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Stand outside of Dr. Richard Stephens’ Psychobiology Research Laboratory at Keele University, and you’ll hear every single one of George Carlin’s infamous “seven dirty words.” You’ll hear at least seven more curse words not on Carlin’s list too, and probably some profanities you didn’t even know existed. In fact, if you’re easily offended, you should avoid Stephens’ lab altogether. Things can get pretty vulgar in the name of science.
And yes, this is science.
Within the confines of the lab, study subjects are put through a variety of uncomfortable stimuli—submersion in ice-cold water or performing feats of strength—in order to figure out the best strategies to cope with discomfort. So far, the best strategy discovered is to drop a loud F-bomb.
“In swearing, people are activating a natural pain reliever,” Dr. Stephens said. “They can handle more discomfort and last longer in painful situations.”
Though his research is primarily used in sport settings, the inspiration came from an entirely different endurance event: Watching his wife give birth to their first child.
“I noticed that my wife was swearing a lot when our daughter was being born, in the hospital during labor,” he said. “The midwives all said this was a normal part of childbirth—everybody swears when they’re giving birth. I realized that I do the same, and really everybody does the same. When we hurt ourselves, the first thing we do, quite often, is swear.”
Almost immediately, Stephens set out to find out why. Was there any physiological benefit to swearing, or are we just pissed off about the pain? To answer the question he developed an experiment where people were instructed to submerge one hand in ice-cold water and leave it there for as long as possible. One group was instructed to curse freely; the other was given a set of neutral words (i.e., “chair” or “grass”). The results were surprising. Those who were allowed to swear were able to keep their hand in water nearly 50% longer than those who could only say neutral words. Additionally, the swearing group saw an increase in heart rate and decrease in their perception of pain.
“It seemed that swearing brings about an emotional response in the speaker, which is enough to set off the body’s fight-or-flight response,” Stephens said. “And a big part of the fight-or-flight response is something known as stress-induced analgesia.”
Stress-induced analgesia, or SIA, is the body’s way of blocking pain during times of stress. In caveman times it was probably the thing that allowed us to ignore wounds or blisters when running away from predators. When a lion’s chasing you, you don’t notice that your feet hurt—your focus is entirely on running as fast as possible to safety. Though most of us will never be chased by a lion these days, SIA still kicks in when the fight-or-flight response is activated: someone in a car wreck who manages to save others, or a runner who finds a new reserve of speed when they hear a competitor’s footsteps edging closer in the finishing chute.
If swearing helps us suffer better, Stephens reasoned, perhaps there was a direct impact on sports performance too. Building on the ice-water study design, Stephens expanded his paradigm to physical tasks. In one study, he tested people riding to exhaustion on stationary bikes; in another, subjects were given a hand gripper to test strength. In both experiments, people who cursed were able to work harder and last longer. The results made sense to Stephens—after all, if we can handle the pain, then we can push through it—but a closer look at the data showed something Stephens wasn’t expecting at all.
“The results are consistent with what we thought would happen, but when we analyzed the results, we found no signs of autonomic system arousal [the fight-or-flight response]. So we got the effect we expected, but not via the mechanism we expected.”
In replications of these studies, swearing consistently shows a reduction in pain and increase in power. But the first hypothesis—that swearing activates a straightforward physiological pathway—has proved to be incorrect. Instead, evidence now suggests the effects of swearing are probably a combination of physiological and psychological. Stephens’ current hypothesis is that swearing opens the floodgates of disinhibition. We’re often told swearing is something we shouldn’t do. Once we’ve crossed that line, it then becomes easier to cross others.
“It could be that we are willing to be less vigilant after swearing,” Stephens said. “If you’re holding back because you have concerns about health, safety, injury, or embarrassment, it becomes a lot easier to forget those concerns when you’ve stopped being vigilant about being polite, too.”
Stephens points to historic research on athletes in tennis and karate, which found that when players grunt they produced more power without a corresponding increase in effort. Swearing seems to take that to the next level, and vocalization seems to be a key element. In one study, Stephens and his research team found that obscene gestures (a raised middle finger, for example) don’t have the same effect as actually saying the swear word out loud.
Does that mean you have to unleash a torrent of vulgarity to get through a tough race? Not exactly. Our brains are designed to respond to novel stimuli, so the more we swear, the less powerful it becomes. This process, called habituation, ensures that we pay attention to things that are most important while tuning out anything else. Stephens has found the more often people swear in everyday life, the less benefit they get from such words. But a carefully-timed curse word—say, midway through a tough climb or when chasing down an opponent at the end of a race—could help athletes find a new reserve of strength when they need it most.
It was that one fateful game.
Don’t Think About Choking, Don’t Think About Choking
It was the most important game of Sian Beilock’s life. As a soccer goalie with aspirations of going pro, Beilock had worked her whole life to earn a spot in the U.S. Olympic Development Program. When her coaches told her the national team coach would be attending one of their games, she felt a mixture of excitement and fear.
“I knew this was my big chance, my make-or-break moment,” Beilock said. “It was that one fateful game.”
When the game came, she was ready. Her excitement fueled her performance to the top of her ability. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed someone standing on the sidelines with a clipboard—a scout for the national team, looking at her and taking notes. Her excitement disappeared, and fear rushed in to take its place.
“All of a sudden, the ball seemed to go in slow motion,” she said “The next shot, I bobbled. Then the next, I tipped it into the net. I choked, my team lost, and the national team walked away.”
Afterwards, Beilock played the memory of that game over and over in her head. She had blocked those same shots successfully so many times before. The motions of goalkeeping were so embedded in her muscle memory she could do them in her sleep. How was it possible that she had suddenly forgotten everything she knew?
Beilock’s story is dramatic, but not unique. A triathlete who has changed a bike tire many times in training will suddenly forget how to use a tire lever when rushing to fix a flat mid-race. A job candidate will forget the answers she had practiced and perfected as soon as she enters the interview room. A baseball pitcher can seemingly forget the most basic motions of throwing the ball when a game is on the line. Under pressure, we choke.
More specifically, we talk ourselves into choking. After that fateful day on the soccer pitch, Beilock started a new journey: understanding why we buckle in high-stakes situations and what we can do about it.
“Since that game, I’ve been fascinated with how the mind and body work together—or don’t—when the pressure is on,” Dr. Beilock said. “I became a cognitive scientist, and I’ve devoted my career to studying why people choke under pressure.”
For years, she assumed the pressure she felt at that soccer game was external. She resented the scout for staring at her and making her forget how to be a goalie. In reality, and what she would discover in her research, is that her brain was to blame.
Paralysis by Analysis
Muscle memory is an important part of athletic performance and it’s the reason why athletes spend hours and hours training their bodies to go through the motions without consciously thinking about them. But that doesn’t mean the body will consistently perform on autopilot when it’s asked. The brain is still running the show, telling the legs to move forward or the arms to pump harder. Rarely do we need to look at where we’re stepping on the sidewalk or think about how, exactly, our leg should be positioned with each footfall while we run. Our brain takes care of it for us, so we can think about more important things, like remembering to grab water at the next aid station.
But sometimes we do consciously think about the movements we’re making, and that can gum up the works. (Start thinking about the mechanics of how to ride a bicycle and it can become an overwhelming task.) When we’re overly concerned with performing our best, we tend to think too much about the things we already know how to do, that the brain already has under control. In an everyday training situation, muscle memory reinforces that we’re doing it right. Under pressure, though, we begin to doubt ourselves. Negative self-talk tells us we have to be perfect, that our competition is probably better-prepared, and even one mistake could derail the entire race.
“Negative thinking, when allowed to run wild, reallocates mental resources,” Beilock said. “The last thing you need is for your brain to be focused on your fears instead of the task at hand.”
The stress we place on ourselves makes us overthink, and when we overthink, we overcompensate by overcontrolling what our bodies are doing. Beilock calls this “paralysis by analysis.” Study after study out of Dr. Beilock’s Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago shows the more attention you pay to what you’re doing, the more likely you are to screw it up. Race day is not the time to suddenly compare your swim form to the person next to you, or to decide that if you don’t win then you’ll never race again. Yet that’s exactly what humans do under pressure.
The higher the stakes, the greater the chance for self-sabotage. This is true for athletes of all levels, whether it’s a first-time triathlete scared she won’t finish the race or an elite marathoner who fears he won’t podium.
“When the stakes are highest, anyone’s mental preparedness can falter,” Beilock said. “This leads to choking under pressure.”
Going from a confident, ready-to-go mindset in training to intense self-doubt in competition is a bewildering experience, but it shouldn’t be. If anything, it makes a kind of perfect sense. If you’re building muscle memory in a relaxed environment, then your mindset will likely be a positive one. It’s easy to feel confident about your skills when you’re having a good time at a group run. You don’t have to rush through changing a flat tire when you’re on a social ride with friends. That’s not the case on race day, when suddenly, everything must happen quickly, lest you fall behind. If you haven’t felt that pressure in training and practiced it, then negative self-chatter can quickly become overwhelming and self-fulfilling. “Everyone’s faster than me, so I must suck at running” leads to poor form and slower times. “This flat tire is going to take forever to change” proves true. When we choke, what we’re really doing is falling to the level of our newly-lowered expectations. As the old adage says, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re probably right.”
To counter this, sport psychology experts advise athletes to become familiar with the unfamiliar. Though the brain technically isn’t a muscle, the concept of muscle memory still applies. Mental skills, just like physical skills, take repetition and practice. By imagining and practicing high-stakes situations ahead of the actual high-stakes day, we can build all the systems required to run on autopilot. When athletes rehearse focused self-talk scripts, the brain is more likely to play that script on race day, instead of filling in the blanks with panic, criticism, or negativity.
The only thing an athlete needs to do, then, is stay out of their own way.
Embrace the Suck—Realistically
At the Canadian Sport Centre, Chris DeWolfe is everywhere. On any given day, you can spot him in the weight room, on a pool deck, in boats, or wandering the inner oval of the track. Based on the way he moves among the roster of athletes, you might think he’s a coach—and he is, but not in the way you think. Instead of giving feedback on form or game strategy, DeWolfe pauses at each athlete to ask questions like, “How are you feeling?” or “What’s going through your mind right now?”
As a mental performance expert, DeWolfe is tasked with bridging the gap between the physical and psychological. Through research and testing, he’s developed evidence-based strategies for training the brain. Some people mistakenly believe DeWolfe specializes in delusion, where athletes learn to convince themselves everything is fine when it’s definitely not. But that’s not the case. If anything, DeWolfe’s research shows that it’s OK to acknowledge when things suck.
In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, DeWolfe outlines a discovery that runs counter to what many assume about sport psychology. When faced with an intense physical challenge, athletes who engaged in realistic self-talk performed better than those whose self-talk was negative, neutral, or motivational. That means simply telling yourself “everything’s going great” when it’s not, doesn’t work—but neither does saying “this is terrible.” The key, DeWolfe found, is to frame the negativity as a challenge. Instead of internalizing things like “I want to quit,” you can add “but I’m not a quitter, and I will see this through.”
“Athletes, by nature, love a challenge,” DeWolfe said. “So it makes sense that when we turn our negative self-talk into a challenge, we rise to it.”
Though athletes, and endurance athletes in particular, like to believe they can compartmentalize their physical performance from what’s going on in their heads, studies show that’s not possible. Self-talk directly impacts how we perform. Our emotions play in the background of everything we do, influencing our body’s ability to carry out what is asked of it. Regardless of whether a person competes or simply participates, studies show psychological factors, like a bad mood or mental fatigue, can influence how well they perform. When we tell ourselves we suck, things feel harder and we get slower. But going the opposite direction—stuffing negativity away in favor of cheery platitudes—doesn’t work, either. A 2014 study found that suppressing negative emotions increased perception of effort and detrimentally affected endurance performance. False optimism is like a spectator who cheerily yells “You’re almost there!” at the halfway point of a marathon. You know it’s not true and it only makes you feel vaguely worse about how far you are from almost there.
A realistic approach is neither catastrophic nor self-delusion. It simply is what it is, and so prepares your brain and body best for what is actually happening.
“I hear a lot about fatigue with endurance athletes, this idea of ‘I can’t go on,’ or that things are too hard,” DeWolfe said. “But is it true? If somebody was watching you, could you give a little bit more? If a pack of lions was chasing you, would you be able to keep going? Yes. So obviously, you can still do it. Just because you think it doesn’t make it true. When you learn to interpret your negative self-talk as a challenge, you get a little more flexibility. The negative thing, whether you’re tired or you have a long way to go still, isn’t going away. You might as well learn to work with it.”
In addition to the content and tone of self-talk, DeWolfe also stresses the importance of timing. Being realistic in self-talk means knowing when to deploy certain strategies. DeWolfe’s studies have shown that the effectiveness of self-talk is highly dependent on when certain phrases are said. Identifying certain keywords or mantras to use at specific times in training can create the right mindset for the task. “Empty the tank” can be an effective cue in the final finishing kick of a race, but it’s not something you want to whip out when the starting pistol fires. Four-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington famously deployed this strategy by writing strategic motivational phrases on her water bottles before each race. Her go-to on the bike leg of an Ironman was a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
At the Top End of Your Ability
It’s 90% mental.
The other half is physical.
– Yogi Berra
Baseball legend Yogi Berra’s description of sport may be the most accurate description to date. The math doesn’t shake out on paper, but it perfectly illustrates the overlap of physical and mental performance. The two are not mutually exclusive; one is wholly dependent on the other.
“Your physical abilities are this set range of where you can perform,” DeWolfe said. “You’ve got the best you can do physically, and the worst you can do. The mental side will never help you outperform your physical abilities, but it will determine where you perform within your range. If you’re mentally at your best, you’ll probably perform at the top of your physical abilities. It’s significant and meaningful.”
“A huge amount of sport is mental,” Stephens said. “Much more than you would probably think.”
In his lectures, he likes to tell this story about a comedian from Liverpool named John Bishop: Bishop did this ridiculous Week of Hell challenge, where he biked, rowed, and ran more than 290 miles from Paris to London in five days. As he neared the end, he was understandably exhausted and in pain—but in that last mile, making his way toward Buckingham Palace, with all the people there cheering him on and the speakers playing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the pain left his body. He didn’t feel it anymore. He ran that last mile as though it was his first.
“Given the right psychological circumstances, you can find this extra capacity. That’s what we’re trying to find by doing this research.”