Posted 10/26/2021 in Category 1

Inverted-U Theory in Sport

Inverted-U Theory in Sport


One major approach to explaining the arousal-performance relationship in sport is the Inverted U-Hypothesis.  Arousal, defined as the level of neural excitation (Malmo, 1959) may be increased with activation of the autonomic nervous system during an emotion. The Inverted-U hypothesis proposes that performance is best at a moderate level of arousal. Both low and high levels of arousal are associated with similar decrements in performance.


The original work done on the Inverted-U hypothesis related to the strength of stimulus and habit-formation (learning) in mice (Yerkes and Dodson, 1908).  It was discovered that mice learnt which chamber of two to enter quickest, when the punishment for choosing the wrong chamber was an electric shock of moderate intensity.  This was supported by later work with rats (Broadhurst, 1957).  From these rodent-based studies it is difficult to see how the Inverted-U hypothesis has become such a commonly used explanation for the arousal-performance link in humans. But it has. Perhaps this is because the idea that moderate levels of arousal are suitable for performance has an intuitive appeal.


There is some research evidence showing that anxiety (although anxiety and arousal are not the same) relate to performance in the manner of an inverted-U. Specifically, the best performances of 145 high school basketball players occurred under moderate levels of anxiety (Klavora, 1979) and the performance of university female basketball players was higher following medium levels of anxiety (Sonstrom & Bernado, 1982). However, despite this support there has been some criticism of the Inverted-U hypothesis (cf. Neiss, 1988; Raglin, 1991; Zaichkowsky & Baltzell, 2001). Specifically:

  • It describes but does not explain the relationship between arousal and performance
  • The symmetrical shape is not realistic of a competitive sport situation
  • Arousal itself is multidimensional (Lacey, 1967) and accordingly the inverted-U hypothesis may be simplistic. 
  • Not all studies support the Inverted-U hypothesis


While the Inverted-U does have some (intuitive) appeal research moved towards exploring the relationship between anxiety (of which arousal is a component) and performance. Anxiety is characterized by feelings of apprehension and tension along with activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system (Spielberger, 1966). Thus, anxiety may comprise cognitive (e.g., feelings of apprehension) and physiological (e.g., increased activation of the autonomic nervous system) changes.  


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Selected References

Broadhurst, P. L. (1957). Emotionality and the Yerkes-Dodson law. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54, 345-352.

Klavora, P. (1979). Customary arousal for peak athletic performance. In P. Klavora & J. David (Eds.), Coach, athlete and the sport psychologist (pp. 155-163). Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto.

Neiss, R. (1988). Reconceptualising arousal: psychobiological states in motor performance. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 345-366. 

Raglin, J. (1992) Anxiety and sport performance. In J. O. Holloszy (Ed.) Exercise & Sport Science Reviews, (Volume 20, pp. 243-274). New York: William & Wilkins.

Sonstroem, R. J., & Bernardo, P. (1982). Individual pregame state anxiety and basketball performance: A re-examination of the inverted-U curve. Journal of Sport Psychology, 4, 235-245.

Spielberger, C. D. (1966). Theory and research on anxiety. In C. D. Spielberger (Ed.), Anxiety and behavior (pp. 3-22). New York: Academic Press.

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.

Zaichkowsky, L. D., & Baltzell, A. (2001). Arousal and Performance. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas, C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of research on sport psychology, (pp. 319-339). New York: John Wiley and Sons.