Catastrophe Theory in Sport

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Catastrophe Theory In Sport Arousal Performance

Catastrophe Theory in Sport – What is it and why is it important?

In this post we will discuss the catastrophe theory in sport:

  • Why is it important?
  • What is involved?
  • What is the Catastrophe Theory in Sport
  • Sporting examples of the Catastrophe Theory
  • How can this theory help athletes and coaches

Why is the Catastrophe Theory in Sport Important?

All those in involved in sport should understand the principles and purpose of the Catastrophe theory.  

The purpose of the catastrophe theory in sport is to illustrate the relationship between arousal levels and performance and how a certain level of arousal can lead to either an increase or a collapse in performance.

In 1988, researchers Fazey and Hardy published a study which reported a relationship between arousal and performance different than that of the drive theory and the inverted U theory (You can read our article on the drive theory here). The inverted U theory suggested that an increase in arousal past the optimum point would lead to a steady decline in performance. Whereas the drive theory suggests no decline in performance as arousal increase.

The results of the research by Fazey and Hardy (1988) paved a way for future studies as they argued performance decreasing dramatically if arousal increases after the optimum point. Other areas of interest include the different leadership styles used in sports coaching as well as understanding how sports teams can increase performance (why not read our article on team cohesion here).

Sports coaches and athletes need to understand the impact on arousal and performance and how an athletes performance can potentially increase with an increase in anxiety. Whilst as being aware that too much arousal could lead to a ‘catastrophic’ drop in performance.

types of sports Team Games Football Invasion Games

What is involved in the Catastrophe theory?

The two factors involved in the catastrophe theory in sport are:

  • Arousal or anxiety (both somatic and cognitive)
  • Performance (See diagram for an illustration)

Somatic anxiety in sport is seen as physical anxiety such as headaches and fatigue whereas cognitive anxiety in sport focuses more on a person worrying and negative thoughts.

What is the Catastrophic Theory in Sport?

As an athletes arousal increases, the catastrophe theory suggests that an athlete‘s performance will also increase up to a certain point. The point at which arousal and performance are at their best is known as the optimum point. Each individual athlete has their own personal optimum point depending on personality and a number of other factors (why not check out our post on the different types of motivation).

Too much arousal after the optimum point can lead to a sharp drop in performance (this is also known as the cliff edge) hence the name catastrophe theory. If the athletes arousal continues to increase after this sharp drop in performance, then the athletes performance will continue to decrease further if arousal levels increase.

Catastrophe Theory In Sport Arousal Performance

Fazey and Hardy (1988) suggested that when arousal eventually decreases after the collapse in performance, performance does not increase instantly. Whereas, the inverted U theory states that performance will gradually increase if arousal lowers (you may also want to read our article on drive theory here).

The catastrophe theory in sport suggests that an athletes arousal level needs to lower significantly if they want to improve their performance. Only then will an athletes performance gradually increase back up to the optimum point if arousal increases. 

In addition to this, the catastrophe theory also suggests differences in performances according to an athletes somatic and cognitive anxiety/arousal. Somatic and cognitive arousal is needed to achieve optimum point. However, an increasing cognitive arousal state and a low somatic arousal level could lead to better performance.

An increase in both somatic and cognitive arousal could lead to a catastrophic drop in performance.

Sporting Examples of the Catastrophe Theory in Sport

A common sporting examples of the catastrophe theory in practice in recent years is in 2011 when Rory Mcllroy lost the masters in the final round whilst having a four stroke lead at the start of the day. More shocking is that by the end of the day his round of golf was the worst final day score in Masters history.

Another example often used is from the Wimbledon final in 1993. Jana Novotel was leading the third set 4-1 and was on for a service point of 5-1. Novotna double faulted and then in quick succession, lost the match 7-6, 1-6 and 6-4.

How Can This Theory Help Athletes and Coaches?

Being aware of the findings of catastrophe theory is important for coaches to prevent their athletes from the sudden drop in performance that can occur from too high arousal.

athlete authority ball ballpark

Coaches and athletes need to be aware of the link between somatic and cognitive anxiety as well as the signs and symptoms of each. Monitoring anxiety/arousal levels leading up to and during a performance can possibility prevent over arousal (Fazey and Hardy, 1988).

In addition, coaches also need to be aware that if an athlete does drop in performance due to over arousal, they will need to aim to reduce their athletes arousal levels significantly being seeing any further increase in performance.


The Catastrophe theory in sport illistrates the relationship between an athletes arousal and performance levels.

The theory suggests that an athletes performance will increase if arousal also increases to an optimum point. However, too much arousal/anxiety could lead to a sudden drop in performance and arousal levels will need to be significantly reduced before seeing any further performance improvement.

You may also like to read our article on the drive theory which you can do here.

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New to sports coaching? Then you may want to check out our guide to sports coaching. Here you will be able to learn techniques and strategies that will excel your coaching career. Topics include Stages of LearningMethods of Training and Leadership Styles.

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Fazey, J., and Hardy, L. (1988). The inverted-U hypothesis: catastrophe for sport psychology. British Association of Sports Sciences Monograph No. 1. Leeds: The National Coaching Foundation.

Hardy L, Parfitt G (1991). A catastrophe model of anxiety and performance. Br J Psychol. May;82 ( Pt 2):163-78.

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