Getting Worked Up
We’ll start by talking about arousal, or how keyed up, excited or motivated you get while executing an action. This has to do with being alert, both physically and mentally. Weightlifters and football players will often psych themselves up before an event and almost work themselves into frenzies, while a concert violinist may breathe deeply or meditate to calm down and lower their level of arousal before a performance. A lot of things happen when you’re at a high level of arousal or “really psyched.”
Generally, we want to be very keyed up, with adrenaline flowing, when we’re trying to perform a simple task that doesn’t require much thought or complex action. Running and doing pushups and sit-ups are activities where you want a high level of arousal. While in this state, you tend to feel pain and fatigue less and blood and oxygen are carried to your major muscles quickly. On the other hand, when you’re performing an action that requires concentration and fine motor skills, like shooting or land navigation, you want less arousal. Being too keyed up will actually decrease performance because the parts of your brain responsible for concentration, visual-spatial skills and creative thinking become less active, essentially shutting down.
How Do You Perform Best?
Another point to consider is your personality type. Extroverts or thrill-seeking people generally perform better when they’re more aroused while introverts tend to perform better when they’re calmer, or less aroused. So, it’s important to find your optimal level of arousal based on the task at hand and your personality type.
Things get interesting when you have to switch from high-intensity activities to low-intensity activities very quickly. Snipers are good at this. During training, they sprint and then drop to the ground and fire rounds into a target. They perform an activity (running) where a high level of arousal is needed and then suddenly transition to an activity (shooting) where a lower level of arousal is needed. Being in good physical condition lets them sprint without needing too much arousal, and breathing deeply before shooting lets them lower their heart rate and calm down, allowing them to shoot accurately.
–Dr. James Bender, former Army psychologist