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To the beat and sound

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Noisy locker rooms and loud chatter, can be rather distracting before a game or big event. And perhaps this is why so many athletes may be seen with headphones, seemingly mesmerised by the tunes. With the upcoming World Cup Football, US Golf Open, and Wimbledon Grand Slam Tennis event all this month, it may be easy to spot a few athletes with their ears plugged by music devices. But is noise-blocking the reason for these athletes throwing on their headphones?

Researchers at Brunel University, Uxbridge have studied tennis players use of music as a pre-performance strategy and found that participants used music ‘to psych up; to feel more positive, motivated, and confident; and to dissociate from external stressors’. (Bishop et al, 2007). Whilst some tennis players talked of playing up-beat music to get them fired up before a match, another spoke of playing music at changeovers for a confidence boost or to help with relaxation if frustrated with playing poorly (the use of electronic players are not permitted for use on court at several events however).

Music can affect certain brain structures that enhance the athlete’s visual perception, attention, motor control and elicit emotional responses through the fight-or-flight response. Synchronous music, is music that has a clear and steady beat and Karageorghis at Brunel University believes through his research that this can elevate a person’s performance by upto twenty percent, where as asynchronous music or background music, can calm the nerves of athletes by as much as ten percent. Clearly, both musical sounds are helpful in firing up or calming down when overexcited.

Pre-task music is known to stimulate task-relevant images or facilitate mental rehearsal (Bishop et al, 2007). It is also believed that by increasing the tempo and intensity of the musical excerpt, individuals may respond with heightened affective responses and accompanying actions. With the study undertaken by Bishop et al. in 2009, tennis players who listened to fast loud music resulted in faster reaction times, more pleasant emotional states and higher arousal levels, than that when moderate music was played. In football, researchers at the Institute for Sports Science at the University of Hanover in Northern Germany, found that footballers raised their performance when they were fed music of a set rhythm through headphones. When the footballers listened to the same synchronized high tempo beat, it allowed them to connect on the pitch with more frequent and accurate passes, resulting in successful conclusion of their game. It therefore suggests that athletes may be able to respond with quicker reaction times to rhythmical high tempo intense sounds, which results in better performances.

So who might be spotted strutting around with their headphones on this month? Serena Williams is often seen just before going on court with her headphones on gently bouncing from one foot to the other, and more recently Taylor Townsend had been quoted as using music to help get her prepared for an event. One of her tunes at the French Open being: Steve Aoki feat. Waka Flocka Flame – Rage The Night Away. Walk into the changing rooms of some of the football sides, and like AFC Bournemouth, one might hear the sounds of RnB or Hip Hop blasting through a sound system to help the players find their rhythm, or don’t be surprised if you see Rory McIlroy with his Bose headphones around the range listening to the sounds of Swedish House Mafia. Whoever the athletes are, scientific enquiry leads to five key reasons for playing music (Karageorghis & Priest, 2008):

  1. To distract an athlete from fatigue (dissociation involves narrowing attention and diverting the mind away from sensations of fatigue).

  2. To act as a mood altering catalyst, energize an athlete, or calm an athlete down to focus on the task at hand.

  3. To synchronize an athlete’s rhythm and movement, which could enable a team to perform with more efficiency, a tennis player find his/her rhythm in a tennis stroke, or a golfer develop a rhythm in his/her golf swing.

  4. To help the athlete reach a state of flow (Pates, et al, 2003). Music effects on motivational states can promote flow states.

  5. To acquire motor skills.

When using music to help psych down or psych up before an event, develop an awareness of your arousal level. Is your heart racing off the scale and do you need calming? Are you feeling flat and need to psych up? If your heart beat is racing ahead before an event, it may be unwise to play a high tempo tune with 130 beats a minute, but what may work better is a classical tune. Experiment with your playlist to work out what will help you to perform. Find rhythmic tunes that match the movement pattern of your activity, choose tunes with positive strong lyrics or those with uplifting melodies and harmonies, and think of tunes that may have associations with sport, exercise, triumph, or overcoming adversity.

Once you find your rhythm, step into the beat for balance and control, and let your performance flow.


Bishop, D. T., Karageorghis, C. I., & Loizou, G. (2007). A grounded theory of young tennis players’ use of music to manipulate emotional state. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 584–607.

Bishop, D.T., Karageorghis, C.I. & Kinrade, N.P. (2009). Effects of Musically-Induced Emotions on Choice Reaction Time Performance. The Sport Psychologist, 2009, 23, 1-19.

Karageorghis, C. I. & D.L. Priest (2008). Music in Sport and Exercise : An Update on Research and Application. The Sport Journal, refereed Sports Journal, Published by the United States Sports Academy.

Pates, J., Karageorghis, C. I., Fryer, R., & Maynard, I. (2003). Effects of asynchronous music on flow states and shooting performance among netball players. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 4, 413–427.


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