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CHAPTER Arousal and Performance

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Chapter 8 - Arousal and Performance _______________________________________________________

Introduction ________________________________________________

Nearly every coach or athlete is interested in the effects of arousal on performance. The coach wants to help the athlete reach a level of arousal that will result in the best possible performance. Intuitively, the coach knows that if the athlete is either over aroused or under aroused, that athlete will not produce a stellar performance. The athlete is also aware, from past experience that a certain optimum level of arousal will result in his best performance. There are only two basic theories of the performance and arousal relationship. The first is inverted-U theory, and the second is the drive theory. Inverted-U theory includes many sub-theories that explain why the relationship between arousal and performance takes the form of the quadratic curve while drive theory is a multidimensional theory of performance and learning. I already talked a little bit about the inverted-U theory. Now I am going to talk about it in greater depth. I know you are happy as pink punch about that. Well, you can thank me later. Drive theory basically proposes a linear relationship between arousal and performance. I am also going to talk about this theory in depth too. It is just that I want you to be…well, happier than pink punch.

Inverted-U Theory ___________________________________________________________

The inverted-U theory has been around for as long as the arousal/performance relationship has been studied. It simply states that the relationship between performance and arousal is quadratic as opposed to linear and takes the form of an inverted-U (figure 1.1). As can be observed in figure 1.2 (Sport Specific Optimal Levels of Arousal), a high level of arousal is necessary for the best performance in gross motor activities such as weightlifting. Conversely, a lower level of arousal is best for a fine motor task such as putting in golf. Each sport skill has its theoretical optimal level of arousal for best performance. Regardless of which type of skill is being performed, they all conform to the inverted-U principle. Specifically, performance is lowest when arousal is very high or low and highest when arousal is moderate or optimum. Another important consideration relating to the Yerkes-Dodson law is skill level. Just as putting in golf is a complex activity compared to weightlifting, learning to dribble a basketball is more difficult for a beginner than performing the same task as an expert. The optimal level of arousal for a beginner should be considerably lower than the optimal level for an expert performing the same task. As illustrated in figure 1.3 (Athlete

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.2


Chapter 8 - Arousal and Performance _______________________________________________________

Specific Optimal Levels of Arousal), this concept explains why highly skilled athletes perform better in competitive situations than do novices.

Figure 1.3

Source: Williams, J.M., Landers, D.M., Boutcher, S.H., (1993). Arousal-Performance Relationships, Applied Sport Psychology; Personal Growth to Peak Performance, pgs 170-184, 2

Eastecbrook’s Cue Utilization Theory _______________________________________________________________________________________________

The basic premise of Easterbrook’s cue utilization or attentional narrowing theory is that as arousal increases, attention narrows. The narrowing of attention results in some cues being blotted out, first irrelevant cues and later relevant cues. It might be noted that attentional narrowing predicts an inverted-U relationship between arousal and performance. When arousal is low, the attentional band is wide and both irrelevant and relevant cues are available. The presence of the irrelevant cues is distracting and causes a decrement in performance. At a moderate or optimal level of arousal, only the irrelevant cues are eliminated, and therefore, performance is high. Finally, when arousal is high, attentional focus is narrow and both relevant and irrelevant cues are gated out. This results in a decrement in performance as predicted by the inverted-U theory. At the higher levels of arousal, it is also important to recognize the phenomenon of distractibility. When arousal levels become very high, cue utilization theory predicts that attention narrows. However, there is a point at which a person‟s attention begins to jump randomly from one cue to another. This process of sporadically directing attention to many different sources is referred to as distractibility. The athlete who experiences this will be confused by the many relevant and irrelevant cues that are momentarily attended to. The phenomenon of attentional narrowing is easily applied to a sport setting. When a football quarterback drops back for a pass, an optimal level of attention will cause a blotting out of irrelevant cues. However, if arousal becomes too high, the quarterback may either suffer from distractibility or blot out relevant cues as a result of his narrow band of attention. In brief, according to the Easterbrook‟s cue utilization theory, an increased arousal causes attention to become narrower and more restricted. This can enhance performance up to a certain point, but thereafter it causes a performance decrement. Once again just for good measure, Easterbrook‟s cue utilization theory supports an inverted-U relationship between arousal and performance.

Signal Detection Theory ______________________________________________________________________

Another theory that predicts a quadratic relationship between arousal and performance is signal detection theory (SDT). In its simplest form, signal detection theory states that the intensity of noise (N) in the nervous system falls along a continuum ranging from low to high. The theory postulates that high or low levels of arousal have the effect of altering the


Chapter 8 - Arousal and Performance _______________________________________________________

position of a subject‟s response criterion. Increased arousal causes brain cells to become activated and more ready to fire. Increased activation of brain cells would increase the neural activity and decrease the athlete‟s ability to focus. In a low-arousal situation, the errors would tend to be a failure to detect a signal. This is known as error of omission. In the higharousal situation, the errors would tend to be false identification of signals, which is called error of commission. In the optimal arousal situation, the errors are ideally balanced between false alarms and misses. This model is very appealing because one would expect errors to increase with high and low levels of arousal, but the nature of the error is different due to the activation or deactivation of brain cells. From this explanation, it should be clear that with extreme shifts in the response criterion, we have the inverted-U relationship between the ability to detect a signal and arousal. In sport, the signal detection theory model can be applied to officials, who must routinely make split-second decisions. Was the pitch a ball or a strike? Was the runner safe or out? The theory can be used to determine an official‟s bias and sensitivity. As with athletes, when the official is under-aroused or over-aroused, he or she will make more errors than when optimally aroused.

Information Processing Theory ____________________________________________________________________________________

The basic predictions of information processing theory for the stress performance relationship are identical to those of signal detection theory. Both theories predict the inverted-U relationship between performance and arousal, and both support the Yerkes-Dodson law. Accordingly, when brain cells become active with increased levels of arousal they begin to fire. As this happens, the information processing system becomes over activated and its channel capacity is reduced. At low levels of arousal, the system is relatively inert and performance is low. At high levels of arousal, a performance decrement occurs because of the reduced information processing capacity of the channels. At some optimal level of arousal, the information processing capacity of the system is at its maximum and performance is at its best. Of course, the trick is finding that optimal level.

Drive Theory _________________________________________________

Before I start this entire academic litany on the drive reduction theory, let me warn you that if your name is Bubba or if your cholesterol level is higher than your SAT scores, you might want to skip over this section. If that is the case, I am going to make all of this easy for you. The basic concept you need to know about the drive reduction theory is that it proposes a linear relationship between arousal and performance, in contrast to the inverted-U theory. I have illustrated these two basic theories in figure 1.4 below. Now, for all you brainy guys, here are the actual nuts and bolts of this theory. Perhaps the great contribution of the drive theory is that it helps to explain the relationship between learning and arousal, as well as between performance and arousal. Many young athletes are just beginning the process of becoming skilled performers. The effect of arousal upon a beginner may be different than upon a skilled performer. The basic relationship between arousal and an athlete‟s performance at any skill level is given in the following formula: Performance = Arousal X Skill Level


Chapter 8 - Arousal and Performance _______________________________________________________

This formula represents a very simple summary of drive theory. Specifically, performance on a task is a function of the personâ€&#x;s arousal multiplied by how well the task is learned. Drive theory, as developed by Hull (1943, 1951) and Spence (1956), is a complex stimulus-response theory of motivation and learning. The complexity occurs as Hull and Spence attempt to link the stimulus conditions (S) with the overt response through a series of presuppositions. The basic formula as agreed on by the two researchers is reflected in the following equation: S-----------------H X D = RP---------------R The items in the box are intervening variables, theoretical constructs that cannot be observed, but only inferred. Drive (D) was originally conceived in terms of need reduction. That is, an organism responded because of an unsatisfied need, which was referred to as a drive. When the need (e.g., hunger, thirst, sex) was fulfilled, the drive was reduced or eliminated. The notion of drive later included learned drives. This adjustment allowed the concept of drive to be used in sports. Habit (H) is a hypothetical construct that represents the true state of learning. For Hull and Spence, learning takes place as a result of the contiguity of a stimulus and response under the condition of reinforcement. The strength of the habit, given the closeness of stimulus and response, is a function of the number of previous reinforcements. For our purposes, habit strength will be considered to be synonymous with degree of learning of a motor skill. The effect of drive (arousal) upon a learned habit is to raise the reaction potential (RP) of the organism. Reaction potential represents the level of excitement of the organism, in any condition of competing responses, one correct and the other incorrect, the selected response is the one associated with the highest reaction potential. In any situation, there is generally more than one possible response as a result of one stimulus or set of stimuli. One of the possible responses would be the corrected response (Re), while the other or others would be an incorrect response (Rj). There can be many incorrect responses, but typically only one correct response. Increased arousal will elicit the dominant response among several competing responses, where the dominant response is the one associated with the strongest R.P. The dominant response may or may not be the correct one (Rc), and we should expect the dominant response to be incorrect with a complex task or in the early stages of earning. Thus, increased drive or arousal would result in a decrement in performance. Conversely, in the late stages of learning or with a simple task, the dominant response should be the correct one, and increased arousal should facilitate performance. In summary, drive theory proposes that: 1. Increased arousal (drive) will elicit the dominant response. 2. The response associated with the strongest reaction potential is the dominant response. 3. Early in learning or for complex tasks, the dominant response is the incorrect response. 4. Late in learning or for simple tasks, the dominant response is the correct response. From these drive theory tenets we can make several practical applications. First heightened levels of arousal should benefit the skilled performer, but hamper the beginner. The coach with a relatively young team should strive to create an atmosphere relatively low in anxiety and arousal. Low levels of arousal should increase the beginnerâ€&#x;s chances of a successful performance. In turn, the experience of success should strengthen self-confidence. Skilled athletes, on the other hand, will benefit from an increase in arousal. Similar applications can be made to the performance of simple and complex tasks. For example, a complex task such as throwing a curveball in baseball will always require a low level of arousal. Conversely, a very simple task such as doing a deadlift would seem to benefit from a high level of arousal.


Chapter 8 - Arousal and Performance _______________________________________________________

Since we previously observed that the relationship between performance and arousal is quadratic…an inverted-U…the linear prediction of drive theory is contradictory. At least, this is true for the welllearned or simple task. How can this be? Do we simply dismiss drive theory or is there a plausible explanation? Actually, proponents of drive theory recognized this problem at an early date and recommended adjustments in the model. For example, it was suggested that the problem could be handled within the drive theory framework by hypothesizing a maximum ceiling effect for the reaction potential. Thus, when the ceiling is reached, higher levels of drive cannot raise the reaction potential any higher, and at some point (as arousal increases), the reaction potential for the correct and incorrect responses will be equal. This will again cause competition between the correct and incorrect responses, and performance will deteriorate. Research support for drive theory is mixed, especially in terms of motor performance. The complexity of the theory makes it difficult to test. For example, how do researchers determine when a response shifts from being dominant to non-dominant? And how do researchers determine if a subject is skilled or unskilled, or whether a task is simple or complex? Many ingenious studies have been designed by inventive researchers to solve these problems. Yet, if a study fails to support drive theory, does one conclude that drive theory is faulty, or that the experimental design failed to satisfy the complexities of the theory? There is no easy answer to this question. The theory is very appealing and has survived over thirty years of research. As Janet Spence wrote, “What can you say about a twenty year old theory that won‟t die?” Still, the research in this area is equivocal with some studies supporting the drive theory and other studies refuting it. For this reason, interest in drive theory has waned in recent years in favor of the inverted-U theories. But drive theory is attractive because it makes useful predictions about the relationship between learning and arousal. The other theories deal primarily with performance. We can conclude that the relationship between arousal and athletic performance takes the form of an inverted-U. And while drive theory does not specifically predict a quadratic relationship between performance and arousal, neither is it inconsistent with this hypothesis.



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