Peak Performance: Activation & the Inverted U


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Activation is a term that means one’s level of physical and psychological arousal and excitement. Activation exists on a continuum from low (sleep) to high (overly excited). Each athlete has a sweet spot where they function best while performing. Imagining a U, turned upside down, the exact middle at the top would be the perfect level of activation.

The Psych-Up Zone

Anything to the left on the inverted U represents under activation, or the “psych up” zone. In this area, necessary physical changes that facilitate top performance don’t happen, and the athlete needs to psych themselves up. The under-activation state leads to a disconnect from experience, lowered intensity, and very little thinking or feeling. When an athlete understands their optimal level of activation, they can do things to increase activation and psych themselves up to their sweet spot. This includes the use of music, videos, imagery of past performances, and performance routines.

The Psyched-Out Zone

Using the inverted U, anything going to the right represents over activation or the “psyched out” zone. Over activation puts an athlete into a fight-or-flight type of response, leading to overthinking, over feeling and tension. Performance declines when activation levels become too high due to excessive muscular tension, coordination problems, attentional problems, and processing problems. When an athlete understands their optimal level of activation, they can do things to decrease activation and calm themselves down to their sweet spot. This includes the use of breathing, calming imagery and cue words, and performance routines.

Each athlete’s optimal zone – the top of the Inverted U – is different. Also, different sports require different arousal. Sports requiring big powerful movements are best facilitated by big arousal, whereas sports with smaller, more precise movements which require refined motor skills benefit from less arousal. A power lifter needs to be at a different activation level than a golfer, for instance.

Activation level is one of the key areas of focus in my mental skills training and sport and performance psychology practice. An athlete who understands their zone and how to draw it up and maintain it will be a consistent high level performer.

A great real-life example of under and over activation in high-level volleyball can be found here.

More about Mind Right: Our online mental skills training for athletes course:
The Drive to Thrive has a detailed section on activation management.

We also do face-to-face coaching with athletes, teams, and organizations, and coaches in person and through video conferencing.

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