I first came across Dave Hamilton’s work when presenting at a conference put on by the Seattle Sounders. At the time, he worked with USA field hockey, after serving a similar role with British field hockey for the 2012 Olympics. As Dave stood at the lectern presenting his findings, my inbuilt skepticism dissipated into a full attentive embrace of what Dave was espousing.
Dave presented on the relationship between testosterone and performance. He went through a research review showing how subtle shifts in testosterone led to shifts in performance at a wide variety of tasks, from intellectual to athletic. Then to cement the practicality, Hamilton walked us through his own findings with his players. If he could shift there testosterone levels slightly pre-game, their performance would also shift. So Hamilton experimented with pre-game warm-up routines– like whether practicing offense or defense worked best, or whether doing light endurance work or pure sprint work, improved performance. To Dave, Testosterone was just the marker that tended to correlate with performance, what he was actually after was performance itself.
With each “experiment” he found the individuality of the change was immense. Certain players would see their performance boost after performing sprints pre-game, while others needed a different stimulus.
If we dig further into the research on pre-competition routines that influence performance, there are lots of “strange” things that work. Whether we watch gameday tape reviewing our successes or failures influences testosterone levels and the next game performance. Watching short video clips that are erotic (yes, erotic), aggressive, or humorous before a maximum squat exercise all increase testosterone levels and performance. Another study found that whether a coach is positive or negative pre-game influences testosterone levels and game performance in Rugby players. Watching a previous victory had the same effect in a different study. Have an away game and win? Too bad, you get a bigger bump in testosterone if you would have won at home.
I could go on and on. The point is lots of things that boost testosterone, or motivation, or a number of “soft” psychology parameters AND they seem to influence performance at the highest level. Whether that’s in research-backed studies, or in real-world experience of high-level athletics.
A year later, in research for Peak Performance, Dave summed it up even better when I asked what tended to give athletes a boost: “Do what makes you feel good.” His conclusion was that, if he could put peoples minds and bodies in a place where they were empowered to perform, they would see a boost in performance, and likely one in testosterone too.
At that instant, my mind flipped to another concise phrase I’d read, “Do good, be good.”
These words were written by psychologists Timothy Wilson in his book Strangers to Ourselves. In the book, Wilson explores how our subconscious impacts our lives. And in this particular section, he outlined how we can take advantage of our subconscious to influence our every day lives
Wilson’s research found that one of the ways we come to understand ourselves is by analyzing our behavior. Our subconscious literally analyzes our behaviors then says “hmm, I just gave a donation to this child in need, I must be a good person!” In other words, our behaviors help to inform the rest of our mind who we actually are. Which led Wilson to the phrase, “do good, be good.” If we act in accordance to how we want to be, eventually our brain will ingrain that, yes, we have to be this type of person because our behaviors show we are. Instead of trying to use our mind to change behaviors, we should change our behaviors, and then our mind will follow.
What Hamilton and Wilson had both found is that our behaviors– whether that’s in performing more giving actions, or in priming ourselves for a game– impact us far more than we previously had imagined.
When you’re standing on the starting line, belief matters.
While some might insist that the impact on performance from belief or ‘feeling good’ must be a placebo effect, they fail to realize that life and coaching are about expressing a response. Placebo or actual; the psychology and physiology are deeply intertwined. I could show athletes a picture of a happy face, as has been done in the Psychology research, or I could look them in the eye and tell them they are ready. Is the effect placebo or real?
There most likely is a physiological arousal from being told you are ready to go, seeing a smiley face, or standing upright and tall. But there is also a belief effect. A tinge of conscious and subconscious knowledge that you are happier, more determined, more confident, or whatever else you want to look at. Is this ‘real’ or not? When it comes to performance, it doesn’t really matter.
Sure, from a scientific perspective it does, but from an applied perspective it doesn’t. I don’t need to know why interval training works to put it in my training program. It helps create buy-in and helps as a coach, but as an athlete, if it works, I’m doing it.
We tend to discount ‘feelings’ in hard science. But as we are learning in the world of fatigue, the ‘feeling’ of effort may be what matters most when it comes to competing. Feel better than expected, your body lets loose the reigns and allows you to run a bit faster. Feel worse? We slow down.
If ‘feeling’ matters so much in fatigue and racing performance, why do we discount it in the lead up to performance? Create the feeling of empowerment, enjoyment, confidence, or the mindset to take on any challenge, and we have succeeded. We will likely see a boost in performance.
As coaches, our life revolves around these beliefs effects. We’re trying to put the athlete in the right frame of mind to compete and reach their potential. And if “feeling good” helps them get there, then I don’t care if they power pose, crack jokes, talk themselves up, or do the latest dance move.
Steve Magness is an author of two books, Peak Performance and The Science of Running. His writing has appeared in Wired, Sports Illustrated, Outside, and other publications. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness