Opinion: Quite Getting So Aroused

Performance, either physical or mental, requires a level of arousal or excitement that matches the task at hand. Whether it’s the last deadlift attempt of a powerlifting meet, a crucial at-bat in baseball that can put your team ahead, or the eleventh hour before a deadline to close a deal at work, you won’t be able to complete the task without a certain level of mental alertness, focus, and grit.

The relationship between performance and arousal is adequately described by the Yerkes-Dodson Law. For most tasks, the relationship can be best visualized as an upside-down U-curve. Before a certain point of mental arousal or past it, performance in the task suffers; there is an elusive sweet spot for every task out there.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

Task difficulty also has to be accounted for. An easy task like studying for a job interview requires much less arousal than attempting a PR on the squat. You don’t exactly have to be “amped up” to study hard.

In certain cases though, hyper-arousal doesn’t negatively affect performance, especially when a task is simple or second-nature. I would argue that attempting a PR on the squat falls into this category, but only after a certain point.

The elusive end-goal is to be able to harness high arousal for a technically demanding skill that also requires strength and power. This is usually the type of thing you do in sports or in the gym; like the clean & jerk, or hitting a baseball for a go-ahead homerun in the last inning. This skill must be second nature to allow high arousal to maximize the strength and power necessary to complete the task. Otherwise, there is a greater potential for error.

This is why reps upon reps in practice are necessary for perfection. Practicing under low arousal is crucial.

You should always be looking to progress and improve your lifts and physical performance, even when they don’t necessarily count. When it does counts in competition, you might have a screaming audience watching your every move. Nothing in practice can prepare you for that uncertainty.

Whether or not it counts, pushing the limits of performance on the field or in the gym is a high-threshold task on its own. By then, hopefully that task is reflexive and second-nature so that you’re ready to dominate when arousal kicks in.

Just be sure to keep it low, but focused, during practice.

by Jeremy Lau