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Applying the Inverted U-Theory to Soccer

Within the context of soccer, each position on the field requires a specific set of skills, both physically and psychologically. When analyzing certain situations within the flow of a game, the inverted-U theory is applicable. The inverted-U theory addresses the relationship between arousal and performance. The theory states that an athlete achieves optimal performance at an intermediate level of arousal while both low and high levels of arousal will lead to poor performance (Murphy, 2005). The text contended, “behavior is aroused and directed toward some kind of balanced or optimal state” (Williams, 2010).

With regards to applying such theory to soccer, one could make the assumption that each position on the field (goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, and striker) is comprised of players with different skill sets and personality make-ups. Shawn Arent and Daniel Landers (2003) stated, “Modification of this hypothesis (Inverted-U) for application to sport has also suggested that this relationship is dynamic. That is, the curvilinear function can shift to the left or right depending on individual characteristics (i.e. high skilled or low skilled, extroverted or introverted).” The idea is that the relationship between arousal and performance is dynamic based on certain individual characteristics.

Typically, wingers are highly skilled, crafty players who rely on their creativity, speed, and explosive power to evade their defender in order to help create scoring chances. Within the context of the game, wingers heavily rely on their central midfielders to find them with passes, which is why wingers must constantly regulate their arousal levels throughout the course of the game. With regards to the inverted-U theory, if arousal levels are constantly high, the player could experience an elevated heart rate and sustained muscle tension, ultimately executing the play before actually occurring. The players’ high skill level allows for a “shift to the left” in arousal levels in order to maintain optimal performance throughout a match.

Conversely, the defensive midfielder carries the responsibility of linking the defensive and midfield lines, covering for center-backs, organizing the build-up, and isolating the opposing strikers to name a few, which is why the defensive midfielder must maintain steady arousal levels throughout a match. Normally, the defensive midfielder is the brain of the team, who has strong field vision and a great first touch. Maintaining intermediate arousal levels could be best because if levels are too low or high, the player could get caught out of position due to lack of engagement or simply running themselves out of position. At all times, the defensive midfielder must be in control of their physiological and psychological states in order to execute the necessary technical and tactical plays.

Each position on the field requires different arousal levels for optimal performance, and if each player can appropriate their arousal levels, the team will experience balance and consistency.


Arent, S., & Landers, D. (2003). Arousal, anxiety, and performance: A reexamination of the Inverted-U hypothesis. Research Quarterly For Exercise And Sport, 74(4), 436-444.

Murphy, S. (2005). Anxiety: From pumped to panicked. In The sport psych handbook (p. 80). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Williams, J. (2010) Arousal-Performance Relationships. In Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., p. 229). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

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