The Golfer’s Guide to Optimal Arousal


Arousal is the degree of activation of the organs and mechanisms of the body that are under the control of the autonomic nervous system (Cox). The autonomic nervous system is the system of the body that control golf state influencing bodily functions such as heart and respiration rate. When you’re faced with a pressure 3 footer and your palms become sweaty, it’s the autonomic nervous system that releases the sweat. The important thing is that a golfers level of arousal will significantly influence his/her performance in a competitive situation. This post is about helping you to find, and subsequently train yourself, for optimal arousal.

When a golfer plays their best, they have more than likely played their golf in a optimal state that has been significantly influenced by their state of arousal. Arousal is not the only factor in determining an optimal state. However, it is a significant factor, and needs to be attended to.

Many golfers leave this to chance, they don’t take any notice to patterns relating to arousal and instead, go out playing each and every round similar to playing lotto….they hope their numbers come up, but they believe they have no influence over a successful outcome. I want you to acknowledge that you can influence better golf. You can also influence consistency!

On the topic of optimal arousal, the name of the game is ‘balance’. The object of the game is to achieve a state of balance and between the two systems of the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic). In addition to great golf play, an optimal level of arousal can be measured subjectively by the golfer by describing feelings about their ‘state’, but can also be measured objectively by the testing the heart rate, blood pressure and respiration frequency. (This is why I often use a blood pressure device to test blood pressure and pulse rate to confirm the effectiveness of golf psychology sessions).

Interestingly, the sympathetic nervous system responds quickly to environmental stimuli, such as walking onto the first tee with a large gallery, or observing an opponent drain a large putt during match play. Comparatively, the parasympathetic system responds much slower. Suffice to say, a golfers ability to remain calm under pressure is more a case of relaxing and firing up the parasympathetic system quicker (through training) in response to sympathetic shifts, rather than preventing the sympathetic system from activating as a consequence of environmental stimuli, which is almost impossible. The point I just made is crucial for anyone wanting to master consistency on the golf course.

In the sport of golf, success under pressure is determined primarily by the golfers ability to calm themselves and re-access optimal states following environmental cues that shift their state. In the sport of golf, the golfer is required to continually attend to the external environment as the golfer is required to attend to environmental cues (distance, hazards, the wind…even playing partner conversations) frequently.

The preferred state of arousal is that of harmony between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. You want to aim for an optimal level of arousal between deep sleep and extreme excitement. This can be as easy as recording your arousal levels for a little while to discover your optimal levels.

Something to apply: at the completion of a round, grab a spare scorecard and rate your arousal levels for that hole with a score from 1 to 10 (1 being just awake and 10 being jumping out of your skin) in a column next to your score. You can even add an extra ‘arousal column’ to your game statistics, for example, columns on your stats card will read: score; fairway hit; green hit; putts; and then ‘arousal’. Do this for 4 or 5 rounds and assess the correlation between your arousal level on a hole and your score. Please note that optimal arousals levels will be different depending on what type of shot you are to play. Typically, the golfer will benefit from a more subdued state when putting than for belting a driver. This needs to be factored in somehow….you may like to take 2 arousal scores for each hole, one for your full swings and another for chipping and putting. Is there a relationship between your arousal level with your short game and getting the ball up and down?

For optimal performances, the optimal level of arousal is often said to be a medium level of arousal as outlined by the ‘inverted U hypothesis’. The inverted U hypothesis suggests that the relationship between performance and arousal is curvilinear. For example, if performance levels are placed on the vertical axis of a graph, and arousal levels placed on the horizontal axis, the relationship between performance and arousal will be demonstrated by an inverted, or upside down ‘U’ shape. The upside down U peaks at medium arousal, suggesting performance is best at medium arousal.

My perspective about optimal arousal differs slightly from that above. It is my view that there is undoubtedly a relationship between arousal and performance, but that one’s optimal arousal levels are unique for them.

What I’m saying is that one golfer might play his best when highly aroused, while another golfer may play his best when subdued. Seek out your own unique optimal level of arousal, and aim to return to that level of arousal prior to each shot……regardless of what state your playing partners may be in! (Completing the ‘arousal statistics’ exercise outlined above will provide you with your own ‘unique’ optimal arousal level).

Research by Schultz has also shown that people seek a state of optimal arousal. This is called ‘internal drive for optimal arousal’. This means that it is highly beneficial for the golfer to be clear and congruent about their golf outcomes. Your arousal levels during tournament pressure for example, will be influenced by the clarity and congruence you’ve provided your mind about your days outcome.

Something to apply: Set specific goals, ensure congruence (frame your goals in a way where you want to achieve that goal whole heartily), and set your intention for what you want to happen! I have a simple test I use with golfers to assess the clarity and congruence they have regarding their shots. If I ask them on the tee, where are you going to hit this? The time it takes them to respond, and the clarity of tonality they use when answering, is directly correlated to the congruence and clarity they have about that shot, and towards achieving the days goals.

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