Inverted U Theory in Sport – What is it and why is it important?

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The Inverted U Theory in Sport

In this post we will discuss the Inverted U theory in sport:

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

This post is part of our series discussing the relationship between arousal and performance. You may also want to check out our other articles below:

Why is the Inverted U Theory in Sports Important?

All those involved in sports should understand the principles and purpose of the Inverted U theory.  

The Inverted U theory in sports aims to explain the relationship between arousal levels and performance. The theory also suggests how different levels of arousal can lead to either an increase or decrease in performance.

In 1908, researchers Yerkes and Dodson published a study that forms the foundation of the Inverted U theory. The Inverted U theory began to explain the relationship between performance and arousal different to that of the drive theory. The Inverted U theory differs by suggesting that too much arousal can lead to a decrease in performance. 

Researchers have then developed the Inverted U Theory further resulting in the Catastrophe Theory by Fazey and Hardy (1988). You can read our article on the Catastrophe theory here.

Sports coaches and athletes need to understand the impact on arousal and performance and how an athlete’s performance can potentially increase and/or decrease with different levels of anxiety. You may also want to check out out article on personality types.

If sports coaches understand the link between arousal and performance, this could result in better performances and reduce the risk of a decline in performance. The inverted U Theory is still taught as part of many sports qualifications and coaching qualifications, helping demonstrate the importance of the theory.

All those involved in sports should understand the principles and purpose of the Inverted U theory.

What is involved in the Inverted U theory?

The two factors involved in the Inverted U theory in sport are:

  • An athlete’s arousal or anxiety level
  • Performance level

What is the Inverted U Theory in Sport?

The Inverted U theory in sport suggests that if an athlete’s arousal is low/none existent then this will result in a low-performance level. As an athlete’s arousal level increases, the performance will gradually increase up to a point of maximum performance. The point of peak performance in the Inverted U theory is called the optimum point.

If arousal continues to increase after the optimum point, The Inverted U Theory suggests performance will decrease gradually. 

Sporting Examples of the Inverted U Theory in Sport

A sporting example to help explain the Inverted U Theory would be a boxer who is just about to enter a boxing match. 

A low arousal level at the start of the match would result in the boxer’s performance level being low. The low arousal level could lead to a slower reaction time or lack of concentration levels.

Alternatively, too much arousal could lead to loss of strategy or increase the risk of foul play and potentially being penalised. 

Whereas, if the boxer had the optimum level of arousal at the start of the boxing match, they would perform at their best.

For the Inverted U Theory, it is important to note that each sport requires different optimum performance levels. Therefore, the Inverted U theory can be described as being on a continuum of arousal and the arousal level for peak performance for one sport may be different to another. For example, a boxer would have a different peak performance arousal level compared to a snooker player. 

How Can This Theory Help Athletes and Coaches?

The Inverted U Theory builds on the drive theory (you can read our article on the drive theory here) and further explains the importance for coaches to understand the relationship between arousal and performance.

Sports coaches need to be aware that performances can drop due to an increase or decrease in arousal levels. 

However, there are criticisms among researchers as the Inverted U theory does not explain sudden drops in performance. The Inverted U theory suggests performance gradually improves or declines. However, this is not always the case and researchers have created a new theory called the Catastrophe Theory.

Summary

The Inverted U theory in sports links both arousal levels and performance levels. The Inverted U theory states that performance will gradually increase if arousal increases to an optimum point. Too much arousal after this point will then lead to a gradual decline in performance. Read our next article in this series here.

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References:

   Yerkes, R.M. , & Dodson, J.D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.

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