Placebo is the new Superstition

I was reading this article on Placebos by Chris Todd and started thinking about the evolution of placebos in High Performance sport.  I won't rehash the blog post, I will just say that in this context a placebo is something that in theory won't affect athletic performance, but somehow might, so people do it.

In High Performance sport placebos have been used for, well, I'm assuming as long as it has existed. I'm sure that well meaning coaches have given athletes Vitamin tablets and told the athlete they have special properties. I remember when I was 13 and playing my first National Championships the team Manager came to me during warmup for our Bronze medal game and secretly gave me a tablet. He said I should take because it will help me, but to be careful not to show the other team. Unfortunately I don't know what placebo properties this tablet might have given me as I didn't get onto the court at any time during that game.

In my subsequent career I've been involved in coaching and sports science in a number of High Performance environments, and placebos are commonplace. So much so that in more and more cases it seems the 'special research we are doing that will give you the edge and no one else in the world knows about it', turns out to be an expensive placebo. Of course, no one is going to tell the athletes at the time that the research being done had no significant results immediately before a major competition!

To be clear, I'm not condemning this practice, but as the chase for scientific advantage expands to more and more countries, the challenge for research to find a genuine advantage possibly decreases. The very nature of sports research is that it doesn't always determine that the premise will be of benefit.

All of this reminded me of an old professor of mine who was an elite football player in his youth. He talked about his match-day routine of washing his shoelaces. He would carefully wash the shoelaces to make sure they were, well, clean I guess.  Then he would hang them on the line to dry.  When it came time to lacing his boots, he would always measure the lengths of the laces and use the longer one first.  If they were of equal length, he would stretch one so that it was longer.  This was his match day superstition.  And he won the MVP the year he did this.

(Photo Credit)


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