Performance: Anxiety | Arousal | Stress

Why does it matter? What can you do?

Athletes and performers face pressured situations on a regular basis and may experience performance anxiety, arousal, and stress. Many people use these three terms interchangeably, but they are different. Arousal is a blend of both psychological and physiological activity a person experiences (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). The intensity of arousal falls along a continuum that ranges from not at all aroused to fully aroused.

Performance Anxiety

Anxiety is a negative emotional state characterized by apprehension, worry, and nervousness and is associated with arousal or activation. There are various forms of anxiety as well. Cognitive anxiety is associated with the thought factor (i.e., apprehension and worry). Somatic anxiety is perceived physiological activation. In addition, there is also state and trait anxiety. State anxiety refers to a changing mood state. For example a basketball player might experience changes in state anxiety from moment to moment during a game. Trait anxiety is different from state anxiety as it is part of the personality or a disposition that affects behavior. Lastly, stress is a significant imbalance between demand and response capability under circumstances where failing to meet the demand has substantial consequences.

Although experiencing arousal, anxiety, and stress is quite common, not all performers handle the situations they face in a productive way. Arousal and anxiety, to some, may be seen as facilitative to their performance as it leads their bodies to become activated and their attention more narrow; however, other performers may find that arousal leads to performance deterioration. There are several theories that explain how arousal and anxiety affect performance.

Arousal and Performance

Psychologists first saw the connection between arousal and performance to be direct and linear (Spence & Spence, 1966). This view, the drive theory, states that as an individual’s arousal and anxiety levels increase so does performance. For example, the more psyched up a performer is, the better they perform. However, this theory has limited scholarly support.

Unsatisfied with the drive theory, the majority of sport psychologists turned to the inverted-u hypothesis to explain the connection between arousal and performance. The inverted-u hypothesis suggests that at low arousal levels, performance, too, will be low.  As arousal rises, so does performance, up to an optimal point. As arousal goes beyond the optimal level, performance begins to decline (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). 

The catastrophe theory suggests that arousal is related to performance in an inverted-u fashion, but only when a performer is not worried or has lower levels of cognitive state anxiety. If state anxiety is high, arousal may reach a certain point beyond optimal arousal and then a rapid decline in performance takes place (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).

Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning

According to the Hanin’s zone of optimal functioning, top athletes have a zone of optimal state anxiety in which their best performance takes place (Hanin, 1980). Different from the inverted-u hypothesis, the zone of optimal functioning suggests that optimal arousal varies from individual to individual. The individual zone of optimal functioning model (IZOF) also supports that there are negative and positive emotions that enhance performance and negative and positive emotions that lead to dysfunction. It is important that performers recognize what their optimal zone of functioning is and which emotions enhance/cause dysfunction in their performance. 

The multidimensional anxiety theory predicts that worry (cognitive state anxiety) is negatively connected to performance; while somatic state anxiety (physiological) is related to performance in an inverted u and that increases in anxiety can lead to enhanced performance up to an optimal level (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). 

There are a variety of theories that provide explanations of the relationship between arousal and performance; but even more important is determining how anxiety affects you and what your optimal zone of functioning is. 


Before implementing arousal management strategies, it is important to become aware. Think about your best performance and identify what your arousal level was like. Were you calm and relaxed, psyched up, or somewhere in between? What were some of the emotions you were experiencing (i.e., happiness, anger, elation, frustration)? Now think about your worst performance and ask yourself the same questions. By reflecting, you may begin to draw an awareness of what your optimal level of arousal is. In addition, you may also find it beneficial to consider self awareness like a traffic light (Ravizza & Fifer, 2015). When you are driving a green light tells you that everything is fine and you can “go.” In competition this is when you are in the zone and can keep going. A yellow light means caution. You may need to check in with yourself to see if you need to continue or determine if you are getting off balance after an error. A red light means you need to stop. During this time maybe your mind is overthinking or racing, you are rushing or very tense. In your play a red light means you need to re-focus. 

In addition to awareness, routines are also beneficial in gaining control of one’s arousal, anxiety, and/or stress. When one’s arousal level is too high an athlete might find muscle-to-mind relaxation techniques to be helpful (Burton & Raedeke, 2008). Muscle-to-mind techniques focus on relaxing the body which in turn relaxes the mind. A couple examples include progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing. On the other hand, mind-to-muscle techniques are those that aim to reduce arousal by calming the mind in order to calm the body (Burton & Raedeke, 2008). Examples of these include imagery and self-talk

Just as performers need to learn relaxation strategies to lower their arousal level, athletes also need to learn energization strategies in order to raise their arousal level when needed (Burton & Raedeke, 2008). Psych-up breathing is an energization strategy that involves shallow breathing to transport oxygen more quickly to the body. Deep diaphragmatic breathing lowers the arousal level while shallow psych-up breathing raises it.  Imagery energization is another energization technique in which athletes imagine themselves replaying a past experience in which they were highly energized. Lastly, up-tempo music can enhance arousal levels as the rhythm and tempo work at a subconscious level to increase arousal levels. 

Once performers become aware of the arousal level in which they perform the best, athletes can then develop routines that incorporate the aforementioned strategies in order to help them get to their optimal level. What will be your “go to” routine when the pressure’s on? Whether it be standing on the free throw line, down a point with only seconds left in the game or stepping into your blocks in the state finals of the 100 meter dash; how will you handle the pressure? What will your self-talk be like? How will stay in control of your anticipation and decision making be affected? Although anxiety and arousal can be somewhat alarming, when viewed in a helpful manner and learning how they can work for you and not against you, anxiety, stress, and arousal can be facilitative to performance. 


Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 

Ravizza, K., & Fifer, A. (2015). Increasing awareness for sport performance. In J. M Williams and V. Krane (Eds.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 176-187). New York, NY: McGraw Hill. 

Spence, J. T., & Spence, K. W. (1966). The motivational components of manifest anxiety: Drive and drive stimuli. In C. D. Spielberger (Ed.), Anxiety and behavior (pp. 291-326). New York, NY: Academic Press. 

Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2015). Foundations of exercise and sport psychology (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Don’t let your worst enemy live between your own two ears.”

-Laird Hamilton