots in it. Visualize the knots slowly coming undone, and as they do, feel your anxiety drifting away.

• If you feel nervous and your heart is racing, try visualizing a calm or relaxing environment (such as the beach or your favourite place to unwind). Focus on your breathing and visualize your heart rate slowing down with every breath.

• If you are tired, visualize yourself in an upbeat environment, and maybe dancing to your favourite song (listening to music can help with this as well).

• If you find yourself unexcited for your upcoming game, trying eliciting the feelings of excitement that come along with competing in your sport. This should get your heart rate up to where it needs to be.

Imagery is actually more powerful when you can elicit the emotions associated with your sport. Whether it is the high-intensity emotions of wrestling or calm relaxation of golf, imagery can help ensure that you are in the right mindset to perform at your best. As always, the more you can practice managing your arousal levels beforehand, the easier it is to do when you are actually in that situation.

1Landers, D. M., & Arent, S. M. (2010). Arousal-performance relationships. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed.), pp.221-246.