It is common to hear music blaring in sports stadiums and a frequent sight at events, such as the Olympics, is to see athletes ‘psyching’ themselves up with their headphones pre competition; but how useful is music in aiding performance?

Music often evokes certain feelings or memories with people, for example, your first dance at a wedding will always remind you of your partner and that day, or a song on an advert will remind you of that product the next time you hear it. Musical association with feelings and memories can help you prepare for competition.

Michael Phelps, 18 times Olympic Gold Medalist, is renowned for listening to music until just before diving in the pool. Not only will this allow him to listen to the music that mentally prepares him for competition, but it also allows him to block out the sound of the crowd and removes distraction from his ideal competitive mental state.

Music choice will ultimately depend on the individual, as a song that evokes the feeling of apathy in one individual, may inspire motivation in another. Athletes’ specific song choices are not directly important, it is the emotions and feelings they create that are key to producing the perfect competition mindset.

The perfect competition mindset will vary depending on the sport, but generally involves:

  • Confidence in ability
  • Positivity
  • Emotional stablility
  • Feelings of control
  • Mental alertness
  • Motivation

Listening to the same playlist before every competition should help to ensure that the correct competition  mindset is achieved everytime. The songs then will not just have their individual associations with certain feelings, but the whole playlist will induce the ideal feelings and emotions.

“In training build ups for major races, I put together a playlist and listen to it during the run-in. It helps me psych up and reminds me of times in the build-up when I have worked really hard, or felt good. With the right music, I do a much harder workout” – Paula Radcliffe, Marathon World Record Holder.

The type of music listened to pre competition will not only depend on the individuals’ personal choice, but also on the sport they compete in. For example, a golfer needs to be very calm and relaxed, where as a boxer needs to be confident and aggressive. The music that will create these contrasting states will more than likely be opposing genres; the golfer is more likely to listen to classical music, whilst the boxer is more likely to listen to upbeat rock music.

However, not all sports are individual. Whilst listening to headphones and blocking out distraction would work well for a tennis player, if the members of a football team all listened to different music on headphones, their team spirit would suffer. This could lead to a reduction in the quality of performance. To ensure team camaraderie prevails, speakers should be used for pre competition playlists; professional teams may benefit further by playing pre competition playlists over their stadiums’ loud speakers, which would also hype up the crowd. Used in the correct way, music can optimise performance.