Sport Psychology: Should Athletes Listen to Music Before They Compete?

Thierry Middleton, Alain Gauthier,Sylvain Grenier

In 2012 during the London Olympics, Michael Phelps solidified his presence as one of the world's greatest ever athletes. He captured his all-time world leading 22nd Olympic medal. His physical attributes, such as his 6'7” arm span and size 14 feet, predetermined that he would overpower even his closest competitor.

However, it is his mental preparation that has also garnered much attention. Michael Phelps can be seen prior to each race, ears covered by his oversized headphones, immersed in his music.

Research has shown that listening to music prior to a competitive event can be beneficial¹. For instance, music has been found to reduce performance anxiety and increase motivation, but does it really enhance how fast you can swim?

According to our study, the answer is no, but don't throw out your headphones just yet.

Music and Performance Study
In our study, seventeen university level swimmers were asked to listen to music 30 minutes prior to their race time. On a subsequent day, swimmers were asked to refrain from listening to music during their race day. Race times relative to their personal best times were used to assess changes in performance outcomes.

It was found that listening to music prior to a race did not significantly affect race times. In fact, some racers who were not accustomed to this pre-race routine found it to be somewhat distracting and socially isolating.

Nevertheless, other athletes perceived their performance to have been positively affected by the music whether or not their race time confirmed this effect.

In the end, Michael Phelps' physical dominance in the pool is more likely to be a combination of a genetic gift and years of training than the playlist on his IPod. Listening to music alone prior to a competition will not make you swim faster, but if you think it will, it can't hurt.

Here are a few suggestions with regards to music and race preparation:

  • As a coach it is important to make sure that your athletes understand the full range of effects that music can have on human emotions; if used properly, music can get athletes “psyched” or serve to calm them down in unnerving situations. Athletes need to understand that music should be used to serve their purposes and not because they think they need to use it.
  • Athletes should be encouraged to follow pre-competition routines that make them comfortable and should never be forced to use music if they do not want to.
  • Individual athletes should decide what music they listen to. As a coach, or teammate, do not try to force a particular type of music on others.
  • Coaches should ensure athletes rely on internal attributes (e.g., belief in their physical abilities) to understand their performances. Athletes should not become overly reliant on tools such as music to ensure or justify their athletic success.

Thierry Middleton, Alain Gauthier and Sylvain Grenier, Laurentian University, 2012.
Thierry Middleton, a varsity swimmer, is currently in teacher's college at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. He completed this study last year while completing his BA in Sport Psychology at Laurentian. Dr. Alain Gauthier and Dr. Sylvain Grenier are professors in the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University.

For further information, read the following book:
¹Bateman, A., & Bale, J. (Eds.) Sporting sounds: Relationships between sport and music. (2009). New York: Routledge.

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© 2012, Physical Education,

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