“If you are not the best, then pretend you are” – Muhammad Ali
If you have ever seen Cristiano Ronaldo’s trademark goal celebration in which he jumps whilst turning before posing arms open with a wide stance, you’ll appreciate the power and dominance he portrays at that moment. Interestingly, this celebration triggers emotional responses in Ronaldo which may lead to him to perform even better. This is known as embodied cognition.
Several pieces of research conducted since the 1980s have investigated embodied cognition and found that certain muscle contractions and posture may have a direct influence on feelings and how we emotionally interpret future events. This has relevance to sport where emotions can be difficult to regulate, particularly after negative occurrences, such as making a mistake. An understanding of the findings from these studies will be highly beneficial for any athlete wishing to gain greater control of their emotions for competition.
In 1872, Darwin theorised that “expressing an emotion will intensify it”. This suggests that displaying an emotion, such as happiness, will increase feelings of it. Empirical research for this has come from studies conducted by the likes of Strack and colleagues (1988). The zygomaticus major is known as the “smile muscle” and when contracted is responsible for grinning. Participants in Strack et al.’s study were either required to hold a pen between their teeth without it touching their lips (therefore contracting that zygomaticus major) or to hold the pen with their lips (leaving the muscle relaxed). The results showed that participants in the contracted condition reported greater enjoyment of a cartoon, simply due to the use of the smile muscle.
Similar findings have come from studies on posture. Riskind & Goatay (1982) found that feelings of helplessness developed in those that were slumped in a chair, but not those sat upright. Furthermore, those individuals in a posture with hunched shoulders felt greater stress. Stepper & Strack (1993) conducted a similar study in which participants were provided with good news about their performance on a task while either slouched in a chair or sat upright. Those that sat with better posture and their chin up reported feeling more pride about their success. These studies together demonstrate that our posture can not only affect our feelings on their own, but also influence how we respond emotionally to incoming information.
Most significantly, the pose we pull (much like Ronaldo’s celebration) can not only have an influence on the emotions we feel, but also have significant biological effects such as altering hormone production. Those that pull high power poses (such as leaning back on a chair, feet on a table, hands behind head with elbows out) benefit from higher testosterone levels and lower cortisol levels at rest and in response to stimuli (Carney et al., 2010). Cortisol is the stress hormone and therefore it goes without saying that lower levels are beneficial. Slight increases in testosterone levels lead to greater aggression, raising it to a level where it is advantageous, such as being more ruthless in the pursuit of goal fulfilment (rather than physically aggressive). Additionally, those that pull powerful poses are more likely to take risks which indicates confidence, an important quality for successful sports performance.
So what do these studies mean for sport?
Sports psychologists often suggest acting confident to increase confidence levels prior or during competition. This technique sounds basic and perhaps too simple, however, as shown above, a confident posture can have dramatic effects on testosterone and cortisol levels. It is true…the way we want to feel for competition can be achieved (to a great extent) by acting as we would experiencing those emotions. Doing so not only influences our hormones but also our perception. A golfer wanting to play with composure and calmness could sit with a positive posture rather than pacing with their head down prior to competing. Similarly, if a rugby player wants to play with aggression and dominance, power poses like those in Carney et al.’s study could be used. After a mistake, a goalkeeper should continue as they were before (being vocal, commanding and expressing positivity) rather than letting their head drop, however difficult that may be. Overall, if you can get your body to display a particular emotion or quality, your cognition will most likely follow.