Cue Utilization Theory

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This past weekend I attended a USATF Level 1 school that featured Loren Seagrave and other great minds in the sport. During the presentation on jumping events, Loren shared an anecdote about an athlete in the long jump that couldn’t perform well at a particular venue. The reason for the sub-par performance was the fact that there was a stadium wall near the end of the sand pit. Now there was no chance he’d hit the wall but his mental arousal was so high that he could only focus on the wall and not the relevant task. This got me thinking about a very common phenomenon with athletes.

Cue utilization theory is the effect of stress or increased levels of physiological arousal on attentional processing of information (1). This theory is based around a range of arousal that spans from low to high. Athletes have many different ranges during competition, but most perform best somewhere between peak anxiety and arousal. When arousal is too high, athletes have a narrowed attentional capacity, to the point where task-relevant cues are rendered ineffective. An example would be a quarterback of your favorite team throwing an Interception right into the defenders hands and you wonder how he didn’t see him. The other end of the spectrum is when an athlete has low arousal and allows irrelevant cues to become attentional focus. An example of this is when a team or athlete underestimates and loses to a lesser opponent. Make sure even in practice that when you coach your athletes, that you make sure they focus and practice as if it were a competition. This will help them carry over the attentional focus to succeed when it counts the most.

Finding out ways to keep your athletes focused on the goal can be a challenge. If you see athletes that show up when things matter the most, these athletes have a good understanding of this theory. Athletes often compete under a lot of internal and external pressure. Some can handle the pressure and some can’t. It can be the difference in winning and losing.

Reference:
1.) Baechle, Thomas, and Roger Earle. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd. champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. 163. Print.

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