The Wrap Around with Dr Z: Issue XII – Intensity: Optimal energy for optimal performance

Posted on Oct 1 2019 - 1:37pm by DV

Wrap Around with Dr. Dan Zimet, Sport Psychologist

Do you have a question about the greatest game played with a ball?  Send it to Dr. Zimet at  For more articles (and additional mental strategies) go to, menu option ‘Wrap Around’.

Wrap Around 14:  Intensity: Optimal energy for optimal performance

In this issue of Wrap Around we will focus on the second part of a question previously raised in Issue 11: GameBrain, where the athlete asked “do I need to relax or get fired up?!?”  I read this as a question about intensity, or the degree of focus and energy an athlete brings to bear during competition.

Experts agree that intensity is a critical outcome determinant, particularly in a highly contested match where athletes are otherwise similar in ability.  It’s also one of the most common referral issues in my practice.  For example, an athlete will complain of anxiety that leads to not being able to perform well in stressful circumstances.  When elite athletes have trouble finding and staying at an optimal level of intensity, they are also likely to express concerns about self-confidence, feelings of frustration, and lost opportunities (i.e., failure to make the ‘cut’).  Sport does not always offer a re-do, and the impact of a poor try-out in youth sport can be just as devastating as a poor showing at the Olympic trials.

This article will address how intensity effects performance when it is too high or, less commonly, too low.  We will then discuss how optimal intensity is a function of three factors: the athlete, the sport, and the situation, and consider how to assess our personal relationship with intensity.  We conclude with tactics for lowering or raising intensity to help you find the perfect zone so you can perform at your best.

Understanding Intensity Intensity refers to the amount of mental (i.e., focus, concentration) and physical (i.e., energy, drive) arousal an athlete experiences during competition, ranging from low to high.  It is important to note that each athlete has a unique relationship with intensity, much like Goldilocks and the three-bears, where we can assume that each bear had different optimal conditions for the softness of their beds and temperature of their porridge.  An athlete’s intensity level is typically described as under-intense, optimally intense, or over-intense. 

Let’s consider a few examples to help clarify the continuum. 

Example #1:  You’re playing a practice match with a friend you usually beat so you feel relaxed and confident, but lose the first game because you were sloppy and didn’t play hard enough.  When your friend’s score got too high, it was too late to catch him.  Intensity level: sub-optimal, too low. 

Example #2:  You’re in a very competitive match and feeling fired up and energized.  You feel focused and intense, your game punctuated with aggressive shot making and great gets.  Intensity level: optimal, just right.

Example #3: You’re in the same competitive match, but you’re feeling a lot of pressure to win.  Your legs feel heavy, your heart feels like it’s beating out of your chest, your thoughts are plagued by worry and frustration, and your execution is poor.  Intensity level: above optimal, too high.

An athlete at above optimal intensity experiences these problems:

  • Mental: Poor focus, difficulty staying in the moment, negative thinking, poor decision making (e.g., going for low percentage shots).
  • Emotional: Anxiety, fear, panic, worry, and excessive stress.
  • Physical: Problems with coordination, slowed reaction time, feeling weak, low on energy and endurance, poor execution on the court.
  • Physiological: breathing too fast and shallow, increased heart rate, energy crash/bonking, GI distress, muscle tension

When experiencing over-intensity, the mind and body are cycling in preparation to address an intense, looming, and potentially life-threatening danger.  Sounds ominous, right?  Isn’t it only a game?  Not according to your sympathetic nervous system.  It makes black-or-white evaluations as ‘threatening’ or ‘non-threatening’, and when threatened the alert systems goes all-in with the ‘fight or flight’ response.  Ready for battle, we experience an accelerated heart rate, increased respiration, an adrenalin dump (can cause shakiness), increased blood-flow, high energy access/energy burn, muscle tension, and a shutting down of systems deemed unnecessary, most notably the digestive, reproductive and immune systems.  In and of itself, none of these responses is problematic.  After all, when confronted with danger, we need all systems at high alert.

In ‘fight’ mode, an athlete can experience aggression, fearlessness, rapid energy burn, panic, terror, a reduced capacity for decision making, poor motor control, and restricted awareness of consequences.

In ‘flight’ mode, an athlete can experience heavy or sluggish legs, a lack of fluidity or stiff posture, breathlessness, feeling slow and not being able to catch up to the ball, worry, sluggish thinking, and the urge to sleep, leave or hide.  In doubles play, this can translate into avoiding taking offensive shots or leaving too many shots for your partner.

An athlete at below optimal intensity also experiences performance problems.  A favorite parable for children is the Tortoise and the Hare, the moral of which is some version of “if you keep trying and stick with it, you can do anything.”  As a Sport Psychologist, I can admire this attitude, particularly if my client is the tortoise.  Let’s put the Hare in the counseling chair instead, perhaps a wise referral after losing to a tortoise.  My diagnosis?  Under intensity, a common culprit when an athlete loses to far weaker competition.  The Hare was overconfident, didn’t take the competition or the tortoise seriously, and by the time he realized that his performance was insufficient the race was already lost.  An under-intense athlete presents as uninspired and lacking motivation or hunger for competition. 

Under intense athletes are lackadaisical on the court, their play is sloppy, and their attitude disinterested, inappropriately joking around, irritable or distracted.  Unfortunately, once an athlete realizes that playing with under-intensity won’t net positive results it can be very difficult to shift gears and fire up the engines.  Common causes of under-intensity are over-confidence, not caring about the outcome, not wanting to compete or be present at the event, burnout or overtraining, not competing for the right reasons (e.g., doing it for someone else), and distractions or stress off court.

The three factors of Intensity The cliché of a football coach giving a rousing and passionate speech that ends with screaming athletes has always bothered me.  I can’t help but wonder about the athletes who function best under calmer conditions, who would be left in the locker room desperately fighting to control their breathing.  Or the quarterback, who’d be prone to making aggressive passes that get intercepted while the rest of the offense fails to remember the playlist.  Or the entire team feeling exhausted by halftime.  Intensity isn’t always a case of “more is better.”  It’s nuanced, not a singular experience but a shifting target depending on who you are, what sport you play, and what situation you’re in.

The Athlete:

Handball players, like all athletes, are a unique blend of attributes, and the intensity that works best for you is similarly unique.  There are athletes that perform best at extremely high levels of intensity, and those that are best served by staying very calm on the court.  After playing enough meaningful matches, you’re likely to develop some expectations about your optimal intensity that may or may not be correct because the relationship between intensity and performance is complex.

The Sport:

As a general rule, the greater the demand for fine motor movement and precision in a sport the lower the optimal level of intensity.  Examples of low intensity sport include archery, cue-sports, darts, and shooting.  High intensity is best for sports requiring explosive motor movement, like boxing, wrestling and weight lifting.  Most sports fall somewhere between these polarities, with Track and Field events running the full spectrum from sprint (high intensity) to the 5k (middle intensity) to the marathon (low intensity).  Handball falls in the same category as tennis, between middle and high intensity.

The Situation:

Also referred to as ‘pressure’, expect that as outcomes increase in importance intensity will rise.  Key points in a contest will also evoke greater intensity, such as the first serve of a match, the end of a close game, or following a controversial play.  Other high intensity situations include competing against someone new, playing a rival or superior player, being recorded or watched by a large audience, or feeling that an outcome is out of your control or beyond your ability level.   Low intensity situations include most practice games and facing a competitor you expect to beat easily. 

Assessing intensity:  After a tournament match, I like to take some time to reflect on my performance and break down what did or didn’t work.  I record those thoughts in a journal, which acts as a data record for later analysis.  Post-play assessment is extremely important, providing rich information on improving training and practice routines as well as guidance for future matches.  When it comes to intensity, keeping a journal can help narrow down best-practices that increase the likelihood that your focus and energy are optimal at the coin-toss. 

My post-match journal asks several questions, many of which are related to intensity.  On a 0-10-point scale, I ask, “how was my 1) Energy (physical performance, conditioning); 2) Focus and determination (mental performance); 3) Handball skills execution (skill performance); 4) Adjustments (adaptation during the match); 5) Routine (pre-match preparation and pre-skill routines).”  I will then write a little more about what led to the score I gave myself as a way of fleshing out the details.

The journal has helped me realize that I tend to play my best when I can start with an intensity level of seven, provided I trained well for the tournament and can sustain that level of exertion for an entire match.  However, if my intensity becomes anxious rather than excited and focused, I need to dial it back to a four or five.  By focusing on letting go of needing to win, and using my breath to calm my body, I can then start to ratchet up the intensity through motivating self-talk.

Reducing intensity If you’re interested in learning more about keeping calm prior to a match, please refer to the May 2018 Handball Magazine article on this subject.  Techniques for lowering intensity prior to a match include: having a pre-match routine, arriving ready to play (don’t rush, have a good warm-up, pack your bag early and have everything you think you’ll need available and easy to access in an organized bag), positive self-talk, stretching/yoga, reminding yourself of your familiarity/experience with the situation, reminding yourself of what is really at stake (e.g., it’s not life or death), go for a walk or light jog, deep breathing and mindfulness exercises, distract yourself (e.g., watch a movie), surround yourself with supportive people, restrict energy drinks and caffeine that increase heart-rate and imitate anxiety, or dunk your head in cold water.

Methods of calming your intensity during a match include motivational self-talk (e.g., ‘you can do this’), keeping perspective (e.g., ‘you’re doing this for fun’), keeping a process orientation (i.e., stay in the moment and focused on performance, not outcome).  I also like to say key-words that orient me towards my optimal state of mind; for lower intensity, try “calm, controlled, smooth, relaxed, patient” and for higher intensity try “fierce, pumped, powerful, forceful, and angry.”  You can also use a combination of these words, like “calm power” or “controlled anger” if you want a middle range of intensity.

Raising intensity: Being ready means having your intensity peak at the right moment, while keeping anxiety or worry under control.  Most athletes will do at least a twenty-minute warm-up to get their body ready, something handball players are familiar with since our sport requires getting our hands ready to hit the ball.  Use the time as an opportunity to get your heart rate to play-range, perhaps by rallying with yourself or getting good movement by jogging and stretching out. 

Many athletes listen to music that sets the right tone for their optimal intensity, which is a great distraction as well as positive focal point for your thinking.  I like to tap into my motivations for competing in the first place, reminding myself that I want to challenge my game and see if I can put all the pieces together to perform at my absolute best against excellent competition and under demanding conditions.

Handball players, like all athletes, love to analyze their sport and their performances.  I recommend taking the time to understand your personal relationship with intensity.  It will help you to bring your best game to the toughest competitions.

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