The coach as a placebo

One area of sports performance that I constantly find myself fascinated with is that of placebo effects, and its related cousin, expectancy. I find it really interesting that an inert substance can exert clear performance enhancing effects, as this has potentially huge implications for sporting performance.

My fascination might come from the fact that I myself am very susceptible to placebo effects; as a youngster, my mum (highly unethically, I must add) reduced my fear of flying by giving me anti-anxiety pills, which I later discovered were just licorice tablets. I’ve previously written in depth about some of my favorite studies in this area, including my all-time favorite where well-trained powerlifters got substantially stronger when they thought they were taking steroids, and then immediately weaker when they were told they actually weren’t. Recently I also authored an academic paper suggesting that some of caffeine’s performance enhancing effects might be partially driven by our recognition of its bitter taste, similar to how research has shown that swilling and spitting a carbohydrate drink might lead to performance enhancement. The topic is fascinating.

Social factors and the placebo effect

All of this provides some background as to why a recent paper, published in the European Journal of Sports Science, caught my eye—and why I think it could have important ramifications. Titled “You don’t need to administer a placebo to elicit a placebo effect,” the authors explore how social factors—including people—can elicit a placebo effect, and how it might affect sports performance. This is something which I tangentially touched on in a previous HMMRMedia article about whether anxiety is contagious.

In their paper, the authors argue that social cues are sufficient enough to enhance performance, without any actual use of placebo (e.g. an inert sugar pill). Their basis for this is that humans evolved as social animals, and so we are rewarded—in terms of status, or feelings of acceptance—when we act in pro-social ways, and are punished—via feelings of shame or loneliness—when we are anti-social. These feelings can in turn drive some neurobiological effects (for example, similar to that seen when increased levels of loneliness are associated with increased mortality rates), such that social situations, including our interactions with people, can drive very real physical effects.

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The coaching placebo

This can have massive implications for coaching. There are a number of “all-star” coaches in the athletics world; I’ve often wondered if these coaches are actually good coaches, or if their track record of success (which we assume means that they are good coaches, but could just mean they’re good at recruiting athletes) means that athletes believe in their training program to a far greater extent, believe that they are better prepared than other athletes, and therefore perform much better. Similarly, a number of former athletes are now well-established coaches; are they “good” (i.e. skilled) coaches, or does their former success—and their ability to strongly emphasize with athletes given their shared experiences—in turn drive their athletes’ performances? As always, it’s likely a combination of a variety of factors, but I’ve often wondered what would happen if I gave an identical training program to two groups of athletes, and told one group that it was from a famous coach with a lot of success, and told the other that it was from a university student—would both groups have the same level of success?

The authors also suggest that training partners can exert a strong performance-enhancing placebo effect. When we train with people, we get an intrinsic understanding of their level; are they the same, better, or worse than me? When we then view their performance, we can then “rank” ourselves against that performance. So, for example, if we see a training partner that we believe we are better than perform really well, this in turn can enhance our own performance. As an example, I used to train with Jason Gardener, who was, at the time, British record holder over 60m. During our winter training phase, I was actually very competitive with Jason in our training performances—much more so than the differences in our best times would suggest—and this gave me a huge amount of confidence going into the indoor season, in which I subsequently ran a huge 60m PB of 6.55 seconds.

Finding the placebo

It’s difficult to give highly practical advice based on this paper, as coaches can’t really change their social status easily; if you haven’t been a successful athlete in the past, you can’t go back in time and become one. What is important, I believe, is that coaches are aware of the importance of non-verbal cues—such as confidence—on their athletes.

There is also a lot to be said for getting the composition of a training group right; ideally, you’d have some experienced athletes that developing athletes can use as a marker of their own performance, and a variety of training partners to provide an important social dynamic. Similarly, coaches should be aware of the social aspects of training group, and should perhaps try to foster a team spirit, whilst being wary of social issues (such as unfriendliness) that may be negatively affecting some athletes within the group.

Whilst it may be tempting to dismiss this as “the power of the mind”, the clear and very real physiological effects of placebos demonstrate that this has the potential to affect physical response to some extent. Clearly, given the ever-increasing body of research around these emerging concepts, we can no longer view coaching as just merely the physical and technical development of athletes; it is so much more than that.