Understanding the Yerkes Dodson Law of Stress and Performance

Understand that the day’s workout will yield a different state of arousal for everyone in the room. The Yerkes-Dodson Law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.

Meaning, we want the individuals in our class to be alert and engaged, but we don’t want them to have high anxiety. A little bit of performance anxiety can be healthy. Too much, and we see a decrease in performance, and over time, a bad relationship with the gym. Always aim to quell anxiety and bring the room right to the level of “Optimal Performance.”

Practical Example: PHASE 1 Goblet Squat Test

Creating High Anxiety: “My PHASE 1 folks today. We have a great opportunity to see where we are with graduation. It’s 50 reps in 5 minutes.”

Calming High Anxiety: “My PHASE 1 folks today. We have a great opportunity to see where we are with graduation. 50 reps in five minutes, but really it’s just five sets of ten within that time frame. Very doable.

If you have been here for a few weeks and have some squatting sessions under your belt, let’s give this a go together. Remember, without tangible assessment of where we are, we don’t know if we’re making progress. If you don’t pass, who cares? You know where you stand for the next time.”

Practical Example: 5’ Row Test, Entire Class

Creating High Anxiety: “Okay, guys and gals, today we have our five minute row test! Five minutes of rowing all out, as hard as you can and scoring your distance.”

Calming High Anxiety: “Okay, guys and gals, today we have our five minute row test! This is a really great opportunity to check in on a tangible measurement with our fitness.

The reason I love this test is because it really challenges our technique and is overall, a really good representation of conditioning. If this is your first time, do not worry! It’s all about setting a baseline, there is no bad time. I’ll be there to help all of you new folks through it, so have some fun today and let’s see where we stand. Those who already have a baseline, I really want to see a big effort to try and beat it.”

The example that creates anxiety simply says the task and doesn’t break it down into reasonable or attainable terms.

Intimidating: “50 reps in 5 minutes.”
Calming: “10 reps at a time, for five sets, within 5 minutes.”

You will notice in both examples highlighted in red, that you have made sure to talk those on the far right hand side of the Yerkes Dodson law graph (Excess Anxiety, Overwhelmed), and you have moved them towards optimal. That’s it. That’s all we’re trying to achieve. Excitement without overwhelming.

What about the days where you need to increase the arousal level of your room?

What about advanced athletes that need to be brought from “Under Stimulated” to “Alert” on the Yerkes-Dodson Curve?

This can very often be the case on days that do not appear very challenging, or are more structure-based. Athletes who can squat 400# are very rarely going to stoked to do Bulgarian Split Squats or Dumbbell Step-Ups. The way that we create the buy-in is through education and why it will benefit them.

Practical Example: Bulgarian Split Squats

Elevating Low Arousal: “Okay, guys. I know we have a movement on the board that isn’t done with exciting weight and isn’t the most fun to perform, but there’s a ton of great benefit to our deadlifts, squats, cleans, and snatches.

Today we’re building side-to-side balance. Most of us have a dominant side of our body, and if we leave that unattended by constantly training bilateral movement, it never gets fixed. Days like today do a great job of bringing up that weak side of our body so it can contribute in the same manner as our strong side.

The result is stronger lifts, more progress, and improved safety since balance leads to spinal stability.”

Supporting Low Arousal: “Today we have Bulgarian Split Squats which are great for single leg strength and balance.”

One talks about generalized benefits, the other discusses specific, tangible benefits. Remember, you’re not trying to get them to be excited as hell. You’re just trying to get their arousal level up from under stimulated to alert.

Proper tone and feel for your room or athlete can be the difference between the person getting the most out of their workout or just an average showing. It’s entirely in your voice as the coach.

-Dave Thomas


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