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Choosing Optimal Levels of Arousal

Exercise physiologists say that modern athletes spend an increasing amount of time dealing with the teeter-totter of their emotions, and how to use the stress hormones to maximize performance. How they provoke, or deal with, pressure depends on their personal makeup, the skills they require for their sport, and, perhaps, the importance of the event. Some athletes need to psyche themselves up for competition whereas others need to gear down.

Some observers at the 1995 USA Track and Field Championships were startled by how Meredith Rainey prepared for the start of the 800-meter run.

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While her opponents took deep breaths and shook their arms to compose themselves, Rainey went a little frantic: She jumped up and down, tossed her arms about, and swung her body much like a high-impact aerobics instructor. She then went on to win the race.

I always do jumps at the start; I need to compete aggressively, to run with courage, and confront any fears I have about the race. To do that, I try to psyche myself up more than calm myself down . It’s a mental and physical feeling. When I’m getting ready to go to the line, all my nerves are standing at attention. Whatever part of my body I need to call upon is ready to respond.

In the past, much time was spent trying to control arousal and the fight-or-flight response, but athletes and researchers are now discovering ways to unleash it.

Indeed, for Rainey, a Harvard graduate and 1992 Olympian, being relaxed can backfire. At one indoor meet, she recalled, I felt so relaxed. I thought, This is great. I ran completely passively and never got my rhythm. Afterward I realized that, for me, being relaxed is the worst way to feel.

In the early 1980s, Yuri Hanin developed the concept zone of optimal function (ZOF), which holds that all athletes have different emotional states that help them perform at their peak. Hanin found variation in anxiety levels among ice hockey players, runners, and other athletes. Some needed to be excited, others relaxed. Jack Raglin, PhD, a kinesiologist at Indiana University, researched ZOF along with Hanin and found that if s wrong to believe that reducing anxiety always gives athletes a chance to store psychological energy. It’s quite an individual thing and very complex, Raglin said. There are athletes with increased anxiety who exhibit no change in stress indicators such as blood pressure.

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