Sports psychology

What is sports psychology?

Sports psychology is used to examine how does psychology influence sports, athletic performance and exercising. Sports psychology is a diverse field, so it works with non sportspeople as well as professional athletes (teams and individuals) and also with coaches.  It can improve the physical performance of non athletes. In this field, behavior skills training, soncuelling, clinical interventions and training is used to maximise the performance of sports. Sports pcyhology can be applied to all levels of sport.

Sport psychologists

As mentioned above, this field is diverse, so sports psychologists work with all kinds of people (sportsmen and non sportsmen, coaches). Psychologists who work with athletes often help them to overcome problems with focus, help them cope with with pressure from competitions, teach them how to cope with loud or abusive audience, keeping up their motivation and finding it, but also how to improve their performance and recover from their injuries. Psychologists who work with regular people teach them to enjoy sports and help them with exercise programs as well as teach how to stick to one´s exercise program. A lot of times sports psychologists may be as important as the coaching team (GIlbert Enoka, the All Blacks sport psychologist).  

The inverted U Law

If athlete is too aroused they will not perform well. Gaining the right balance of performance and arousal is necessary to avoid over arousal creating lower performance or under arousal. The theory is called inverted U law, because the graph is U-shaped and seems as it has been inverted.

Image result for inverted u law
The graph of the Inverted U Law


I played volleyball for a while. I noticed that in wintertime, when it was cold and dark, my performance would drop noticeably. Because I became aware of that and it would take several weeks to get better performance again, I wasn’t motivated at all, my arousal level was really low and so was my performance. Sometimes when we had beginners and really good players in the same practice, I would get irritated by the different levels of players, because it interrupted my development. Then my arousal level was high, but playing with that much negative emotion only ruined the performance. When we had games, I sometimes found my heart pounding when I was serving the ball. But my coach and teammates smiled and clapped during my serves. That combined gave results to beautiful and strong ace serves.

Athlete might keep their arousal at their optimal level by practising different exercises, e.g training with the crowd voices on or visit a sports psychologist to help them. I also think that they have to find something as their motivation. Of course it comes down to keeping the mind set really strong and aim for the best result, blocking away all the negativity and having faith to oneself.

How is it used in sports psychology?

Sports psychology suggests that when a little excitement and stress are associated with competition, it can have a positive effect. However, if an athlete´s too aroused they will not perform well. That is why gaining the right balance of performance and arousal is necessary to avoid over arousal creating lower performance or under arousal. U Law is about showing that just the right amount of arousal equals to good performance. As seen on the graph of U Law, at the peak of performance happens in the center of arousal axis.

For example, crowd affects arousal. If a sports team is playing overseas, they might not get many of their fans to go and watch the game live. That means their own crowd might give them low arousal. However, when the team is playing a home game, their fans might really support them and give them just the right amount of support, encouragement and arousal they need to perform well. And finally, when the fans of opposite team overseas are too loud and supportive for their own team, it might disturb the first team. It might also happen when their own fans (at home) are getting too noisy or unhappy with their performance. Too loud crowd can give too high arousal.

Inverted U hypothesis


Supporting evidence

In 2008, Jill Mateo, associate professor in University of Chicago did a research on squirrels and their ability to learn and adapt having different cortisol levels (hormone that is associated with stress, arousal). The squirrels had to navigate a maze that lead them to their burrows. Mateo altered the squirrels’ cortisol levels and eventually found that those with high or low levels of cortisol had more difficulties to finish the maze than those who had moderate levels of cortisol. She also added “danger” elements like throwing frisbee over the maze and bird sounds. High and low cortisol levels reduced the ability to respond to danger. Jill Mateo has stated that these kinds of animal tests help to understand the possible impacts of cortisol levels among humans and their ability to learn and adapt to different situations. Unfortunately, it is hard to run the same test on humans, because cortisol levels cannot be moderated. According to Jill Mateo, we could still understand how cortisol levels could impact our ability to adapt and stay focused.


Two strenghts and two limitations of the theory

  • The theory is easy to understand. The graph is minimal, but still makes sense.
  • The Inverted U Law applies to everyone. For example, if a person is going to have an important interview, his or hers arousal levels start to rise. If he or she is too aroused during the interview, it might have a negative effect and the performance could have been better if they haven’t been that nevrous. Still, different people have have their own levels of optimal arousal.


  • It is questioned if optimal arousal always occurs at the mid-point of the curve
  • One curve does not explain the different optimal levels of arousal needed for simple and complex tasks
  • Optimal arousal does not always help in every sport. Rock climbing requires low arousal levels because the climber has to be concentrated. In golf even the crowd goes silent when an athlete aims.
complex arousal
Optimal arousal is higher for more simple tasks and lower for more complex tasks

Evaluation of the theory

Inverted U Law is used in the real-world and is relevant. For instance, we all know the feeling when we have to present something to a bigger crowd. At first, our arousal levels are low, but as the time gets closer, it rises. A little bit of nervousness and adrenaline is considered to be good, because it can boost our performance. But when this gets too “out of hand”, we could perform badly. People tend to stammer, cough or use their bodies the way they normaly wouldn’t. This is why many people who have to perform or give speech to big groups or crowds, visit psychologists and mentors to overcome their fears (a good example would be a film called “The King’s Speech” by Tom Hooper, Colin Firth in the lead role)

Seotud kujutis
“The King’s Speech”

When it comes down to nature-nurture debate, this theory supports the nurture side aka behavior influenced by environment. Arousal levels mainly come down to the crowd and the setting/surroundings.

I think that this theory applies to everyone. Of course, as mentioned above, different people have different levels of optimal arousal. It may not apply to deeply depressed people, who might think that nothing is important and therefore they wouldn’t even care about giving the best performance. I also reckon that it might not always apply to elderly people, or that the graph would be horizontally longer when it comes to them, because a lot of the times they tend to be more calm due to a lot of life experience. A lot of times they are not easily aroused. Also in Asian countries, it is believed that being really strict with students, music students, young athletes (that can lead to high arousal levels) is the key to best performance. In that case they graph would have the peak at the end of the line, not in the center.

Some people might find the supporting study with squirrels (or any animals in general) against their morals and ethics. But Jill Mateo’s research is actually justified due to the fact that cortisol level among humans is hard to adapt to the wished state.

Why is it used in sports psychology?

The Inverted U Law and other theories on performance and motivations are useful in sports psychology, because it helps athletes to maintain their mental well-being. When an athlete’s mental health is good, this can be linked to the physical performance and boost the results.

The key individuals who might benefit from those theories are the athletes and sports teams. But when tutoring them, coaches can also learn new ways to keep their teams in great shape and finding out what works best for every individual and what do they need to work on more. For instance, the coach might want to find their athlete’s optimal arousal point and examine how did they reach it and how can they maintain it.

Implications of the theory in sports psychology

The implications (effects or consequences) of Inverted U Law can be positive. The theory gives athlete and the coach a reason to study his/her behaviour and characteristics (how does one act when reached to an optimal level or arousal; or how to know if the sportsperson is starting to get over aroused etc).

How will sports psychology change over time?

Technology – would help to do more research and tests on athletes. Maybe not only neurological but also involving the whole body e.g how the body would act in different situations. New gym machines and technology are consantly added to sports field and I reckon that soon every machine would have a touch screen, showing the heart rate and many other things. This can help in psychological tests (for example, one athlete is running treadmill without crowd yelling at them and one athlete does the same with the crowd etc and later the rates will be studied etc).

Injury rehabilitation and prevention – Because physiotherapy is getting more and more popular, the future might have a lot of professionals in the field.

Professionalism in sport – Because it’s becoming more and more about the money, I think that professionalism is becoming less the priority. For example, it is really annoying to watch the soccer World Cup and only noticing how athletes are arguing with the reffugee or wanting to cheat when falling to the ground randomly.

Pildiotsingu neymar falling randomly gif tulemus
Neymar Jr at FIFA World Cup 2018

LGBTQI+ communities – I hope that we will soon have a world that tolerates transgender athletes (but if the person is thinking about himself being a woman, but still has high testosterone levels, he couldn’t take part in women’s division, becuase the results could be unfair simply due to the gender differences). Having transgender athletes take part in the Olympics would be very big step ahead, but I think that the world isn’t ready for that yet and it might not happen so soon. Gay athletes isn’t a problem (Tom Daley, British diver, hold a bronze medal).


Other used resources:


Laura Johanna Uusen, Aotea College 2018