Getting in the ZONE IV: Arousal Regulation

Posted on 22 Jul 2009 18:56

In part I of this series on achieving a state of flow, I introduced the concept of flow and described some of the characteristics of the state. In part II I explained how you can avoid turning failure into a negative force and, indeed, use it as a means of learning and improving, thus bringing you a big step closer to flow. The third part was a quick and simple attempt to point out that it's not quick and simple to achieve flow, and that every individual will have a different experience.

Now, I want to get to the nuts and bolts of achieving flow. I WANT to but I can't yet. What good are nuts and bolts if there is nothing to hold together? Some basic background is necessary to expedite things.

Before I can explain HOW to achieve flow, which could fill a book, I need to address WHAT we are trying to do and WHY we are trying to do it. Flow is just a word. Even knowing the basic characteristics of it, as I listed in the first part, will not explain the underlying processes we want to affect. As the days and months go by, I will spin the word flow in other directions. For right now, however, we want to regulate arousal

What is arousal?

Arousal is the sum of the psychological and physiological activities in a person. You could basically call it someone's level of excitement. Excitement or arousal is much more than just mental. Every change in the mental or emotional state produces a corresponding change in the bodily state. And it can work the other way as most of us well know. When appropriately aroused, an individual is in a state of physiological readiness.

The interplay between psychological and physiological states is very important here. An individual can be "prepared" in a physical sense but not be "ready" in a physiological sense if that person is inappropriately aroused. There are three prominent theories of arousal, drive theory (one of a group of drive theories), the inverted U hypothesis, and the reversal theory.

Most strength training authorities seem to draw from the basic drive theory, which, according to who you ask, would have it that for a strength or speed-oriented activity, the more aroused you are the better, at least for the advanced strength athlete who is "well practiced." However, this idea totally discounts any need for control in heavy lifting. However, since it is the first few milliseconds and how one controls the body at the beginning of a lift that can often determine success or failure, this "more is better" theory of arousal may have serious flaws.

More confusion exists because arousal is often seen and discussed as if it is the same thing as anxiety, emotion, activation, motivation or just "psychic energy." Since the concept of arousal is then easily confused with any highly charged emotional state, whether it is a highly anxious one, an angry one, or an intensely activated and motivated one, most coaches see appropriate arousal as nothing more than a process of "psyching yourself up."1

Arousal rests on a continuum from deep sleep (very low) to frenzy (very high). Very low arousal is obviously not conducive to performance. But neither is a "fever pitch" of excitement. This is less obvious so I will elaborate:

In Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications, Richard Cox2 relates the story of an African Hunter who loses his weapon and then gets chased by a lion. He runs along at top speed, possibly faster than he's ever run before, and spots a tree limb about twelve feet off the ground. So without losing a step he leaps for the limb with the intention of leaping higher than he ever has or even thought possible.

He missed the limb going up.

Don't worry though; he caught it coming down.

Ok, so you get the point. When we are extremely aroused we can do some phenomenal stuff. But did you get the other point? His accuracy sucked. Luckily he DID catch the limb on the way down but luck doesn't work with a loaded barbell! So, being over-aroused can be as bad as being under-aroused.

Another example that I use is a first-time sky-diver.

You sign up for a sky-diving course. At the end of the course, you get to do your first tandem-jump.

You go through the classes and learn all about safety and parachutes. You learn all the procedures involved and are told exactly what to expect on your first dive and perform preparatory drills. All of this safely at ground level. You are prepared. Or as prepared as anyone can hope to be before their first dive. The day of the dive comes. You are all suited up and you get strapped to your instructor. You're terrified.

Your turn comes. The instructor yells a question in you ear: "Are you ready?!".

And you answer: "Hell, no!"

Not many people could expect not to be overwhelmed by fear and anxiety on their first time jumping out of a perfectly good plane. But imagine if this were not a tandem-jump. It doesn't matter how well prepared you are as far as information and practice drills. The real world means getting control of your anxiety and fear. Thus, it means regulation of arousal. If you could not do this then you would not feel "ready" to jump without an experienced instructor with you. And if you do feel ready under those circumstances…then you may just be a little crazy. Neither condition is conducive to top performance.

Anxiety, fear, anger and excitement are all part of arousal. They have psychological and physiological consequences. You may be, in many ways, prepared to make a maximal lift, but that does not mean your are ready. And readiness is just as important for top performance as preparedness.

Effects of Anxiety

Anxiety before a tough lift is a big problem. Past performance memories, injury and fear of failure can cripple many lifters. Anger is also a similar problem, although its manifestations are different. I'll go further into all that later on but right now I need to focus on the negative physiological consequences of these emotions.

There are two basic types of anxiety that sport psychologists talk about. State anxiety and trait anxiety.

Trait anxiety is used to describe a stable or personality influenced mood component. This is your "normal disposition" and refers to your response to many different circumstances that do not in themselves present actual danger. This is more or less how laid-back or nervous you tend to be.

So, while I might see a maximal deadlifting attempt as no big deal, you might see it as a life or death situation with all sorts of things that could go wrong; resulting in injury either physically or psychologically.

State anxiety is a mood state that changes from one moment to the next. So, for instance, when approaching that big deadlift you may feel a bit keyed up and tense. Your heart races. Your stomach feels a bit queasy or tight. But once you settle in to position and begin to get ready for the big pull you relax a bit and your anxiety decreases.

Even more illustrative would be your mood before a workout that you dread for some reason. Say, you plan to attempt a big pull but at first, you do not feel strong or prepared. Then as you move forward through your warm-up this anxiety levels off and you do not feel as anxious. When you actually get to the attempt, your anxiety increases again.

In general, although not universally true, a person with high trait anxiety will experience greater levels of state anxiety. Experience and coping skills come into play, though.

State anxiety is further classified as either somatic state anxiety or cognitive state anxiety.

The somatic component is the arousal component. It is the physiological effect, such as your heart racing, to anxiety. The cognitive component is the mental aspect. It is, basically, your worrying.

What we are trying to do here, however, is to regulate physiological arousal and therefore somatic anxiety, not worry. There are all sorts of complicated theories surrounding this but suffice it to say, the worst way to relax is to THINK about relaxing! All you will do is focus more of your mental energy on your level of cognitive anxiety and thus increase it and become over-aroused.

I think it is important to point out that all anxiety is not negative or positive. It is how you react to it. Some people can actually feel these performance jitters as pleasant excitement whereas others will become psyched-out by them and thus more worried. The problem is that excessive arousal seems to have a threshold where performance drops dramatically. There is "optimal" and then beyond that, there is "catastrophe". It is not a slow, gradual decline in performance as arousal increases beyond optimal, but rather a huge precipitous drop.

Many lifters should be able to attest to this. Think back to when you have attempted a lift that you should be able to do a couple of times. It is at the edge of your ability and challenging but you are confident in your ability to pull off a couple of singles.

The first time you complete the lift with no problem. As Ronnie says.."it ain't nothing but a peanut."

But the second time, after a very good rest you not only fail the lift but fail it MISERABLY. Physically, you cannot account for this failure. It could be technical in nature. You made a big mistake that resulted in a big failure. Why do we make big mistakes? We should be able to do the movement automatically. We feel prepared. We've done this before. What changed?

I think you can figure it out. That's right. Your level of arousal changed. You became over-aroused. Maybe you were too busy congratulating yourself over the first lift. Whatever the case, it wasn't a "near-miss" it was a complete mess. We've all experienced this.

Muscle Tension

For lifting, the biggest physiological problem we want to address is excess muscle tension. The truth is, I actually suspect that many lifters see this tension as a good thing. Some powerlifters use what they call "high tension techniques" and there are certain prescriptions that involve purposely tensing your muscles either at the end of lifts or between sets. Whatever the reasons; this may inadvertently help us do the exact opposite of what is intended. Help us relax! I'll bet the "innovators" who came up with the muscle tensing thing didn't expect that.

That is not to say that the sheer act of tensing your muscles results in relaxation. In fact, if you tense one muscle hard it will lead to tension in others. A reason NOT to perform these tension drills before sets and especially between reps. But when you do tense a muscle you are honing in on its state of tension, thus allowing you to let go of that tension. It is very likely that you were holding tension in the muscle before you tried to tense it on purpose, thus, the tensing process leads to a more relaxed state in that muscle after you let go.

But no, tightening up before a lift is a bad thing. Tension begets tension and it will interfere with your ability to coordinate movement properly and the excessive tension signals will simply bog down the nerve pathways with inappropriate garbage. To move properly and lift properly we need a complex ballet of tension levels among many different muscle groups.

Our muscles are arranged in antagonist pairs that work with a "double pull" system. When one muscle shortens it's opposite must contract to hold that body segment in place. So tension in only one muscle can result in a wave of excess tension that travels over the entire body as the tightness in one muscle leads to tightness in another, so on and so forth. Think back to the last time you felt "scared stiff" or "rigid with anger" and you'll know what I'm talking about.

The emotional lifter can learn a great deal from this. For instance, take the guy who can't lift a weight without "getting mad at it." Sometimes this is just a miss-observation. Novice lifters observe experienced lifters going through their "psyching-up" process and equate the intensity of this with anger and aggressiveness. Sometimes it is. But many times what appears to be intense anger and aggression is actually an intense CHANNELING of energy. Also, keep in mind that the facial expressions may be meant to psych out other competitors more than to psych up the lifter himself! People tend to equate aggression with POWER. The opponent who can APPEAR more aggressive may, therefore, be seen as more powerful (in a strength sense) and thus win the match psychologically as much as physically. But:

1. Anger is not physiologically conducive to coordinated movement

2. Anger shifts focus OFF the task and onto an outside component.

Many lifters call up negative memories in order to incite themselves to anger. It should be clear that their attentional focus is shifted to these extrinsic components and off the task at hand. AND this anger causes a negative physiological response manifesting in excessive muscular tension. Anxiety is not always seen as a negative thing, but I'm not sure there is a sports psychologist anywhere who believes anger ever aids in performance.

These angry lifters think that they can 'control and direct' their anger onto the bar. Such lifters may do well to focus more on DOING and less on THINKING! Over-focusing on one emotional response or trigger tends to divert attention to a Self-consciousness appraisal of our emotional state. Instead of a healthy 'self-awareness' or 'mindfullness' we have rumination or preoccupation. Think of it this way. Do you want to focus your attention on a successful lift or on calling up anger and then thinking about that anger and its directional focus?

There are those who will need to focus on energizing techniques. Rather than controlling excessive arousal, they will need to develop strategies to increase arousal. But in my experience, most lifters have more of a need to control anxiety, apprehension, and anger, and thus regulate excessive arousal. Therefore the next post will focus on regulating over-arousal.

See Getting in the Zone V: Relaxation

All Related Posts:

Getting in the Zone Series

1. Spielberger, Charles Donald. Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. Oxford: Elsevier Academic, 2004.

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This page created 22 Jul 2009 18:56
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 02:42

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