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Posted 08/28/2021 in Category 1

Catastrophe Theory in Sport

Catastrophe Theory in Sport

Dissatisfaction with the models being used to explain the anxiety-performance relationship in sport, such as the Inverted-U Theory, and the Multidimensional Anxiety Theory (MAT), led to the development of the Cusp Catastrophe Theory (Hardy, 1990; Hardy & Fazey, 1987). Similar to MAT it also considers how cognitive and physiological elements of anxiety relate to performance. However Catastrophe Theory is an advancement on MAT because it considers how these two elements interact to influence performance. Specifically, it considers how cognitive anxiety and physiological arousal (not somatic anxiety which is a perception of physiological state) interact to influence performance.  To illustrate why the interaction is important the relationship between cognitive anxiety and performance is different depending on the level of physiological arousal and the relationship between physiological arousal and performance is different depending on the level of cognitive anxiety.  Simply, according to Catastrophe Theory you cannot know how cognitive anxiety relates to performance unless you know the level of physiological arousal and vice versa. This three dimensional relationship between cognitive anxiety physiological arousal and performance is shown in the image at the top of the page. 

Describing Catastrophe Theory

The left hand side of the three dimensional relationship with low levels of arousal shows increases in cognitive anxiety will help performance whereas the opposite occurs with high arousal (the right hand side) and there is a decline in performance. But perhaps to best explain catastrophe theory it is perhaps easiest, in the first instance to consider the back and the front face of the three-dimensional relationship and consider the relationship between physiological arousal and performance in which cognitive anxiety acts as a splitting function.  When an individual is experiencing low levels of cognitive anxiety the relationship between physiological arousal and performance is in the shape of a gentle inverted-U. When cognitive anxiety is high increases in physiological arousal will facilitate performance up to an optimum level but decreases past the optimum level will result in a severe performance decrement (i.e. a catastrophe).  To regain composure and optimum performance a large reduction in physiological arousal is necessary before the athlete can seek to regain the optimum level.  It is only when cognitive anxiety is high that increases in physiological arousal above the optimum will lead to the sharp catastrophic decreases in performance. 

That the relationship between physiological arousal and performance is different under conditions of high cognitive anxiety depending on whether or not physiological arousal is increasing or decreasing is termed hysteresis.  The hysteresis has been demonstrated in eight crown green bowlers (Hardy, Parfitt & Pates, 1994) who completed a bowling task under conditions of low cognitive anxiety, where their individual data would not be compared to anyone’s, and high cognitive anxiety where they were told their scores would be compared to elite crown green bowlers. Physiological arousal was manipulated using physical exercise and half the participants did the task with physiological arousal increasing and half with physiological arousal decreasing.  While there was evidence of a substantial drop in performance under conditions of high cognitive anxiety as physiological arousal was increasing there was no evidence of a substantial decrease in physiological arousal necessary to before the bowlers ‘flipped’ back to the upper performance surface of the model. There is other support for the central tenets of Catastrophe Theory (e.g., Edwards & Hardy, 1996; Hardy, Woodman & Carrington, 2004). Although Catastrophe Theory has been criticised as being too complex to test and therefore of dubious value to sport psychologists (Gill, 1994).  That said, elements of the theory have been tested and as Hardy et al (1996) point out complexity is not a reason for rejecting a theory.   


Both MAT and Catastrophe Theory describe and explain the relationship between anxiety and performance. Perhaps both are stronger on the description rather than the explanation and in it is important to consider how anxiety can influence motor performance in a bit more detail perhaps through the role negative thoughts and physical tension play in impacting performance.  Approaches like the Conscious Processing Hypothesis developed by Richard Masters are perhaps stronger on explaining the mechanisms by which anxiety may affect sport performance. 


Edwards, T., & Hardy, L. (1996). The interactive effects of intensity and direction of cognitive and somatic anxiety and self-confidence upon performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18, 296-312.

Hardy, L. (1990). A catastrophe model of performance in sport.  In G. Jones and L. Hardy (Eds.), Stress and performance in sport. (pp. 81-106).  Chichester, England:  Wiley.

Hardy, L., & Fazey, J. (1987). The inverted-U hypothesis: A catastrophe for sport psychology? Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity, Vancouver, June. 

Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Hardy, L., Parfitt, G., & Pates, J. (1994). Performance catastrophes in sport: A test of the hysteresis hypothesis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 12, 327-334.

Hardy, l., Woodman, T., & Carrington, S. (2004). Is self-confidence a bias factor in higher-order catastrophe models? An exploratory analysis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 26,  259-368.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay