Control and Regulation of Arousal for Athletes: A Sports Psychology Coaching Approach

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how to management emotions as an athleteAfter reading this lesson, you will be able to:

  • understand how to increase self-awareness of arousal states;
  • identify somatic, cognitive, and multimodal anxiety reduction techniques;
  • identify coping strategies for dealing with competitive stress;
  • describe on-site relaxation tips for reducing anxiety;
  • understand the matching hypothesis; and
  • identify techniques for raising arousal for competition.

We live in a world where stress has become part of our daily lives. Certainly, the pressure to perform at high levels in competitive sport has increased in recent years with all the media attention and money available through sport. In essence, our society values winning and success at all levels of competition, and coaches and athletes feel pressure to be successful. People who don’t cope effectively with the pressure of competitive sport, however, may have decreases in performance, mental distress, and even physical illness. Continued pressure sometimes causes burnout in sport and exercise, and it can lead to ulcers, migraine headaches, and hypertension. Depending on the person and the situation, however, various ways of coping with the pressure of competitive sport exist. The following quotes show how a few athletes have approached the pressure of competition.

Not only do athletes respond differently to pressure, but the type of sport or task they perform is also a critical factor in how they react. For example, opposing coaches calling a time-out before crucial field-goal attempts in professional football results in a decrement in performance (80% to 64%), but doing the same in collegiate basketball does not undermine performance. A golfer preparing to knock in a 20-foot putt would probably control arousal differently than would a wrestler taking the mat. Similarly, one specific relaxation procedure might work better for controlling cognitive (mental) anxiety, whereas another might be more effective for coping with somatic (perceived physiological) anxiety. The relationship between arousal and performance can be complicated, and athletes in competitive sport need to learn to control their arousal. They should be able to increase it—to psych up—when they’re feeling lethargic and decrease it when the pressure to win causes them anxiety and nervousness. The key is for individuals to find their optimal levels of arousal without losing intensity and focus. In this chapter, we discuss in detail a variety of arousal regulation techniques that should help individuals in sport and exercise settings reach their optimal levels of arousal. The first step in this process is to learn how to recognize or become aware of anxiety and arousal states.

Increasing Self-Awareness of Arousal in Athletes

The first step toward controlling arousal levels is to be more aware of them during practices and competitions. This typically involves self- monitoring and recognizing how emotional states affect performance. As an athlete, you can probably identify certain feelings associated with top performances and other feelings associated with poor performances. To increase awareness of your arousal states, we recommend the following process.

First, think back to your best performance. Try to visualize the actual competition as clearly as possible, focusing on what you felt and thought at that time. Take at least 5 minutes to relive the experience. Now complete the items in “Checklist of Performance States.” Because you are reconstructing your best performance, for “played extremely well,” you would circle the number 1. For the second item, if you felt moderately anxious, you might circle number 4 After completing the checklist for your best performance, repeat the process for your worst performance.

Now compare your responses between the two performances you recalled. Most people find that their thoughts and feelings are distinctly different when playing well compared with playing poorly. This is the beginning of awareness training. If you want to better understand the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and performance, monitor yourself by completing the checklist immediately after each practice or competitive session over the next few weeks. Of course, your psychological state will vary during a given session. If you feel one way during the first half of a basketball game, for example, and another way during the second half, simply complete two checklists.

Using Anxiety Reduction Techniques for Athletes and Sports Teams

Excess anxiety can produce inappropriate muscle tension, which in turn can diminish performance. And it is all too easy to develop excess muscle tension. The common thinking is “The harder you try, the better you will perform.” This reasoning, however, is incorrect.

As a quick, practical exercise, rest your dominant forearm and hand palm down on a desktop or table. Tense all the muscles in your hand and wrist and then try to tap your index and middle fingers quickly back and forth. Do this for about 30 seconds. Now relax the muscles in your hands and fingers and repeat the exercise. You will probably discover that muscular tension slows your movements and makes them less coordinated than they are when your muscles are relaxed.

Besides sometimes producing inappropriate muscle tension, excess anxiety can produce inappropriate thoughts and cognitions, such as “I hope I don’t blow this shot” or “I hope I don’t fail in front of all these people.”

“The power has always been there; I just had to find a way to tap it . . . . Mostly, it’s a matter of learning to relax at the plate. You don’t worry about striking out and looking bad as much as before.”

In addition to simply reducing anxiety, as noted earlier, it is important to interpret anxiety in a facilitative rather than a debilitative manner. Research has revealed that three time periods were critical in the interpretation of anxiety: after performance (reviewing previous performance), 1 or 2 days before competition, and the day of competition. In each of these time frames, facilitators used a refined repertoire of psychological skills (e.g., imagery, reframing self-talk) to internally control and reinterpret the cognitive and somatic anxiety experienced. Conversely, debilitators did not possess these refined psychological skills and therefore lacked internal control to alter their anxiety states. Athletes who interpret their anxiety symptoms as facilitative report higher levels of self-confidence than athletes who interpret their anxiety as debilitative. Therefore, these researchers argue that self-confidence is the key factor to help buffer against potential negative interpretations of anxiety by promoting the use of positive self- talk and mental rehearsal.

Studies have evaluated which anxiety reduction techniques were used most often and which were most popular. The authors surveyed competitive athletes from collegiate, recreational, and professional levels. The results revealed that, as expected, professional athletes engaged in more relaxation in a typical week than collegiate or recreational athletes did. Athletes across competitive levels used anxiety reduction techniques to cope with both competitive anxiety and everyday anxieties associated with being an athlete. Interestingly, the athletes used more physical (e.g., muscle relaxation) than mental relaxation techniques in relation to coping with competitive anxiety and used more mental (e.g., imagery) than physical relaxation techniques in relation to coping with everyday anxiety.

We now present some relaxation procedures commonly used in sport and physical activity settings. Some of these techniques focus on reducing somatic anxiety, some on cognitive anxiety. Still others are multimodal in nature and use a variety of technique es to cope with both somatic and cognitive anxiety.

Somatic Anxiety Reduction Techniques

The first group of techniques works primarily to reduce physiological arousal associated with increased somatic anxiety.

Progressive Relaxation

The progressive relaxation technique forms the cornerstone for many modern relaxation procedures. This technique involves tensing and relaxing specific muscles. Jacobson named the technique progressive relaxation because the tensing and relaxing progress from one major muscle group to the next until all muscle groups are completely relaxed.

Progressive relaxation rests on a few assumptions:

✔ It is possible to learn the difference between tension and relaxation.

✔  Tension and relaxation are mutually exclusive— it is not possible to be relaxed and tense at the same time.

✔  Relaxation of the body through decreased muscle tension will, in turn, decrease mental tension.

The tension–relaxation cycles develop an athlete’s awareness of the difference between tension and lack of tension. Each cycle involves maximally contracting one specific muscle group and then attempting to fully relax that same muscle group, all while focusing on the different sensations of tension and relaxation. With skill, an athlete can detect tension in a specific muscle or area of the body, like the neck, and then relax those muscles. The first few sessions of progressive relaxation take an athlete up to 30 minutes, and less time is necessary with practice. The goal is to develop the ability to relax on-site during competition.

Based on progressive relaxation, what came next was developed as a applied variant to teach an individual to relax within 20 to 30 seconds. The first phase of training involves a 15-minute progressive relaxation session, practiced twice a day, in which muscle groups are tensed and relaxed. The individual then moves on to a release-only phase that takes 5 to 7 minutes to complete. The individual then moves on to a 2- to 3-minute version with the use of a self- instructional cue, “Relax.” This time is further reduced until only a few seconds are required, and then the technique is practiced in specific situations. For example, a soccer player who becomes tight and anxious when faced with a penalty kick could use this technique to get ready for this crucial shot on goal.

Breath Control

Proper breathing is often considered key to achieving relaxation, and breath control is another physically oriented relaxation technique. Breath control is one of the easiest, most effective ways to control anxiety and muscle tension. When you are calm, confident, and in control, your breathing is likely to be smooth, deep, and rhythmic. When you’re under pressure and tense, your breathing is more likely to be short, shallow, and irregular.

Unfortunately, many athletes have not learned proper breathing. Performing under pressure, they often fail to coordinate their breathing with the performance of the skill. Research has demonstrated that breathing in and holding your breath increases muscle tension, whereas breathing out decreases muscle tension. For example, most discus throwers, shot-putters, and baseball pitchers learn to breathe out during release. As pressure builds in a competition, the natural tendency is to hold one’s breath, which increases muscle tension and interferes with the coordinated movement necessary for maximum performance. Taking a deep, slow, complete breath usually triggers a relaxation response.


Biofeedback is a physically oriented technique that teaches people to control physiological or autonomic responses. It usually involves an electronic monitoring device that can detect and amplify internal responses not ordinarily known to us. These electronic instruments provide visual or auditory feedback of physiological responses such as muscle activity, skin temperature, respiration, or heart rate, although most studies have used muscle activity as measured by electromyography. This is usually accomplished by attaching sensors to the body that detect the electrical activity of the muscles and send out signals that allow athletes to become more aware of their bodily processes. Neurofeedback, which focuses on feedback via brain waves, has become more popular for helping athletes understand their thought processes and increase athletes’ self-awareness, which in turn increases their ability to self-regulate.

Cognitive Anxiety Reduction Techniques

Some relaxation procedures focus more directly on relaxing the mind than do progressive relaxation and deep breathing. The argument is that relaxing the mind will in turn relax the body. Both physical and mental techniques can produce a relaxed state, although they work through different paths. We next discuss techniques for relaxing the mind. Relaxation Response Herbert Benson, a physician at Harvard Medical School, popularized a scientifically sound way of relaxing that he called the relaxation response (Benson, 2000). Benson’s method applies the basic elements of meditation but eliminates any spiritual or religious significance. Many athletes use meditation to mentally prepare for competition, asserting that it improves their ability to relax, concentrate, and become energized. However, few controlled studies have addressed the effectiveness of the relaxation response in enhancing performance. The state of mind produced by meditation is characterized by keen awareness, effortlessness, relaxation, spontaneity, and focused attention—many of the same elements that characterize peak performance. The relaxation response requires four elements:

✔ A quiet place, which ensures that distractions and external stimulation are minimized.

✔ A comfortable position that can be maintained for a while. Sit in a comfortable chair, for example, but do not lie down in bed—you do not want to fall asleep.

✔ A mental device, which is the critical element in the relaxation response, that involves focusing your attention on a single thought or word and repeating it over and over. Select a word, such as relax, calm, or ease, that does not stimulate your thoughts, and repeat the word while breathing out. Every time you exhale, repeat your word.

✔ A passive attitude, which is important but can be difficult to achieve. You must learn to let it happen, allowing the thoughts and images that enter your mind to move through as they will, making no attempt to attend to them. If something comes to mind, let it go and refocus on your word. Don’t worry about how many times your mind wanders; continue to refocus your attention on your word.

Autogenic Training

Autogenic training consists of a series of exercises that produce sensations, specifically of warmth and heaviness. Used extensively in Europe but less in North America, the training was developed in Germany in the early 1930s. Attention is focused on the sensations you are trying to produce. As in the relaxation response, feeling should be allowed to happen without interference. The autogenic training program is based on six hierarchical stages, which should be learned in order:

  1. Heaviness in the extremities
  2. Warmth in the extremities
  3. Regulation of cardiac activity
  4. Regulation of breathing
  5. Abdominal warmth
  6. Cooling of the forehead

Systematic Desensitization

If a response antagonistic to anxiety can be made to occur in the presence of anxiety-provoking stimuli so that it is accompanied by a complete or partial suppression of the anxiety responses, the bond between these stimuli and the anxiety responses will be lessened. Anxious people have learned through a process of classical (think Pavlovian) conditioning to have excessively high levels of anxiety, manifested through increased autonomic nervous system activity (e.g., increases in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and galvanic skin response), in the presence of certain stimuli. The goal of the treatment is to replace this nervous activity with a competing behavior. Consider this an example of using systematic desensitization: a client is first trained in deep muscle relaxation and then an anxiety hierarchy is constructed that consists of 5 to 10 scenes ranging from least to most anxiety producing. The following list was created for a athlete who developed excessive anxiety when shooting free throws after missing several critical free throws at the end of games, resulting in losses for his team.

✔  Thinking about the fact that the next game will be played in two days

✔  Waking in the morning and thinking of the game that evening

✔  Walking toward the arena where the game will be play ed

✔  Sitting in the locker room before the game as your coach tells you how important this game is

✔  Listening to the coach’s final instructions in the huddle just before tip-off

✔  Preparing to shoot a free throw in the first half

✔  Preparing to shoot a free throw in the fourth quarter of a close game

✔  Preparing to shoot a free throw with 1 second left in a championship game when your team trails by 1 point

After learning progressive relaxation, the client is asked to imagine the first (least anxiety-producing) scene in the anxiety hierarchy. The client continues imaging this scene until he has no anxiety. He then imagines the next situation on the list until he has no anxiety. He does this until he can image the most anxiety-producing scene without producing any anxiety. This can take weeks or even months if the anxiety reaction is severe, such as in people who have extreme phobias (e.g., open spaces, closed spaces, heights).

Cognitive–Affective Stress Management Training

Cognitive–affective stress management training (SMT) is one of the most comprehensive stress management approaches. SMT is a skills program that teaches a person a specific integrated coping response that uses relaxation and cognitive components to control emotional arousal. Athletes have proved to be an ideal target population: They acquire the coping skills (e.g., muscular relaxation) somewhat more quickly than other groups, face stressful athletic situations frequently enough to permit careful monitoring of their progress, and perform in ways that can be readily assessed. The theoretical model of stress underlying SMT includes both cognitively based and physiologically based intervention strategies. This model accounts for the situation, the person’s mental appraisal of the situation, the physiological response, and the actual behavior. The program offers specific intervention strategies, such as relaxation skills, cognitive restructuring, and self- instructional training, for dealing with the physical and mental reactions to stress. Combining mental and physical coping strategies eventually leads to an integrated coping response.

Cognitive–Affective Stress Management Training

Hypnosis Used in Sports Psychology Coaching

A somewhat controversial and often misunderstood technique for reducing anxiety (both cognitive and somatic), as well as enhancing other mental skills, is hypnosis. Although many definitions have been put forth, hypnosis is defined here as an altered state of consciousness that can be induced by a procedure in which a person is in an unusually relaxed state and responds to suggestions for making alterations in perceptions, feelings, thoughts, or actions.

Originally used by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists outside of sport to enhance performance, focus attention, increase confidence, and reduce anxiety, hypnosis has been increasingly used in sport contexts. Although hypnotic procedures include components used in other applied sport psychology interventions such as relaxation and imagery, they differ from other techniques because they require participants to enter a hypnotic state before other techniques (e.g., relaxation, imagery) are applied.

There has been an upsurge in the use of hypnosis as an arousal regulation technique. For example, research revealed that hypnosis was related to feelings of peak performance states that resulted in improvements in basketball, cycling, and golf performance.

Coping With Adversity

The interest in coping strategies has increased in recent years. From 1998 to 2004, 64 studies were published on coping and athletes. However, from 2005 to 2013, 130 studies were published using both quantitative and qualitative techniques. In these studies, it was recommended that athletes learn a broad spectrum of coping strategies to use in different situations and for different sources of stress. Although athletes sometimes use similar coping strategies from situation to situation, in a behaviors as meditation, relaxation, wishful thinking, reappraisal, self-blame, mental and behavioral withdrawal, and cognitive efforts to change the meaning of the situation (but not the actual problem or environment). 300 Lazarus (2000) suggested that problem-focused coping is used more often when situations are amenable to change, and emotion-focused coping is used more often when situations are not amenable to change.

Proven Strategies for Coping with Stress as an Athlete

Other on-site procedures can help athletes cope with competitive stress. These techniques are not backed by scientific, empirical research but rather come from applied experience with athletes (Kirschenbaum, 1997; Weinberg, 1988, 2002). Choose the strategies that work best for your situation.

Smile when you feel tension coming on. A simple and effective cue is to smile in the face of tension. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be mad or upset when you are smiling. By smiling you take the edge off an anxiety-producing situation. This keeps things in perspective so you can forget about the pressure and enjoy the competition.

Another priority us to have fun—enjoy the situation. Athletes who are highly skilled in their sport convey a sense of enjoyment and fun. Most of them look forward to and even relish pressure situations. Try to keep winning and losing in perspective and focus on enjoying the experience without undue concern about the outcome.

If the topic of stress management is interesting to you, you will want to discovery the Spencer Institute Stress Management Coach Certification.

Coaches should also try to set up stressful situations in practice. Practicing under simulated pressure can be good preparation for actual pressure situations. You can create pressure during practice in many ways. Some college basketball coaches invite other students to practices, asking them to scream and boo so that the players know how it is to play on an opponent’s home floor with the crowd against them. Football coaches sometimes set the stage for a 2-minute drill by telling the team there are 2 minutes left in the game, they are down by 2 points on their own 20-yard line, and there are two time-outs left: The offense must then move the ball into field-goal range.

We tend to rush through parts of the process when we are stressed – try to slow down and take your time. Many athletes report that when they are feeling frustrated and mad, they start to perform too quickly. It is as if the easiest way to cope with all the anger and pressure is to hurry up and finish. For example, baseball pitchers tend to rush their pitches when they get anxious. Conversely, some athletes take too much time between shots, and their thinking disrupts performance. You can find the middle ground if you develop highly consistent pre-shot routines and perform them regularly before each golf shot or tennis serve regardless of the situation and pressure

Using Arousal-Inducing Techniques

So far, we have focused on anxiety management techniques for reducing excess levels of anxiety. At times, however, you need to pump yourself up because you are feeling lethargic and under- energized. Perhaps you have taken an opponent too lightly and he has surprised you. Or you’re feeling lackluster about your rehabilitation exercises. Unfortunately, coaches often inappropriately use various psyching-up or energizing strategies to pump athletes up for a competition. The key is to get athletes at an optimal level of arousal, and things such as pep talks and motivational speeches can often over- arouse athletes. If arousal is to be raised, it should be done in a deliberate fashion with awareness of optimal arousal states. Certain behaviors, feelings, and attitudes signal that you are under- activated:

Moving slowly, not getting set

✔ Mind wandering, becoming easily distracted

✔Lack of concern about how well you perform

✔ Heavy feeling in the legs, no bounce

A player doesn’t have to experience all these signs to be under-activated. The more you notice, however, the more likely it is that you need to increase arousal. Although these feelings can appear at any time, they usually indicate you are not physically or mentally ready to play. The quicker you can detect these feelings, the quicker you can start to get yourself back on track. Here we provide suggestions for generating more energy and activating your system. Note that these are mostly individual strategies (although some could be altered for teams) rather than team energizing strategies such as team goal setting, bulletin boards, media coverage or reports, and pep talks.


  1. Understand how to increase self-awareness of arousal states.

The fir st step toward controlling arousal levels is for athletes to become aware of the situations in competitive sport that cause them anxiety and of how they respond to these events. To do this, athletes can be asked to think back to their best and worst performances and then recall their feelings at those times. In addition, it is helpful to use a checklist to monitor feelings during practices and competitions.

  1. Identify somatic, cognitive, and multimodal anxiety reduction techniques.

Several techniques have been developed to reduce anxiety in sport and exercise settings. The ones used most often to cope with somatic anxiety are progressive relaxation, breath control, and biofeedback. The most prevalent cognitive anxiety reduction techniques include the relaxation response and autogenic training. Two multimodal anxiety management packages that use a variety of techniques are cognitive–affective stress management and stress inoculation training. In addition, pressure training has been employed by coaches to put athletes in stressful situations and help them learn how to cope with the pressure of competition. Finally, hypnosis has received more recent attention as an anxiety reduction technique as well as a method of improving other mental skills.

  1. Identify coping strategies for dealing with competitive stress.

The two major categories of coping are problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping strategies, such as goal setting or time management, involve efforts to alter or manage the problem that is causing stress. Emotion-focused coping involves regulating the emotional responses to the problem causing the stress. Having an array of coping strategies allows athletes to effectively cope with unforeseen events in a competition.

  1. Describe on-site relaxation tips for reducing anxiety.

In addition to several well-developed and carefully structured techniques, on-site techniques can help sport and exercise participants cope with feelings of anxiety. These on-site techniques usually involve having participants remember that they are out there to have fun and enjoy the experience.

Review and Discuss:

  •  Discuss the three basic tenets of progressive relaxation and give general instructions for using this technique.
  •  Describe the f our elements of the relaxation response and how to use it.
  •  How does biofeedback work? Provide an example of its use in working with athletes.
  •  Discuss the four phases of cognitive–affective stress management, comparing and contrasting cognitive structuring and self-instructional training.5. Describe and give contrasting examples of emotion-focused and problem-focused coping. Under what circumstances is each type of coping used in general?

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