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Can an existential scare spook an athlete into improved performance?

"They took more shots, better shots, and they hustled more and ran faster," researcher Uri Lifshin said.

By Brooks Hays
Psychology doctoral students Colin Zestcott, on the left, and Uri Lifshin, on the right, conducted two experiments to measure how reminders of death affect athletic performance. Photo by University of Arizona
Psychology doctoral students Colin Zestcott, on the left, and Uri Lifshin, on the right, conducted two experiments to measure how reminders of death affect athletic performance. Photo by University of Arizona

TUCSON, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Does reminding an athlete of his or her precarious place in the universe, of the fragility of life, inspire improve performance out on the playing field?

New research suggests coaches looking to boost their players' performance may want to invest in a few books on existentialism.

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It turns out, the ever-present threat of death -- and the system the mind uses to ignore that threat -- can be used to an athlete's advantage.

"Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem," Uri Lifshin, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Arizona, explained in a news release. "Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you're part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you're not just a sack of meat."

Lifshin and his research partner Colin Zestcott, also a doctoral student, wanted to find out a reminder of a person's own mortality might influence an activity from which that person derives self-esteem.

In this case, the activity was basketball. The researchers recruited males who claimed to care about their basketball performance but did not play on a formal college basketball team.

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"Our idea was that the study effect should only work for people who are motivated to perform well in sports," Zestcott explained.

Zestcott played participants one on one in basketball, posing as one of the study's participants. Each participant played two games. In between the two games, half of the participants received a questionnaire and series of tasks designed to inspire thoughts about death and mortality. The other half were asked to think about basketball.

Those who were reminded of their own mortality improved their performance in the second game, while the other participants did not.

In a second experiment, Zestcott used a more subtle reminder, wearing a shirt covered in the word "death" while explaining how a simple shooting contest would work. Half the participants saw the shirt, half did not.

Those who saw the death shirt performed 30 percent better than their peers who did not see the shirt.

"They took more shots, better shots, and they hustled more and ran faster," Lifshin said.

The results, detailed in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, lend support to terror management theory, the idea that humans relieve the fear of death by developing self-esteem or symbolic immortality.

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The researchers say many coaches likely unknowingly use the theory to inspire their team. Reminding a team of their legacy, and how their performance will affect how they're remembered, likely has a similar effect, researchers say.

"This is a potentially untapped way to motivate athletes but also perhaps to motivate people in other realms," Zestcott said. "Outside of sports, we think that this has implications for a range of different performance-related tasks, like people's jobs, so we're excited about the future of this research."

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