The Optimal State of Arousal

We all know about that one athlete who has the crazy superstition or pre-game ritual. You know, the one that won’t wash their game socks all season, or the one that has to have sauerkraut and hot dogs before every game, or the one who has to run to the center of the field and touch the team logo before every home game. Are these just crazy superstitions and rituals…. or are they something more?

Let’s consider the above paragraph while being reminded of who Ivan Pavlov was and what he contributed to science and psychology. Ivan Pavlov was a scientist who did the bulk of his work in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s winning the Nobel prize in 1904. Ivan Pavlov is probably best known for his work in classical conditioning and in particular a series of experiments he did with dogs. The dogs were conditioned to expect that food was imminently forthcoming with the ringing of the bell. Eventually the dogs would have the normal physical responses to eating (like producing extra saliva) as soon as the bell rang as opposed to shortly after beginning to eat.

As a way of dragging this onto the mats let’s look at one more idea: the optimal state of arousal. This theory as it relates to athletes says that different athletes engaging in different activities will benefit from specific levels of arousal. When speaking of arousal, we are speaking about adrenaline levels, heart rate, intensity of mental focus, etc. If we use American football as an example; a linebacker would most likely benefit more from a higher state of arousal than a quarterback. If a quarterback comes in and he’s too “pumped up” he’ll be jittery in the pocket and inaccurate with his throws. It’s extremely important that he comes into the game in the right state of mind. Every athlete is an individual and the optimal state for one will be different than for another. It’s up to the athlete to find the right state for him or her….and this is where we get back to rituals and superstitions, it’s up to the athlete to find a way to put themselves in the optimal  state of mind.

So, back to those crazy superstitions and rituals that some athletes have: they may not be simply eccentric quirks, maybe they’re part of the process an athlete uses to tell his mind and body that it’s time to perform. When a baseball player goes to bat you will notice his routine – tap the right toe, tap the left toe, adjust each batting glove, take a practice swing, step into the box, and tap on the plate twice….and every time it’s the same self-talk “relax, follow through, and put the ball in play”, or something like that. For each batter it will pretty much be the same every time.

For those of you reading this who compete regularly: How consistent is your “pre-fight” routine? Do you have a standard warm-up that you use? How’s your self-talk before the match? Do you have a ritual/routine for stepping on the mat and beginning the match? Incorporating this into your routine won’t make you a champion overnight, but we’ve all had matches where we just didn’t “have it” and our opponent scored the first points and we never caught up. We’ve also had matches where we were so hyped going into the match and the gas tank was empty 3 minutes in. Wouldn’t it be nice to eliminate these two possibilities? Try incorporating some of these ideas and see if it helps.


Train hard. Train smart. Get better.


More on the optimal state of arousal; grapplearts….the optimal state of arousal

For more information about Classical Conditioning; simply psychology

Byrons ideas about the optimal state of arousal; meet-an-inmate