Interesting article from Runner's World's "Sweat Science":
From my column in today's Globe and Mail, a description of three very interesting experiments about how watching the right (or wrong) video or hearing the right (or wrong) words from a coach can instantly change your hormone levels and instantly make you faster and stronger (or slower and weaker):
EXPERIMENT NO. 1: Motivation boost
The set-up: A dozen volunteers watched six four-minute YouTube clips, one at a time, then hit the gym after viewing each film to test how much weight they could squat in three repetitions. The videos each displayed a specific emotion: sad, erotic, aggressive, “training motivational,” humorous or neutral. Saliva samples were collected before and after each showing of the videos to measure testosterone levels.
The payoff: The aggressive video (a montage of big rugby hits) and the motivational video (a mixed martial arts fighter in training) caused testosterone levels to spike, and produced an average increase of nearly five per cent in squat performance. The sad video (“starving children in Africa”) actually lowered testosterone and workout performance, while the erotic and funny videos were somewhere in between.
EXPERIMENT 2: Supportive vs. cautionary
The set-up: Two hours before a professional rugby match, 12 players received a 15-minute video session. They were either shown clips of great plays they’d made in a previous game, with the coach providing positive feedback, or they were shown clips of their opponents making great plays, with the coach saying things like, “Don’t let him get away with that today.”
The payoff: The positive feedback increased testosterone and resulted in better performance during the game, as measured by several statistical markers and subjective ratings. The cautionary feedback, in contrast, decreased testosterone and increased the stress hormone cortisol, with predictable results: poorer game performance.
EXPERIMENT 3: Positive vs. negative
The set-up: One day after a professional rugby match, 12 players completed a one-hour video feedback session with their coach. The session either showed footage of the player’s most successful moments from the previous night’s game, along with positive feedback from the coach, or it showed a montage of the player’s worst mistakes, with the coach providing critical comments such as: “Why couldn’t you do that right?”
The payoff: A few days later, in response to a physical stress test, the players who had received positive feedback showed dramatically higher testosterone levels compared to the negative-feedback group. A week later, before their next game, the positive-feedback group still had higher testosterone levels and produced better performances in the game.
To me the most surprising and fascinating part of these experiments was that negative coaching feedback after one game could have effects on hormones and performance a full week later. That's incredible. When you think of all the different things that can affect you -- comments from friends or strangers, things you read or see on TV, what you choose to think about, etc. -- there are so many different ways you could be affecting your psychological (and thus physiological) outlook. It really explains why many top athletes go to such extreme lengths to control their entire environment, especially leading up to a big competition. Although I'm a journalist, I can fully understand why an athlete wouldn't want to answer questions about past failures before a big game or race.
As a postscript, to accompany the column, I picked my five favorite sports psych-up movies of all time. The gallery of the five movies is here, topped (of course!) by Hoosiers. One of my favorite sports memories is my very last game of high-school basketball. I went to a very small high-school (the Hickory High of the North, we liked to think of ourselves), and we had qualified 16th out of 16 for the city play-offs, which meant that we would play the top-seeded team in the first round. Almost the entire grade skipped class that afternoon to watch Hoosiers with us before we headed out for the game. (We lost, but I'm sure our hormone levels were optimized!)