As the Chicago Cubs joyously demonstrated on Wednesday night, sports wins are life-affirming events. But the road to victory requires a dance with death, new research reports. Championships, it seems, only come to those willing to face their own mortality.
The macabre new research, published this month in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, found that athletes perform better when they’re forced to think about death before playing sports. The University of Arizona psychologists behind the study nest their results within the framework of a social psychology hypothesis called Terror Management Theory, which explains that we humans generally want to live but are constantly trying to mitigate the fear that we’re all inevitably going to die.
“Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful,” psychology doctoral student Uri Lifshin, the co-lead investigator of the study, said in a release. “Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.”
In other words, the only reason we don’t live in constant fear of death is because each of us has our own a system — our “own thing” — for dealing with the stress. For the basketball fans involved in the study, it seems, that system is their love of the sport and their internal motivation to succeed while playing it. When they were asked to think about death, their brains kicked into a sort of “self-preservation mode,” which told them to do something that made them feel like they had a reason to live. In this case, it was owning their opponents on the court
There were two parts to the study. In the first, the participants — college-age guys who played basketball recreationally and cared about their performance on the court — played one-on-one games of basketball with one of the study authors after filling out either of two questionnaires: one asked about their thoughts on basketball, while the other asked about their thoughts on death. The players who took the latter survey — forced to “describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “jot down… what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead” — did 40 percent better on the court, according to the study metrics.
In the second part of the study, participants were read instructions on a basketball drill by one of two speakers: one wearing a plain jacket, and the other wearing a black t-shirt featuring a skull-shaped word cloud composed entirely of the word death. In the drill, those who saw the death-themed speaker did 30 percent better.
The results of both parts of the study affirm the hypothesis that thinking about death triggered something in the brain that made them perform better. In the paper, the researchers suggest that the participants subconsciously viewed strong athletic performance as a self-esteem boost, which, they argue, acts as an antidote to the helpless feelings we have when we think about death.
“Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem,” Lifshin said. “Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.”
Coaches, then, take heed: Why motivate your players to simply win when you can inspire them not to die? Your team may seem especially grim going into the game, but they’ll be especially grateful to be alive as they walk out victorious.