Arousal levels and rugby performance: Do I need to pump them up?
Imagine this scene as a coach, an hour before kick-off you look around the room to your amazement your players actually look tired, you even catch three or four players yawning! How dare they!!! Another couple of guys are chatting casually, laughing even. You start to worry. It’s a big game today… are they complacent? Are they not pumped up enough? Do they even care?
At some point in a coaching career you would have experienced or interpreted a situation like this… so what next? Is it an Al Pacino style pep talk? Or an anger fueled rant about how the guys need to fire up a bit more? Should you wander around the room slapping players in the face to get them a bit more angry and ready to go to war?
Controlling what we call “arousal” in sport psychology is an interesting discussion. I’ve been around and even played under many coaches who have felt the need to attempt to alter the arousal levels of players before or during matches. This is usually based on a subjective judgment on how they perceive players to be in a particular moment, which is actually a really important point! What you see is not necessarily the whole story.
In this article, I’m going to discuss what arousal levels actually are, how they can or can’t be linked to performance and what your role as a coach should be.
Firstly, it is important to recognize that arousal and anxiety are often mixed up or used interchangeably, but they have slightly different meanings. A good way to think about arousal levels is to think of it as energy or excitement. When we are at the bottom of the scale we would be asleep and conversely at the top we would be ultra-excited i.e. just taking the leap off the platform while bungie jumping.
Our heart races, blood pressure and breathing can increase and so on. We are more alert. The key is that arousal is not linked to unpleasant events, it can be a positive or negative experience. Anxiety, however, is largely defined as a negative emotional state where one might have worries and fears alongside an increase in arousal which accompanies that fears (the racing heart etc).
There has been a ton of research on arousal and performance, you might have heard about the famous inverted U hypothesis stating that arousal levels need to be balanced at the right place for peak performance to happen. Not too high, not too low. This became hugely popular and it is what is taught in many basic level sport psychology courses at high schools and universities. In this model, the theory states that arousal level has a midpoint that indicates a magic place of performance perfection, now classically known as “the zone.”
This is the ultimate place to be, and many people tried to develop techniques to assist individuals into this “zone.” The model is still widely used today, and does have some use for explaining a relationship between arousal levels and performance.
However, one problem with this model is that it creates athletes (and coaches) who will continually stress and worry about getting themselves into the right zone. This can create a real struggle, an internal struggle that is actually great at taking people out of the present moment and affecting their poise, concentration and ability to slip into a state of flow.
Because of that, I would tend to approach this matter in a slightly different manner when dealing with rugby players. Fundamentally, performance is actually about what we do, not how we feel. So why not focus our attention on what we can do in the outside world, rather than how we are feeling on the inside. We are actually all contributing to a problematic emphasis on being pumped up, or feeling a certain way, relaxed etc.
This is because when we try to encourage players to feel more excited, or feel more relaxed we create a focus on feelings rather than behaviours. If we focus on “how we’re feeling” all the time, we are inadvertently encouraging a player to constantly keep track of, and wonder about how they are feeling. This is counter-intuitive to peak performance, because when we are performing our best, self-conscious thoughts don’t come up, we are completely immersed in what we are doing rather than worried about how we are feeling or evaluating how we are doing. And there is ample evidence for that. Now, certain states of arousal may definitely lead us to find that peak performance easier, however, it should be actions that lead us there, rather than thinking or talking ourselves into these.
So we could think about trying to encourage players to be better and better at getting themselves into the right “zone” of arousal or we could help them drop that struggle, and encourage players to focus on actions and behaviors that help the team. Team is crucial in that element also, having a whole focus on their own mind is going to create a team of self-focused individuals. Having a team of players who are task focused, rather than self-focused is the recipe for an ultimate level of performance.
So pre-match, drop the focus on feelings and arousal states and as a coach help players focus on the tasks required. Task focus is the key to the best performances and self-focused athletes can get caught up in a civil war in their own mind, trying to fight themselves into the optimal zone. This isn’t ideal, especially when they have a pretty big fight going on, in the match itself.
• Some things to remember: yawning is a symptom of high arousal or anxiety. It occurs when your brain is requesting a need for more oxygen. So, don’t misinterpret that for being too relaxed.
• If the pep talk makes you feel better, make sure it’s about behaviours rather than feelings because we want to be talking about what we have to do, rather than how we have to feel.
• We win rugby games through positive actions, not positive feelings, so keep your focus on these and hopefully you’ll have less self-focused players and more team and task focused individuals.