I'm sure you've heard of the saying that your performance is 50% physical and 50% mental, or to varying degrees of a split. But just how much does your state of mind influence your sports performance?
I watched a fascinating program on the BBC the other week - The Power of the Placebo. As part of the Horizon science series, the placebo effect was investigated in a number of different applications. There was some amazing stories of the power of using a placebo.
These included using dummy operations for back pain - the women involved went from being bed-ridden to playing golf within a week of having a 'dummy' operation. The surgeon just pressed down on her spine when under local anesthetic while being told she was having a procedure to cure her pain.
Another involved giving a mountaineer a pill while at high altitude that would increase his bloods capacity for transporting oxygen. The pill was of course a placebo. But even his brain was fooled as it stopped producing the hormone it would normally produce once it sensed low oxygen levels. The climber reported he felt fine when not using an oxygen cylinder in the 'dead zone' and made it to the peak with little perceived effort.
But the one story that really interested me involved cyclists at the Manchester Velodrome. After their usual morning training session, they were told they would be doing an additional time trial after only a short break. A scientist in a white coat then gave each one a pill that they were told was a legal performance-enhancer. After 30 minutes they went back onto the track and completed a time trial. Now bearing in mind this was after only a short break, they all recorded better times than the morning session - and two even achieved personal bests!
Now imagine their surprise when they were told that the performance-enhancement pills contained only... flour!
Yep, they were pretty stunned to be exact - especially the two who'd recorded their best scores.
This shows just how much belief comes into performance. All the cyclists needed was for a scientific-looking type to give them a pill, and they all went faster. So are we limiting ourselves on the rowing machine? When we're coming up the the 1,500 meter mark on a time-trial and are feeling a little tired, are we saying in our minds that we're not going to achieve a PB on that day?
Perhaps if we didn't look at the display and keep an eye on our distance/ time, and just kept going, we might stop limiting our performance. Of course you can't give yourself a placebo - because if you know it's that, it defeats the object, but maybe we could achieve more than we consider is within our grasp.
The medical world have had a dilemma about the placebo for years. Is it ethical to give a patient nothing more than a sugar pill? Yet doctors know they can be very effective for many conditions simply because the patient believes the doctor has given them something to help. More research is looking into the powerful effect that the mind can have on the body's ability to heal itself. But there's also plenty to consider in the world of sport.
As I said... fascinating :0)
If you live in the UK, you might still catch the program on BBC's iPlayer. If not, you can read a review online of the Horizon program here. It also might be worth searching on Youtube to see if the Beeb have posted some of the footage on there.
Roy Palmer is an athletics coach, teacher of The Alexander Technique and a rowing fanatic.