Academic/Athletic Performance and The Yerkes-Dodson Law

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As a parent of a student-athlete, you know firsthand the challenges faced in balancing the demands of sports and academics. The pressure to excel in both areas can be overwhelming, and it’s not always clear how to help your child manage stress effectively. Beyond that, we want to help them flip a switch and get into peak performance in both the classroom and their sport. That’s where the Yerkes-Dodson Law comes in.

Understanding Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law, formulated in 1908 by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, has been recognized as a fundamental principle linking anxiety and performance.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that performance increases with anxiety, but only up to a point. When levels of anxiety become too high, performance decreases. For optimal performance, student-athletes should aim for an anxiety level of around 6-7 on a scale of 1-10, which means they may need to either rev up or calm down their mental state depending on the situation.

This principle highlights that a moderate stress level can be beneficial for simple tasks, as it can sharpen focus and boost motivation. However, excessive stress can hinder performance in more complex tasks requiring critical thinking and accuracy. The key is to strike the right balance to help your student-athletes perform at their peak. 

The implications of the Yerkes-Dodson Law are significant in both sports and academics. In athletics, a slight case of butterflies before a big game can help your child feel more focused and prepared to compete. However, if those butterflies become overwhelming anxiety, they can result in errors and subpar performance. 

Likewise, manageable stress levels in school can drive student-athletes to study more effectively and stay on track with their assignments. But if they become buried under the weight of their workload or the expectation to excel, it can trigger procrastination, exhaustion, and even declining grades. 

The Role of Executive Function Skills in Yerkes-Dodson

Executive function skills are mental tools that help student-athletes manage sports and school demands. While all these tools are important, metacognition is crucial for flipping into peak performance. Metacognition means “thinking about your thinking.” It’s about being aware of your thoughts and feelings and how they affect your performance. For student-athletes, metacognition helps them figure out their optimal mental state for peak performance.

The Yerkes-Dodson law explains that there’s a sweet spot for stress and performance. Too little stress leads to a lack of motivation, while too much stress causes anxiety. Metacognition helps student-athletes assess where their stress levels are and find the right stress level for peak performance.

How to Help Get Student-Athletes in a Peak State:

Self-Reflection Questions: 

Encourage student-athletes to take time each day to think about their thoughts, feelings, and performance. They can do this by asking themselves questions like:

  • How did I feel during today’s practice or game? On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being very relaxed and 10 extremely anxious, where was I?
  • If the answer is between 6 and 7, they are in the optimal zone for peak performance. If this is the case, here are follow-up questions to ask:
    • How do you know you are at a 6-7?
    • What was your routine before the event?
    • What did you feel like in their body?
    • What does a 6 feel like vs. a 7?
    • How do we replicate this state?

Athletes with high aspirations (playing in college or professionally) must learn to get into peak performance while traveling. Here are discussion topics to explore how they can do this.

  • How would you get to peak state if your flight is delayed?
  • What if you can’t sleep well in a hotel bed?
  • What other strategies could work to get into peak performance regardless of outside circumstances?

Asking these questions over time will build metacognition skills that help students perform in all areas of life. By aiming for scores between 6 and 7 on these self-reflection scales, student-athletes can more consistently work towards achieving peak performance.

Ramping Up and Calming Down

Deep Breathing is ideal for student-athletes because it can help them regulate their anxiety levels and optimize their performance. Here is how to breathe to ramp up or down. 

How to Calm Down (Anxiety Level 8-10)

Deep breathing technique:

1. Find a quiet place to sit or lie down comfortably.

2. Place one hand on the chest and the other on the belly.

3. Take a slow, deep breath through the nose, allowing the belly to rise and expand.

4. Hold your breath for a count of three.

5. Exhale slowly through the mouth for a count of 6.

6. Repeat this process for several minutes, focusing on the sensation of the breath moving in and out of the body.

Practice this technique regularly so it becomes a familiar tool when anxiety levels are high. Remind them that taking a few minutes to breathe deeply can help them feel more centered and in control.

Ramping Up (Anxiety Level 1-5)

When your student-athlete’s anxiety levels are low, between 1 and 5, they may need to ramp up their energy to achieve optimal performance. One way to do this is through short, shallow breaths.

Teach your child the following energizing breathing technique:

1. Stand up straight with feet shoulder-width apart.

2. Take a quick, shallow breath through the nose, filling the lungs.

3. Exhale forcefully through the mouth, making a “ha” sound.

4. Repeat this process for 30 seconds to one minute, focusing on the sensation of energy flowing through the body.

This technique can help your student-athlete feel more alert and focused. Encourage them to use this method before practices, games, or study sessions when they need a quick energy boost.

Remember, slow, deep breaths can help calm anxiety, while fast, shallow breaths can increase energy and alertness. By teaching your student-athlete these simple breathing techniques, you empower them to take control of their mental state and find the optimal level of anxiety for peak performance in any situation.

Other Techniques that Work to Reach Peak State

1. Create Pre-Performance Routines: Encourage your student-athlete to develop a consistent pre-game or pre-test routine that helps them feel grounded and focused. This could include visualization exercises, the same meal, listening to a specific playlist, or a warm-up that helps manage anxiety. 

2. Process Over Performance: Help your child shift their focus from outcomes, such as grades or game scores, to the effort they put in and the progress they make. By emphasizing the importance of learning and growth, you can foster a sense of resilience and reduce the fear of failure that can hinder performance anxiety. 

3. Strengthen Executive Functions Through Practice: Help your student-athlete develop executive skills such as planning, organization, and goal-setting. This results in an improvement in self-management and also supports their capability to evaluate and regulate their anxiety levels.

Examples of Yerkes-Dodson Law Outside Sports

Test Performance: When students experience high test anxiety, their heightened arousal levels can hinder their performance. Using the same breathing techniques before the exam will help them reach the state they need to do their best. 

Work/School Deadlines: If you’re having difficulty starting a monotonous project, slightly increasing stress can help you begin the task and fight procrastination. This is why many of us find it difficult to start a task until the deadline is close. Adding perceived pressure can raise their arousal level to a 6-7, providing the motivation needed to complete tasks more efficiently and effectively. 

Public Speaking: Many people experience anxiety when speaking in front of an audience. However, a moderate level of anxiety (around 6-7) can actually enhance performance by increasing focus and energy. To reach this optimal state, speakers can use techniques like deep breathing, visualization, or positive self-talk before and during their presentation. This helps them manage their anxiety and deliver a more engaging and effective speech.


The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a powerful tool for helping student-athletes achieve peak performance. By understanding that optimal performance occurs when anxiety levels are around 6-7, parents can support their children in finding the right balance of stress and relaxation. 

Practical strategies like deep breathing techniques, pre-performance rituals, focusing on process over performance, and strengthening executive functions can all help student-athletes manage their anxiety effectively. 

For More:

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Performance

Executive Functions Predict the Success of Top Soccer Players

Stress in Academic and Athletic Performance in Collegiate Athletes

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