Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Can Deception Improve Athletic Performance?

When we're trying to climb a particularly steep hill, or run those last few kilometers in the marathon, we often try to trick our minds into ignoring any possible aches and pains or believing that those distances are shorter than they seem. If we use it in the context of making an effort seem easier, is it possible to use deception to make performance better?

According to an interesting research study from Northumbrian University, deceiving the athlete brain can lead to some improvements in athletic performance.  In a study done at the university, cyclists were asked to race against an avatar (a virtual cyclist figure), which they thought was moving at the personal best pace of each cyclist, except they were actually cycling one percent faster. The cyclists, who could see their own performance on the virtual course alongside the avatar, were not only able to match their opponent, they were actually going faster.  This lead to a two percent increase in power which may seem insignificant but not when that could be the difference between gold and not even getting on the podium.

Due to the improved performance in this study, some questions were raised out: 
  • What are the limiting factors on how fast a person can go in an athletic event?
  • Which fatigues first – the body or the brain?
  • How much competition can affect the athlete’s speed?
  • Does the brain conserve the body’s limited fuel resources?
It was also learned in the research environment that money did not increase athletic performance, for when athletes were offered money to go faster and better their own times, they could not.

Results from the experiment showed that deception can indeed lead to improved performance when the cyclists were told that the avatar was going the same speed as their personal best. But if they thought the avatar was already going faster than they had ever gone, the cyclists had a tendency to give up faster.

The “belief system” of the athlete plays a role, within limits, and if the athlete thinks a certain performance is possible, they can draw on the energy reserves that the brain is programmed to hold back.


 For more information on coaching techniques, please visit Sport Information Centre

Northumbria University (2011, October 17). Pushing the limits of performance. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 15, 2012, from­ /releases/2011/10/111017075514.htm

Original Research

Stone, Mark R.; Thomas, Kevin; Wilkinson, Michael; Jones, Andrew M.; Gibson, Alan St Clair; Thompson, Kevin G. Effects of Deception on Exercise Performance: Implications for Determinants of Fatigue in Humans. (2011). Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: POST ACCEPTANCE, 19 August 2011. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318232cf77. Retrieved February 15, 2012 from