The Catastrophe Theory: the reset switch

This article briefly looks into controlling arousal and anxiety to increase performance. I’m sure that if you have studied any sports science (or psychology) course you would have been introduced to the various theories of arousal’s relationship to performance. Arguably the most used theory is named “the catastrophe theory” (Hardy & Fazey, 1987).

Jean Van de Velde was on the 18th hole leading the field of golfers with a 6 shot deficit during the 1999 Open at Carnoustie. His drive landed him in the rough but a simple shot back onto the fairway would have enabled Jean to regain momentum…it would have! However, Jean chose an interesting approach, which took him from rough to rough, from rough to water and from water to bunker. In the mean time, his opponent played an astonishing chip in to leave a 1 shot difference. Jean needed to emulate his opponent but you’ve guessed it…he couldn’t. Jean putted in to level the match with a four-way play off which Paul Lawrie won.
You an view a video of Jean Van de Velde here:

Roberto Baggio, Italy’s outstanding player of the 1994 FIFA World Cup steps up to take the penalty to even the scores. He looks cool from the outside. He places the ball on the penalty spot and takes a 10 meter run up. He looks up once and beings his run. He side foots the ball leaning backwards and sends the ball over the goal into the crowd. Brazil win the World Cup.
You an view a video of Roberto Baggio here:

These are both examples of dropping off the catastrophe cliff (see figure).

The figure shows the relationships between arousal/anxiety on performance. With the two case examples in mind I would suggest the following. Both started off with a moderate level of arousal/anxiety that promoted an increase in performance. During the 18th hole/penalty kick, physiological arousal AND cognitive anxiety were maximised leading to an immediate decline in overall performance. Let’s imagine for a second that we do fall off the catastrophe curve?

I’ve always imagined the catastrophe theory as surfing a wave. Sometimes you ride the wave, often you coast in the current waiting and sometimes you get “dumped on”. Riding the wave is the “flow” (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999), the “zone” – when everything is autonomic, movement takes hold of you and everything that you’ve practiced comes naturally (Hanford and colleagues, 1997). Waiting for the wave is the thinking, reviewing, justifying – just before you get the ball or hear the starters gun. Getting “dumped on” is when it goes wrong – you get tackled, you miss an easy shot or putt, you drop a pass…

Wouldn’t it be great if our athletes had a way to prevent this from occurring in the first place and when it does happen (because it will happen), if there is a reset switch that gets us back on top of the wave? Here are three ideas to get you started:

“Parking” is a technique used to enhance mental toughness by thought stopping from a previous negative thought and leaving (or parking) it somewhere until after the game (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). An example of this could be missing a tackle in Rugby followed by “parking” the thought by the corner flag and focusing on the next tackle. It is also vital to note that the athlete must review their “parked” thoughts after the match to enable self-evaluation before leaving the “problems” behind.

“Cues” can be mental (and auditory), behavioural or visual. A cue is an association between two components that change behaviour. Imagine waking up in the morning and you hear your favourite tune (perhaps it’s a bit of Phil Collins?) coming out of the alarm clock – this may change your feelings and consequently behaviour.

Mohamed Ali famously used positive self-talk – “I am the greatest” – to convince himself that he was the greatest. Having an inner voice can flick the switch to allow an increase in performance. Furthermore, by changing any thoughts from “I can’t…” to “I can do this if I…” will enable the athlete to review what has happened and have a plan of what to do next.

In summary, anxiety/arousal will have an increase on performance to an extent. When too much arousal takes over the body, performance will decrease, so an optimal level is essential. When athletes fall off the catastrophe wave there are various ways to “reset” performance allowing for instant restructured behaviour. The secret is to practice using “parking”, “cues” and “positive self-talk” which will make the process of increased performance quicker when something goes wrong or just before high arousal occurs, thus maintaining optimal performance.


Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2000). Sports Psychology for Coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Handford, C., Davids, K., Bennett, S., & Button, C. (1997). Skill acquisition in sport: Some applications of an evolving practice ecology. Journal of Sports Sciences, 15, 621-640

Hardy, L., & Fazey, J. (1987). The inverted-U hypothesis: A catastrophe for sport psychology. Paper presented at the meeting of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity, Vancouver, BC.

Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Weinberg, R., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (5th Ed). Champaign, IL: Human Kenetics.