Pump up the jams: how music affects top athletes’ performance in competition

Elite athlete listens to music to get pumped up before a tournament

By Will Spear

We have been writing a series of articles geared toward helping fencers achieve their peak performance at a competition and in training. While there is no substitute for practice, good nutrition and sleep, research suggests that music can provide assistance in achieving your optimum emotional, mental and physical state before and during a competition.

We will discuss some of these studies briefly below to give you an idea how music might help you perform your best. We have also spoken to Olympic fencers Dagmara Wozniak, Courtney Hurley, and Kelley Hurley to ask them about their top tracks as well as researched the favorite music of a number of other world class athletes so we can share it with you.

What’s the science behind why music helps improve athletic performance?

Most people will agree that music has an effect on our emotional state. Many athletes at all levels listen to music as they train, as they warm up, and in some cases, even as they compete. Pictures of Michael Phelps and his headphones are standard media fare. In 2007, USA Track & Field barred the use of headphones and portable audio players like iPods at its official races. In the end, race organizers could not, and did not, enforce the ban. This came to a head in the NYC marathon where many of the runners did not feel they could run 26 miles without their music. Runners hid their devices, had them delivered by friends and family after the start line, or relied on spectators who blasted music along the way. The general consensus among many of the competitors was that a marathon required music as inspiration and consolation.

Many athletes believe that music also helps them physically. Seven Division I college athletes interviewed about the music they listened to before, during and after a competition described the music as a way to get ready for a competition. They identified strong beats and an upbeat tempo as a way to get warmed up, fired up or moving better. They also identified that music helped them to focus.

But the benefit of music for athletes is not just anecdotal. Numerous research studies have concluded that music can have a significant effect on an athlete’s mind, and hence increase arousal, focus and performance.  And although some of this seems simply common sense, scientific studies have found that how fast and how loud the music is correlates loosely with the arousal of the mind and warm up of the body – that is how fired up you are getting. So music can help athletes to get into the right mindset before a competition, either to pump you up or calm your nerves.

Certain physiological studies of elite athletes conclude that music can affect arousal levels before and after a competition, mental focus before competition, and mood control. Studies have also shown that listening to self selected music pre-competition improves an athlete’s self confidence which in turn can improve performance with better mindset and focus. 

More quantitative studies of the effects of music on athletic performance also exist. Listening to music with faster, driving beats can increase athletes’ arousal, increase reaction speed, and improve their emotional state.  It has also been shown to increase strength during isometric exercises.  A study of 54 random tennis players who were given either silence, static or music selected by the researchers to listen to before a competition suggested that it was not just the beat and tempo but the intensity of the music they listened to pre-competition contributed to their reaction times during the competition. The researchers hypothesized that this was related to increased frontal brain activity, which can lead to faster reaction times. 

These studies suggest that listening to strong, upbeat music as you prepare in the venue can be a great way to warm up not only your body but also your mind at the beginning of a tournament – especially if you’re feeling tired from a long flight or sleeping on an unfamiliar bed.

Music has other functions for athletes as well. Some studies have shown that listening to calming music before a competition can help with those feelings of anxiety and nerves that athletes experience. This mood relaxing can also help boost performance as athletes feel more confident and ready for the day. 

As fencers we are often in a situation of “hurry up and wait,” throughout the competition. We need to be able to stay calm during waiting periods but be fired up on the strip. Listening to different kinds of music throughout the competition may help with these emotional and physical issues common in fencing.

How top athletes use pump up music to feel excited and ready to compete

The top reason cited by athletes for listening to music was to “pump up” before a competition. This is also true for fencers. We asked several top fencers what music gets them pumped up.

Olympic medalist Kelley Hurley says her favorite pump-up song is "Champagne Showers" by LMFAO. Jason Rogers, Olympic Medalist, likes “Ready for Whatever” by T.I. for that. Although these songs are in different genres they both have more aggressive lyrics and relatively fast beats. These are the kinds of songs that the research has suggested are most effective. But, the key is finding a song that speaks to you and will pump you up.

Music is also helpful in establishing confidence. Besides the beat, there can often be additional emotional significance to a song. Olympic Medalist Courtney Hurley likes listening to “Survival” by Muse because “it was the theme song at the London Olympics and it's such a good pump up song! It also brings back memories of winning the medal.” 

Courtney Hurley’s song emphasizes an important point. Listening to music pre-competition is all about getting yourself into the right mindset to compete and perform at your best. A large part of a good mindset is positivity and confidence. Hurley’s song reminds her of an excellent result and inspires confidence in herself.

But warm up songs do not have to have deep, long term personal meaning. Olympic Medalist Daga Wozniak says that she listens to a different warm-up song almost every month, however this month she’s been using ‘Believer’ by Imagine Dragons.

Wozniak’s songs change, and that works for her. It’s not the exact song that drives an athlete’s performance. Rather it’s the emotional state that comes along with the song or the music or the beat that is important.

It’s important to note that it’s not just music that can pump you up. Jason Rogers actually created a full motivational video utilizing his favorite music and inspiration clips to get himself pumped up for competition. Learn more about how to create the same type of video for yourself by clicking here.

How top athletes use chill out music to calm down and soothe anxiety

Music can also have a calming effect on an athlete. It can bring down stress levels and help with pre-tournament anxiety. Again, the important factor is finding the right balance between being pumped up to compete and too anxious about performance. One of the most poignant examples of this comes from Dame Kelly Holmes, who won two gold medals in the Athens Olympics. Her pre-competition song was “No One” by Alicia Keys. The song helped Holmes keep calm, get into the right state of mind for the competition and keep her there during her races so she could perform at her best.

Another Olympic Champion, super heavyweight boxer Audley Harrison, tapped the arousal control qualities of music through listening to Japanese classical music prior to each bout. This served to temper his pre-fight anxiety, reduce tension, and create an inner state of calm and tranquility. He spent the four years before the 2000 Olympics training to this type of music and learning how his body and mind responded to it. 

Jason Rogers listened to the song “Breathe” by Telepopmusik literally thousands of times in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics when he was feeling stressed, but it was especially important when he was feeling tense before a tournament. However, not every athlete who uses a chill out song needs it every time. Daga Wozniak said that she doesn’t generally listen to music to calm herself down, but “Fire” by Louis the Child is included on her playlist, and it’s a chill track she uses as part of her warm up routine. It’s all up to preference, and many fencers don’t use chill-out tracks at all.

Using music in training and visualization

Music is also a way to focus and visualize. The 400m runner Iwan Thomas won gold at the 1995 European Championships and Commonwealth Games used music to increase his level of arousal and also to visualize his race. Thomas used the minutes before he was called to the blocks to listen to music and stare down his lane.

Music has also been used as part of long-term training in both team and individual sports.  The 1998 four-man British Bobsled team listened to Whitney Houston singing One Moment in Time" every day as they drove to and from practice. During the song visualized themselves performing well at the Olympics. They medalled.

Routine is extremely important and is something we have written about in previous articles. But music can help you in your daily training as well. Music has been shown to narrow attention and divert the mind from feelings of pain and fatigue. It also enhances positive aspects such as energy and happiness while lessening feelings of tension, depression, and anger.

By understanding this you can turn your footwork practice, or your cardio workouts, into jamming sessions that instead of being a chore are something to look forward to. The pleasant associations with footwork, for example, will not only increase the time you spend practicing or at least decrease the time you spend procrastinating, they will likely transfer to your being less stressed at competitions and practice.

This will allow you to focus on your fencing instead of your nerves. The kind of music you choose for practice will depend on what you are practicing. Repetitive activities such as warm-ups, weight training, circuit training and stretching have different types of rhythm and tempo, and the music can enhance that. Again, look around your club, see who is listening to what kind of music. Experiment. See what makes you feel happy, energetic and ready to take on whatever is in front of you.

How you can use music in your fencing routine

Many athletes, at all levels, in all sports, and from all over the world, believe that music helps them perform better. Some, like Audley Harrison, spent four years determining their optimum musical regimen. Others like Courtney Hurley listen to music that reminds them of an optimal result. Still others, like Dagmara Wozniak, find that the most effective music is what speaks to her at the time of the tournament.

The key to maximizing performance when using music, it seems, is to be familiar with your ideal mindset. How do you need to feel to perform your best? What pumps you up, what calms you down, and what makes you feel confident? You are the only person who can answer these questions.

Test your ideas at practice – warming up and getting ready for a bout at your club. Ask other people what they listen to at tournaments. Ask them if it works. Look around at the tournament. See what the top athletes there are doing. Many have headphones – but not all of them are listening to music. Some just need silence and headphones provide that. Some are singing out loud; some are singing to themselves.

Decide when you need music – warming up?  Waiting for the pools?  Between the pools and the DE’s?  Between DE’s?  At some point, the music may get distracting. How does it affect you?  As an athlete, it is your job to know your mental state best and understand when you need to calm down or pump yourself up.

You need to know how to achieve those emotional states. Music can help with that, but as with all training and preparation athletes need to understand themselves and what they need.


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