Mind, music and physical performance

By Frank Bolger - Last update

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Is it possible that our imaginations could enhance our real-life performance levels

According to a study conducted by a team of academics from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation (whose findings were published in the journal Neuropsycholgia), simply imagining making a movement can result in benefiting from significant strength gains. For years, all kinds of athletes have availed of the services of sports psychologists to help them improve their athletic performance. Many sports fans and participants will be aware of the power of visualisation, perhaps as most noticeably used by sprinters and boxers prior to entering the fray.

It is far from being hocus pocus. A recent BBC article went some way in attempting to explain the science of it:

‘Imaginary practice helps because it increases the strength of the signal sent from the movement areas of the brain to the muscles. Using electrodes you can record the size of this signal, and demonstrate that after imaginary practice people are able to send a stronger, more coherent signal to the muscles.’

The power of music

When one adds music to this imaginative motor, the mix can be particularly potent. This is because music changes the mind, and so can change the behaviours – and even the capabilities – of the body too: something that USA Track & Field, America’s governing body for distance-running events, takes quite seriously. In fact back in 2007 the organisation banned competitors from using portable music devices in order to ‘to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.’

Music can distract athletes from pain, prolong endurance and even promote metabolic efficiency. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could consider music as ‘a type of legal performance-enhancing drug’.

However, choosing the most effective tune for your workout is a matter of some psychological delicacy as many songs tend to evoke particular memories and emotions. Naturally these could prove to be as detrimental as they do advantageous: it’s a fine line, and it depends on the specific temperament of each athlete. With that said, tempo and rhythm can have a massive affect on the body, which instinctively tries to synchronise its movements with the pace of the music (as seen when people dance, tap their fingers, etc).

‘[M]usic helps us perform by taking over a vital piece of the task of moving, the rhythm travels in through our ears and down our auditory pathways to the supplementary motor area. There it joins forces with brain activity that is signalling when to move, helping us to keep pace by providing an external timing signal. Or to use a sporting metaphor, it not only helps us out of the starting blocks but it helps to keep us going until we reach the line.’

Frank Bolger

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