USA Field Hockey NEWS Arousal: How do You ...

Arousal: How do You Know You're Ready to Play?

By Dr. Jamie Robbins, Sport Psychology Certified Mental Performance Consultant and Professor of Exercise & Sport Science, Methodist University | March 25, 2020, 12:58 p.m. (ET)

Being an athlete takes a lot of preparation. Athletes must know what foods impact their performance and when those foods should and should not be consumed. They should know how much to eat, what to eat and when to eat. Athletes also must know how much sleep is most effective in preparing them to play. They should know how many hours of sleep they require and how to best ensure they reach that number daily. As well, athletes must know what level of energy leads to their best performance and how to help themselves reach that level on long days, busy days, early games, late practices, etc. They also should know how to achieve that level of arousal, regardless the opponent, game or stress of the day.

Arousal is your energy level on a continuum from total exhaustion to full excitation. It impacts your physical readiness for play and your ability to focus on, and think about, the task at hand. When you have low arousal, you typically cannot even hold your body upright. Students with low arousal in class, slump over their desk or down in their chairs. Their bodies basically collapse, and their minds tend to wander to the sounds in the hall or the itch on their foot. Those with overly high levels of arousal cannot sit still. On the field, athletes with very low levels of arousal attend to everything and anything not relevant to the moment (i.e. birds flying by, friends talking, etc.). You would, therefore, think very high arousal would be most ideal, but in fact, the best level of arousal for any individual depends on that individual.

Do you know what level of arousal leads to your best performances? Do you need to be extremely hyped up or more relaxed before a game or practice to effectively focus and perform? Your most ideal level may be different prior to a game or a training session. It also may be different depending on the specific task. The following represents the levels of arousal on the continuum.

Kelsie knows she needs to be around 8 before games in general, but closer to a 5 or 6 before taking a penalty corner. Dara learned that she needs to be at a 7 before preseason, or other, “test” runs, but she performs her best at a 9. Conversely, Galit, who plays goalkeeper, always performs her best when her arousal level is around 7. Knowing what level works best is great, but that does not mean you know how to get yourself to that level regardless the day or situation. Most athletes hope they will be ready, but few take the time and effort to check their readiness or employ specific techniques to help themselves achieve their best pre-practice or pre-game state. However, there are many strategies and techniques that are very useful and proven effective.

Self-talk, for example, can be used to lower your arousal level, especially for those who experience pre-practice or pre-game anxiety. When the mind focuses on the “what ifs” or the negative, worry-filled thoughts, the body tends to follow by tensing muscles. Self-talk can be used to calm the mind and subsequently the body. For instance, Kelsie tells herself she is “cool as a cucumber” in a calm voice each time before she injects the ball on the penalty corner. This allows her to lower her heart rate and feel in control of the moment. She uses similar words to calm herself after “bad calls” by the referee. To increase her arousal immediately after the injection she says, “revved up and ready.” She uses similar words prior to warm-up before each game as well. Every person must identify the words or statements that work best for them. The words must be meaningful to the individual to elicit the physical change they desire.

Imagery is another useful tool for increasing or decreasing physical levels of arousal. Dara pictures herself with cougar legs, passing her teammates before any run and she also elicits this visual during runs when she starts to feel her energy wane. Galit checks her energy level before every game and if it is too high, she pictures waves crashing on the shore to bring it back down. If her energy level is too low, she pictures herself making three great saves to reinvigorate her body. It is important for athletes to take the time to learn what images increase and what images decrease their heart rate, and which images tighten or relax their muscles. It is also imperative that they practice eliciting the feelings before they “need” to use them. These are mental skills that take practice, just like physical skills.

Athletes would not go into a game without practicing their physical skills, but many will complete their entire career without once practicing their mental skills. Our bodies respond automatically to the environment or situation around. We just react. However, great athletes own the environment and situation by controlling what they can. They bring the energy level they want to the situation and they modify their level of arousal in the moment. They may have a momentary reaction to an event, but great athletes will recognize the change in energy and employ a tactic to take back control. They may jump up and down a couple of times to re-energize themselves or sing a song in their head to raise or lower their level of arousal.

Therefore, the challenge to all athletes is the following:

A. Identify the level of arousal that leads to your best performance
B. Write down what that level of arousal feels like so you know what you are aiming for prior to each game
C. Identify phrases, words, images or actions that elicit higher and lower levels of arousal
D. Practice changing your level of arousal using the phrases, words, images and actions you identified

This article was featured in the Summer 2019 issue of FHLife Magazine. To read more inspiring, knowledge-packed and fun features revolving around field hockey, fitness, healthy eating and how to strengthen your game, subscribe to the quarterly publication by clicking here.