Have you noticed the increase in the number of athletes now wearing strips of wide tape on their arms and legs? A number of Olympic athletes wore it, and if you watch the NBA playoffs you will see players wearing this tape as well. If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about the product is called KT Tape, and it is designed to relieve pain while supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Does this product actually work? The answer to that question, similar to questions about other popular sport-performance products, is that it’s a very complex question and near impossible to truly know.
Athletes always look to get an edge
Having been around sports all my life one thing I can say for certain is that competitive athletes are always looking to get an edge on the competition. What this means, generally speaking, is that athletes will examine new and different training styles and products to see if they can enhance training, and therefore allow athletes to reach new personal milestones in performance. Having a mindset to find ways to work smarter, not harder, isn’t a bad thing, but it does invite a new variable to the equation that often skews rational, objective thinking: Hope. When we become hopeful things will work, our minds become vulnerable because we begin working entirely from emotion, not logic — and it is at this precise mindset where we can be easily fooled and mislead.
When it comes to athletic performance products, athletes have a long list of products once thought to make a difference, but in reality did not have any real performance-improving qualities. Still, athletes have sworn by products in the past that they feel have helped them perform better, even in cases where scientific studies on efficacy showed no difference when compared to other random training methods. Could there actually be performance-enhancing qualities research studies have missed? Or are athletes being untruthful when they claim a product works, when really it doesn’t?
Or could the answer relating to sport performance products and be something completely different, and more complex?
A closer look at how we determine if something “works”
As human beings we like to learn about cause-effect relationships, as these discoveries allow us to perform better and more efficiently, as well as minimize mistakes and save time. For example, if we learn that wearing KT Tape minimizes risk of injury, then it makes a lot of sense to find ways to use KT Tape when competing. The problem, however, is making the leap that simply because two things happen at the same time (a correlation), that one actually causes the other (cause-effect). For example, an athlete who wears KT Tape might not experience an injury while competing, but do we know for certain that the tape caused this positive outcome to occur? While it is possible the tape helped prevent injuries, several other competing reasons should also be considered:
- The decrease in injuries occurred simply by chance.
- Because the athlete believed in the tape, he/she played with more confidence, less anxiety, and experienced fewer injuries as a result. In this example the tape didn’t cause the injury reduction, but the belief in the tape did (a placebo effect*).
- Any number of different variables led to the decrease in injuries — better weather, easier competition, or safer stadium playing surfaces are just three quick possibilities.
While it may seem like a product like KT Tape “works,” it’s also possible that any of the reasons above may have played into the decrease in injury, making it important to use discipline when tempted to jump to conclusions. On the other hand, and to be fair to KT Tape and other similar products, research scientists also objectively consider if the product in question really does perform better than chance (a helpful quality of empirical research).
The placebo effect*
The placebo effect occurs when we believe something caused a change in outcomes or behaviors, when in reality it was simply the belief about the product or intervention that led to the change in outcome. Applying this thinking to sport performance products, including various wristbands, sprays, gels, clothing, and yes, body tape, you can quickly see how easy it is to have a great day playing sports, and then to immediately assign the great day to the piece of sport equipment you wore or used that day. So if a basketball player scores his most points ever today, did the body tape do that, or did he play well simply because he believed the body tape would help? The funny answer to this question might just be “who cares?” so long as the athlete played well.
When it comes to social and behavioral science, it is very difficult to establish true cause-effect relationships, mostly because there are countless extraneous variables that directly impact cause-effect relationships. Using critical thinking is the best way to responsibly evaluate the efficacy of products, but this thinking requires discipline, objectivity, and the willingness to admit that there is no significant relationship that exists. On the other hand, many athletes (and their parents and coaches) don’t really care if a true cause-effect relationship between a product or training routine and performance enhancement exists, so long as the athlete believes it and there is an observable, measurable improvement in performance being witnessed.
If you have very little invested in a training routine and/or performance-enhancement product and you are seeing positive results, then it may not matter whether the results are because of the placebo effect or the routine/product. The problem, however, occurs when athletes, parents, and coaches are too quick to assign significance to a new product or training routine, spend a lot of time and money on it, and stop doing other more proven training routines. In these cases, belief isn’t strong enough to compensate for the fact that the product or training approach didn’t really add anything significant to athletic performance, and the reality that time and money may have been squandered must be realized. Remember, the best results are often achieved by the things you already know — working hard, training right, and outworking the competition.
Bottom line: When it comes to sport performance products, do your homework, and be very careful before assigning cause-effect relationships that may not really exist.