top of page

How Triathletes Can Harness the Power of Emotional Intelligence and the Yerkes-Dodson Law

Photo Credit: James Clarke (Just James Media)

In Samorin, I wasn't sure if it was going to be a duathlon or a triathlon, I had a nightmare the day before with my logistics, the course and competition were immense, I forgot my elastic bands, and was sweating profusely as I did my warmup because I hadn't hydrated enough to stay cool.

As you all know, emotional intelligence plays a crucial role in our performance. Our emotions can either work for us or against us.

Was I feeling stressed? Yes, but I didn't realise it at the time. Convinced I'd have a disastrous race? No, not really, i'm forever optimistic. Worried about the fact I was dehydrated... absolutely.

It's difficult to perform at our best when we experience anxiety, nervousness, or pressure. Numerous studies have shown that stress can have a negative impact on our performance.

However, there's an exception to this rule.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson law is a psychological principle that explains the relationship between arousal (not that kind of arousal) and performance.

When stress levels exceed a certain threshold, performance declines. But up to a certain point, anxiety and stress can actually enhance our performance.

So, how much stress is too much stress? It varies from person to person. Feeling stressed because I'm running five minutes late for a training session is unlikely to affect my performance.

However, spending an entire day worrying about race logistics and almost missing the start is a different story.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this as well.

Use Stress and Mental Reframing To Improve Your Triathlon Performance

When a stressful event occurs, triggering feelings of nervousness, challenge, or fear, our body responds. Our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes quicker and shallower, and our body temperature rises.

These responses are automatic and normal. Our body recognises a problem or challenge and prepares us to tackle it. This is where the Yerkes-Dodson law can work in our favour.

However, there's a downside: vasoconstriction. The muscles surrounding our blood vessels constrict, narrowing the space inside the vessels. Vasoconstriction raises blood pressure and reduces circulation to our extremities, often causing our fingers and toes to feel cold when under significant stress.

This natural response to a more serious problem or challenge is detrimental to us and, consequently, to our performance—unless we apply emotional intelligence and engage in a process of mental reframing.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology revealed that when individuals perceived their stress response as helpful—that their body's natural reaction to stress, such as an increased heart and respiration rate, indicated rising to the challenge—they didn't experience vasoconstriction, and their blood pressure remained stable.

In fact, their physiological profiles mirrored what Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal described in her 2013 TED Talk as the response that occurs during "moments of joy and courage."

Merely changing our perspective on stress—viewing it not as a problem, but as a positive element—alters how our bodies respond. By reframing stress, we can maintain an optimal level of arousal according to the Yerkes-Dodson law.

As I prepared for the race, adjusting my wetsuit and getting ready for the swim, I took a deep breath and decided that the baltic water was a good thing and that it suited me more than others. I didn't have time to overthink or feel anxious while sculling at the start line. I didn't have time to worry about the other competitors or the challenges that lay ahead.

I smiled and saw being "cold" as a challenge to overcome. As Joey Logano, a Nascar Cup Series champion, once shared with me, pressure is a feeling we should embrace. Feeling pressure signifies that we are in a position to achieve something meaningful, something important, something where the outcome truly matters.

Remember... Pressure is a privilege.

Did it work? Not entirely. Looking back, I'd give myself an A-minus. (Okay, maybe a B-plus.) I was still a little too amped up and rushed during the Swim. I could have read the course conditions better, and hydration prior to the race was far from optimal. Overall, I wasn't as smooth as I had hoped.

But I performed significantly better than I might have. I got to the end of the race despite a multitude of problems, including excruciating cramp, not being where I usually would be placed within the race, and signs to stop.

When you feel nervous or stressed—when your heart rate rises, and your breathing quickens—reframe those feelings and allow your emotions to work in your favour.

Consider it as your body rising to meet a challenge, enabling you to step in or step up. Regard stress as a signal that you have an opportunity to improve your performance.

Of course, we can never completely control how we feel. However, with a little mental reframing, we can stay on the positive side of the Yerkes-Dodson law curve and utilise stress as a tool to enhance our performance in triathlons.


bottom of page