Incredible Psychological Phenomenon Rarely Discussed but Vital to Sport Success
Most people have heard of the Placebo Effect, a psychological phenomena experienced when an inert treatment or suggestion actually “works” to the believer, but only because of belief. For example, if a sports medicine physician were to suggest to an athlete to wear a rubber bracelet and he will play better — and then the athlete actually does end up playing better because of his belief in the rubber bracelet — you could say the bracelet served as a placebo. Interestingly, there is the dangerous counter-part to the placebo effect that is rarely mentioned, yet very instrumental when it comes to sport success. What I am referring to is known as the Nocebo Effect.
While the placebo effect prompts positive things to happen, the nocebo effect is just the opposite. Specifically, the nocebo effect is defined as the phenomenon in which inert substances or mere suggestions actually bring about negative effects in a patient or research participant. Here again we see that the power of suggestion can impact human behavior and thinking, but this time it works negatively instead of positively.
There is not much scientific discussion about the nocebo effect in sports, yet there are countless everyday examples where nocebo effects occur and prevent athletes from reaching their full potential. Consider the following:
- An athlete who overly-worries about a sports injury impacting sport retirement. The nocebo effect can be seen in this example when a doctor or trainer over-emphasizes the long-term negative effects of a sports injury, causing the athlete to excessively worry and actually change the way he or she plays to “protect” from a final, career-ending injury. The athlete might begin to feel pains he might otherwise not have noticed, or compensate the way he plays to protect from future pain and discomfort.
- Performance supplements and enhancements. If an athlete overly-worries about potential side effects of a safe supplement, it is very likely he will begin to see signs (or actually experience) the side effect(s), when in reality the side effect is only in the athlete’s mind. Examples of conditions the athlete might experience merely through thinking include anxiety, aches and pains, cramping, and even more serious concerns.
- Poor coaching that leads to increased anxiety. When a coach is excessively harsh on an athlete and regularly reminds the athlete of all her poor techniques and abilities, the criticism can lead to the athlete becoming obsessive and concerned about making future mistakes to an unhealthy level. In this example, an anxiety issue could emerge based exclusively on a coach creating a negative situation in training the athlete.
Placebo and nocebo effects provide solid evidence that our minds can help — or hurt — the ways in which we perceive the world around us, and subsequently the behaviors we take in response to our thinking. If we believe strongly enough that something will help us, it likely will —- but if we over-focus on negative things occurring there is just as strong a chance for those things happening, too.
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