Hazing In Sport – A Briefing

Hazing in sport has been an ongoing issue, from the youth to elite levels, for many years. As Dr. John Heil says, “any and all athletes are vulnerable to hazing” (Heil, 2016), and it can be a traumatizing experience for those involved. Many athletes refer to hazing as “team-building” and “tradition”, while studies have shown that hazing can decrease team cohesion rather than improve it (Van Raalte et al., 2007). Professionals, parents, coaches, and athletes all should be informed about how to recognize and prevent hazing, and how to reduce hazing in sport.

According to Waldron (n.d.), hazing can diminish an athlete’s confidence by promoting self-doubt, depression, low self-esteem, and in the worst-case scenario, suicidal thoughts.

Some athletes think that hazing creates a group identity.

Fact: Research shows that group identity is established when the athlete joins the team (Van Raalte et al., 2007). Hazing does not build attraction to the group.

Some athletes claim that hazing is a tradition that builds character (Smith & Stellino, 2007).

Fact: New players may feel pressured into hazing if they want to be accepted by the older players on the team. This may be driven by a “sport think” phenomenon cultivated by veteran players, producing fear and persuasion. Once the new players become veterans, they often maintain the perspective of valuing hazing and create the cycle of hazing.

Why Does Hazing Happen?

When new athletes are introduced to a team, promoting a positive and constructive environment is key to a fluid transition. When this outcome is not achieved, harsh exclusion and hazing may take place. Given the inherent need for belonging and acceptance by the “in-group,” athletes may be vulnerable to hazing (Maslow, 1971). Many may succumb to the hazing ‘sport think” phenomenon and overlook potential consequences and risks. To justify these hazing behaviors to themselves, individuals frame them in a positive way through displaced responsibility, attribution of blame, and diffusion of responsibility (Heil, 2016).

What You Can Do: Strategies to Reduce Hazing in Sport

(This briefing was originally published under the American Psychological Association Division 47 on the Virginia Commonwealth Games Sport Hazing Awareness Site.  For full literature, please visit their website.  Reprinted with permission.)


  • Hamilton, R., Scott, D., LaChapelle, D., & O’Sullivan L. (2016). Applying social cognitive theory to predict hazing perpetration in university athletics. Journal of Sport Behavior, 39(3), 255-277.
  • Heil, J. (2016). Sport advocacy; Challenge, controversy, ethics and action. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(4), 281-295.
  • Kirby, S. L., & Wintrup, G. (2002). Running the gauntlet: An examination of initiation/hazing and sexual abuse in sport, Journal of Sexual Aggression, 8(2), 29-68.
  • Maslow, A. M. (1971). The Farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking Press.
  • Smith, H., & Stellino, M.B. (2007). Cognitive dissonance in athletic hazing: The roles of commitment and athletic identity. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 169-170.
  • Van Raalte, J.L. Cornelius, A.E., Linder, D.E., & Brewer. B.W. (2007). The relationship between hazing and team cohesion. Journal of Sport Behavior, 30(4), 491-507.
  • Waldron, J. Reducing hazing in sport teams, http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/resources/resources-for-coaches/reducing-hazing-in-sport-teams/.

ISCA Coach Education Program

We are thrilled that after about a year of production and development, the ISCA Education Program has officially launched!

The program is available online internationally and features evidence-based curriculum developed by sport scientists specifically for swim coaches. Our modern education portal is easy to navigate and secure, with transcript tracking and interactive course content.

ISCA Certification is available for coaches that are ISCA members and also complete the six core science-based courses (Biomechanics 101 & 102, Physiology 101 & 102, and Sport Psychology 101 & 102). The science behind swimming is something that all coaches need to understand to be effective and successful–and we look forward to providing this crucial piece of education to coaches around the world.

Get started today on the ISCA Education Portal: https://isca.courselaunch.com/

Learn more about ISCA Education: https://swimisca.org/education/

Get the details on ISCA Certification: https://swimisca.org/education/certification/

Demo an ISCA course: https://swimisca.org/courses/demo18/content/

SSWIMT: Swimming Research


Research on swimming is broad and essential for the evolution of the sport. The level of swimming related scientific research is very advanced, as is the level of coaching. However, as both fields are very demanding, their connection, in terms of knowledge and experience diffusion, is difficult.

In-depth reading of scientific papers is needed for a thorough interpretation of their results. However, this is usually time consuming and difficult for non-accustomed readers. The short display (shorter than their abstract) of interesting articles in a simple manner, without meddling, for someone to figure out if an article is helpful (and then go on with full-text reading), is our main intention. Additionally, useful notes from the coaching practice that are based on testing will be posted. The purpose is to assist swimming coaches and relevant sport scientists to keep up with the swimming research progress.

So sswimt comes to accelerate the dissemination of information and updates on swimming testing and research with a focus on physiology, biochemistry, metabolism, nutrition and training!  Our goal is to set off the abundant information provided by eminent sports scientists and swimming coaches, thanks to whom swimming is evolving constantly. Hope you will enjoy it! More interesting things are on the way…

Visit the blog that houses all of the research:

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Ikkos: Mirror Neurons For Better Stroke Technique

Ikkos helps you unleash the power of your mirror neurons by watching short clips over and over and over again. Each repetition watched is like a repetition you actually completed. So, if you want to work on your freestyle catch, perhaps you are watching the great Ian Thorpe over and over and over again. When you get into the pool, your brain tells your muscles how to move.

According to Wikipedia, a mirror neuron is, “a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species.”

In a recent podcast with Chris Ritter, Sean Hutchison discusses a study they recently finished. Two groups of high school swimmer’s 100 Free times were compared at the end of the season (8 weeks). One group used Ikkos while the other was used as the control group. There were both year round swimmers and high school only swimmers on both teams.

At the end of the season, year round swimmers using Ikkos improved their 100 Free by 4 seconds compared to the 1 second that non-Ikkos using swimmers improved.

The high school swimmers using Ikkos improved their 100 Free 8 seconds more than the control group!

Ikkos allows coaches, teams, and professional swimmers to create their own channel. Using the Ikkos app, you’ll be able to watch videos created by some of the best of the best or specific content created by your coach.


Season Planning for Mental Training

Season planning. In my coaching career I have seen it take hundreds of different forms. I once took over mid-year for a coach who had planned weekly volumes and intensities for twenty weeks after her departure.

But the vast majority of these season plans only account for one factor in athletic performance: physical conditioning. What about the other, arguably more important, side of performance: mental training. How do you plan for that?

Many coaches simply don’t, because they cannot measure mental training as easily as aerobic fitness. That’s a mistake, and here are some ways to set up your plan, as well as measure and evaluate how your athletes are doing throughout the season.

Measure athletes values and strengths.

No matter who you coach, you are going to run across athletes with differing values and strengths. Your job as a coach is to find a way to show them how they can use these strengths to overcome challenges. Take this survey, and have your athletes take it as well. Have a discussion with your athletes about how they will use their strengths in sport.

For instance, someone with creativity as a strength- can they find new and better ways to approach the training and sets you give them? Modesty seems at face value to not be a strength in top performance, but a coach who understands that their athlete values modesty can praise them in a way that doesn’t put them in the spotlight, and instead motivates them to push forward.

Make time to sit down with each athlete you work with at critical points of the season to measure how you are both using their strengths for success.

Journal Three Positives.

Train your swimmers to capture the best moments from every training and reinforce them. A simple journal exercise after practice, where the swimmers record three good things that happened in the training. Make sure to explain to them that these are things that they felt they had some part in making happen. As they get better, encourage them to write how they felt in these moments, and what they did to make it happen.

Train Optimism.

Teach your athletes that optimism is a skill, just like diving, turning or the pull on freestyle. Optimism makes a difference in performance. Look for situations where they explain events pessimistically and teach them how to make a counterargument that is optimistic but also not propping them up.

For instance, an athlete has a poor performance. They may say “I’m a bad swimmer”. You may counter with “you did not have a good swim, it happens to everybody. If you work with me I can help you to have a better swim in the future”.

Also identify optimism where it already exists. When swimmers perform well, reinforce that the good performance was because they took an active part in preparing for the swim, that it can happen again, and that they are in a great sport where great things are possible.


These are just a few examples of how you can set up your season plan to account for mental training. Taking the mental side of the sport seriously can give you a serious advantage over your competition.


Chris DeSantis is a personal swimming consultant and coach. He has a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, the science of human flourishing. Interested in supercharging your mental training? Leave him a note here and find out more (http://chrisdcoach.com/contact/)

Sport Advocacy: Challenge, Controversy, Ethics & Action

The full version is available for purchase from the American Psychological Association.

Sport psychologists should consider advocating for athletes’ rights and responsible organizational practices. There is demonstrated need, solid science, and clear direction through the American Psychological Association’s ethical principles. Yet the voice of psychology is conspicuously absent in the public discourse in sport on issues such as hazing, bullying, gender equity, sexual violence, doping, and athlete safety, perhaps because speaking out is often fraught with challenge and controversy.

This paper is composed of four interrelated essays which collectively function as a primer on advocacy. Part 1 offers a broad brush view of the landscape of advocacy in sport through a series of brief personal anecdotes. The collective lessons learned from these experiences speak to the role of sport as a social institution and its potency as an arbiter of cultural mores. Part 2 focuses specifically on hazing, identifying it as a problem of our time. It serves as an exemplar for any advocacy initiative, in that there are similar underlying psychological dynamics driving behaviors and rendering them resistant to change. In Part 3, a case study presents hazing and other problem behaviors common in sport. It illuminates the mechanisms by which empowered institutions resist accountability and the sense of helplessness experienced by those caught in a skewed power dynamic. Part 4 follows from the case study, examining the means of last resort available to the advocate when reasonable measures fail. Contemporary and historic events are referenced, with the hope that the reader will reexamine these through the frame of advocacy and in so doing gain a fresh perspective.

Advocacy on behalf of athletes and other stakeholders may be prompted by situations deemed inappropriate, where an issue is driven by a skewed power dynamic, and is outside the ability of the individual to effect change. The behavior in question may be arguably dangerous (e.g., head injury risk) or outright illegal (e.g,, sexual encounters with children). The course of action is influenced by whether the behavior arises from an individual (e.g., bullying), a group (e.g., hazing), or an organization (e.g., institutional betrayal), or some combination of these. Psychologists are uniquely positioned to serve in the role of advocate, following from the deliberate ethical foundations of practice, expertise in human behavior, a core focus on mental health, and the likelihood that relevant issues will arise in the course of their work. [130]

Hazing, bullying and harassment are intersecting forms of personal aggression, characterized by a skewed power dynamic, potentially resulting in a hostile environment. The depth and breadth of these problems society-wide has led to substantial legislation and case law focused on the role of organizations in oversight and remediation.

The question “How do I engage in team building in an era of hazing?” asked by a coach in a hazing awareness seminar points to the challenge in distinguishing these two concepts.

Given the vagaries of definition, the inherent complexities of group dynamics, the maturity of those directing the process, and the unique culture of sport, it can be difficult to distinguish hazing from team building. These factors points to a unique role for sport psychologists in hazing prevention and intervention, given their expertise in behavior, ethical foundations, and sensitivity to sport culture.

Organizational response is the tipping point in any incident where social justice is in question. Institutional betrayal happens when a trusted and powerful organization acts in a way that brings harm to those whose safety and well-being its mission is to protect.

When the organization fails to act, the victim faces a double bind: leave the organization, or accept institutional betrayal as a condition of continuing membership, in the process committing to a kind of psychological blindness pretending as if all is well.

When the institutions that govern sport fail to provide an adequate resolution, the pursuit of advocacy may lead the psychologist into unfamiliar territory and entail interaction with an array of allies and adversaries, including: athletes, coaches and parents, other psychological and medical professionals, sports organizations and governing bodies, law enforcement and governmental agencies, and the media. The challenge is compounded when advocacy runs contrary to deeply entrenched history and tradition, and where a remedy is tantamount to a cultural change.

As goes sport, so goes society. Sport is a juggernaut of a social institution putting a spotlight on societal issues and modeling a standard of behavior. It is said that sport builds character. Yet, there are so many contrary examples. Sport is like a ship that goes where it is steered, whether to the moral high ground or the rocky shoals of tragedy. When sport stays on course society benefits. Hence the critical role of advocacy.

The full version is available for purchase from the American Psychological Association (http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=browsePA.volumes&jcode=spy)

Differences Between Summer League Swimming and Year Round Swim Training

Differences Between Summer League Swimming and Year Round Swim Training Take Home Points

1. Summer league swimming can be an effective feeder system for year round swimming
2. With burnout a major problem in the sport, summer teams can help foster enjoyment at the grassroots level
3. It is important to strike a balance between enjoyment and building fundamentals

With summer only weeks away, country clubs, rec centers, and even full time swim programs anxiously await the influx of summer swim kids. Summer programs and year round programs have an interesting coexistence, where sometimes the only thing is common is the fact they involve swimming. At the extreme, summer teams are sometimes perceived as one step above Marco Polo games, while year round programs can seem like strict para-militaries to outsiders. In reality, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and can vary greatly depending on the team. Despite these differences, many of the sport’s elite have begun their careers as purely recreational summer league swimmers before gradually increasing their commitment to the sport.

Most important with summer teams is to encourage fun. In general, summer teams do this very well, with the sheer numbers of participants as evidence. This fact is especially important with burnout as one of the biggest challenges in the sport. Modern literature and anecdote has shown that long term results are best when kids are allowed to diversify sports. Summer league swimming allows kids to pursue other athletic endeavors at early ages.

But there is also a flip side to remaining in summer swim, namely the difference in mindset. Now, most would agree that having 10-11 year olds swim doubles and 40-50k per week is a bit excessive. While it may teach hard earned lessons of commitment and dedication, it can also cause burnout and injury. But we also cannot avoid the positives that come from an environment of dedication, specifically those intangibles that we all see but sometimes struggle to articulate.

Chambliss (1989) conducted a lengthy study of elites and noted, “Olympic champions don’t just do more of the same things that summer league country club swimmers do. They don’t just swim more hours, or move their arms faster, or attend more workouts. What makes them faster cannot be quantitatively compared with lower level swimmers, because while there may be quantitative differences, these are not, I think, the decisive factors at all…

The best swimmers are likely to be strict with their training, coming to workouts on time, carefully doing the strokes legally… Their energy is carefully channeled. Diver Greg Louganis practices only three hours each day, divided into two or three sessions. But during each session, he tries to do every dive perfectly. Louganis is never sloppy in practice, and so is never sloppy in meets.”

Ultimately one of the challenges in transitioning from summer league swimming into a full time program is a shift in mindset. While fun is the priority at the youngest ages, we also don’t want bad technical habits to develop. “It’s only summer league,” while maybe not explicitly stated, is often implicitly stated and may hold kids back who may consider a transition to a year round program. It is a delicate act to balance seriousness with enjoyment. Yet also consider that seriousness and enjoyment can also be one in the same…

As Chambliss continues, “The very features of the sport which the C-level swimmer finds unpleasant, the top level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring, they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic….No amount of extra work per se will transform a C level swimmer into a AAAA swimmer without concurrent qualitative change in how that work is done. It is not by doing increasing amounts of work that one becomes excellent, but rather changing the kinds of work.”

Summer League Swimming Versus Year Round Swim Training Conclusion

Too often, people focus on volume, numbers of practices, and the fact that a team practices year round as the main discriminators between summer leagues versus full time swimming. Instead, it is a subtle difference in mindset that can distinguish the two cultures. But rather than being simply an academic discussion, recognizing this distinction can help coaches effectively transition kids from summer to year-round if they make that additional commitment.


1. Chambliss, D. The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers, Sociological Theory, Vol 7, No 1, (Spring 1989), 70-86.

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

The post Differences Between Summer League Swimming and Year Round Swim Training appeared first on Swimming Science.

SSP 015: Injury and Swimming Psychology with Dr. John Heil

Hello again! For those using Apple products, the Swimming Science Podcast is now available, you can find it here…sorry for the delay!

This episode of the Swimming Science Podcast features Dr. John Heil. Dr. John Heil is a sport psychologist and clinical psychologist with Psychological Health Roanoke and with Swim Sport Psychology. Dr. Heil is the author of the Psychology of Sport Injury and numerous publications in sport and performance psychology. He works with Olympic, professional and youth athletes. He is sport psychology consultant to the International Swim Coaches Association. He has served as Chair of Sports Medicine & Science for USA Fencing and as Director of Sports medicine for the Commonwealth State Games of Virginia. Dr. Heil is a lecturer at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and an instructor at the Roanoke Police Academy. He is the President of the American Psychological Association Division of Exercise & Sport Psychology.


  • Psychology recovery during an injury.
  • Psychology tips for sports performance.
  • Mental training for swimmers.

Right click here and save-as to download this episode to your computer.



Thanks for joining me for this episode. I know the conversation broke up a few times and I apologize, I’m still very new with this! If you have any tips, suggestions, or comments about this episode, please be sure to leave them in the comment section below.

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it using the social media buttons you see at the bottom of the post.


If you enjoyed this podcast, tell Dr. Heil thanks!

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Placebos and Performance with Dr. Ramzy Ross

This is a digital interview with Dr. Ramzy Ross of Scotland. Dr. Ross is a leading researcher on placebos and placebo effectiveness. You can follow him on Linked In and see here for his publications. Thanks again to Dr. Ross for the interview!

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education, credentials, experience, etc.).

I am Dr Ramzy Ross, from Scotland (UK) now currently based and working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I have always been a sporty person, but simply not good enough to compete at the top. So, my passion for sport lead me to a career in sports sciences -a choice of which I continue to thoroughly enjoyed. I did my 4-year bachelors degree at the University of Glasgow followed by my PhD studies related to physical performance. More specifically, the aim of my studies was to help further our understanding on the limitations associated with, in particular, endurance performance and how we may be able to overcome these. Throughout my years studying I was also very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend some time at some of the leading sporting institutes in the world such as the English Institute of Sport (UK) as well as doing some applied work and research on/with some of the most gifted runners in the world including Haile Gabreselassie, Keninisa Bekele, his brother Tiruku and Tirunesh Dibaba as well as upcoming youths in Ethiopia. I am currently working alongside the Government in the UAE on projects related to public health and physical performance.

2. You recently published an article placebos and performance. What do we know about placebos effectiveness [see our review of this study here]?

Research has shown that placebos can be quite powerful and the evidence is there in particular regards to general Medicine as well as Sports Sciences.  However, its efficacy is very dependent on the careful control of various factors including administrative, environmental as well as psychosocial ones.

3. What did your study look at?

This particular study aimed to quantify the magnitude of placebo effect on endurance running performance, but in a ‘real-world’ field-based head-to-head competition setting, of an injected placebo (‘OxyRBX’) purporting to have similar effects to recombinant human erythropoietin (more commonly known as ‘EPO’). In addition to quantifying any potential results, we also wanted to collect and assess qualitative data. For example, by interviewing participants and asking them to report on how they felt mentally/psychologically, when they were and were not on the ‘drug’, allowed us to assess varying aspects related to training, recovery, the competitive races and other aspects that participants felt was of significance in relation to the trial.

4. You attempted to make one of the objective criteria a “race” condition. Why is this important and are there any other tests you’d want to do?

This was vital as we wanted to reflect, as closely as possible, how true competition really is so that results would have high ecological validity. In other words, whatever the results were going to be, we wanted to ensure that testing conditions were reflective (or as closely as possible) of true sporting conditions (i.e. the rivalry, the athletics arena, finishing position dependent rewards etc.). This ultimately ensured that results would be meaningful and reflect ‘real-life’, as opposed to findings in the laboratory.

5. What were the results of your study?

The principal finding was that participants completed the 3 km distance 1.2% faster in the post-placebo condition compared to the post-control condition – a difference that is statistically significant, physiologically relevant and of clear importance in a competitive sporting setting. To put these results into context, in the 2012 Olympics the difference between the gold medal and fourth place was less than 1% in all track events from 1500m to 10000m for both men and women. However, although this change is of clear sporting relevance, it is still smaller than the performance improvement elicited by actual EPO administration.

As to how the 1.2% improvement was achieved, the qualitative data suggest that the placebo may have improved performance by both reducing perception of effort (i.e. how hard one perceives oneself to be working at a given intensity) and by increasing potential motivation (i.e. the desire/belief in ones capabilities) which is in accordance with a model in our field called the ‘Psychobiological Model’.  However, we have also found that cognitive and non-cognitive processes appear to have influenced placebo response where, for example, in relation to ones cognitive beliefs and expectations of what such an intervention is capable of doing.

6. What were the practical implications for coaches and athletes from your study?

Due to the nature of this particular study, where ethically approved deception was key, we had to be very careful in our approach. We had to ensure that we were convincing in every way, including trial related documentation, the varying environments to which the participants were exposed and how the ‘drug’ was prepared and administered. The athletes and respective coaches simply adjusted and incorporated our study into their training plans. Of course, we tried our best to ensure that the study would be as minimally disruptive as possible.

7. Do you think the results would be different if you had older, elite or untrained runners?

This is a very good question and one I honestly cannot definitively answer…just yet anyway! For example, in relation to the elites, an important limitation of this study (that we do highlight in the paper) is that although the participants were well-trained they were not elite runners. So, further study is really needed to effectively determine whether the effectiveness of the placebo effect would be comparable in elite athletes who may have greater experience in providing maximal physical efforts. This, in turn, may mean that these athletes have a higher baseline motivation potential with less capacity for change or essentially improved in order to enhance performance.

8. Do you think the administration of the placebo alters performance?

Based on previous work and our latest addition, I do believe that placebos can alter performance if carried out carefully and taking into account wider environmental and social factors, amongst others, and not just focusing simply on the intervention itself. However, we must not forget that placebos may not always provide positive effects. The nocebo effect, when an intervention that should be ineffective instead causes negative effects, must also be considered as a potential outcome.

9. Who is doing the most interesting research currently in your field? What are they doing?

There is a lot of interesting work being carried out by different research teams, however, in more recent years I have found the work of Professor Samuele Marcoras’ team to be very intriguing. For example, their work integrating exercise physiology with motivation psychology and cognitive neuroscience is particularly fascinating. There is so much to learn with regards to how our physical and mental states interact to affect outcomes in varying tasks. The mere fact that the study of the brain is involved in such research makes this most exciting as the brain is still the least understood organ in the human body. 

10. What makes your research different from others?

I would say that we always try to maintain relevance to the real-world in what we do. So, this often includes assessing field based approaches which, in turn, can be used for assessing variables in real-life settings as to have as high ecological validity as possible.

11. Which teachers have most influenced your research?

There have been several individuals that have influenced my interests over the years. During the earlier years, the late Dr Andrew Cathcart (a former academic at the University of Glasgow) was one of the key individuals who was pivotal in guiding me through my academic career by allowing me to capitalise on his immense knowledge as well as providing me with vital practical skills in both applied work and academic research. More recently, and still to this day, Dr Jason Gill (also at the University of Glasgow), who is also a co-author in this particular study, has also been a great inspiration. His own passion and dedication to research has only further enhanced my own. His expertise have also broadened my interests, extending from exercise performance research to topics relating to the growing public health concerns in our current world.

12. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?

I am always keen to take on new and exciting challenges and this has recently lead me to the United Arab Emirates where I am currently working on both applied and research-based projects related to physical performance as well as public health. Hopefully, with global collaborations, you’ll see some more interesting developments from this part of the World!

The post Placebos and Performance with Dr. Ramzy Ross appeared first on Swimming Science.

Placebo Improves Performance by 1.2%

The use of placebos is a great follow-up to Allan Phillips’ article on deception training from earlier this week. The placebo effect is accepted as a key factor in medical research. The placebo effect has been questioned for years in the sports science research. Orally administered placebos typically improve endurance performance by ~2% in moderately trained. Unfortunately, these studies do not assess actual performance, instead time-trials or cycling power. The need for real race testing is the fact that performance typically improves during competition, the ‘competition effect’. The ‘competition effect’ applies Motivational Intensity Theory and predicts that maximum exercise tolerance will be increased when either perception of effort is reduced or ‘potential motivation’ is increased. Motivation seems to be the main element for competition improvement as competition improvement has also been observed in the absence of changes of peak heart rate and oxygen uptake. A placebo may feed into this increased motivation.

Previous research has suggested that intramuscular placebo injections improve performance greater than oral administration. Yet, this area has little research.

One would think an injection placebo would further enhance the motivational effects of the placebo. One banned substance which increases oxygen-carrying capacity by 7 – 13% is recombinant human erythropoientin (r-HuEpo). Fifteen well-trained club level athletes participants (~27.5 years) who trained ~213 minutes of endurance training and ~50 minutes of resistance training per week. These participants were then instructed of the effects of the legal EPO-like substance ‘OxyRBX’ on sporting performance. The athletes were informed that this ‘OxyRBX’ was going to help them as much as the banned r-HuEpo.

Then, the athletes underwent the trials in a 3 km race like condition between 7 to 8 participants. Approximately $50 prize money was also given to the winners of the races, which was thought to increase motivation.

When given the injected placebo, performance significantly improved by ~1.2%. Participants began running their 3 km faster after the placebo, they ran ~2% faster at the 1000 m mark. There were no significant differences between the athletes blood in the placebo or regular trial.

Improvement from injected placebo

One participant said:

“I don’t know, I was always had it in my head, when I run, psychology is what stops me, but I think having this in me just made me push harder, I was knackered (tired) throughout that race, but I just kept pushing. It didn’t make the race easier to get that time, I don’t know, worked hard…”

To put the time improvement in perspective, the difference between gold and fourth at the 2012 Olympics was less than 1$ in all track events from 1500 – 1000 m for men and women. In swimming, this improvement would have put Park Tae-Hwan right with Sun Yang in the 400 m, or it would have catapulted Sun Yang in the 3:38 range!

Conclusion on Placebo Improves Performance

Overall, it seems placebos improve the psychology of an athlete. The placebo seems to give them more positive self-talk and reassurance that they can perform better. It also seems to break up the typical perceived effort with the actual effort performed.

The route of taking the placebo is still not well known, as both oral and injectable placebos improve performance similarly, the conditions of these studies is different and difficult to compare (most of the oral consumption trials are lab tests and this injected study was a race condition).

For a coach or athlete, deciding to take a placebo is a difficult decision. First, one mus determine what to take, ensuring this substance isn’t tainted. Perhaps more important, is why a placebo is needed. Does the swimmer not have enough “mental toughness“? Perhaps instead of taking a placebo, performing some form of mental training or working wit a psychologist can provide similar enhancements as the placebo.

Nonetheless, a coach could use a placebo as a simple fix, only if the swimmer believes the placebo is effective. On top of this, it must be given without the athlete knowing it is a placebo. Overall, this gets to be a highly complex issue for a simple fix. Now, this quick fix may be beneficial for a swimmer lacking confidence. This is clearly a questionable area, but an avenue for improvement. Just make sure you use it wisely and consider all other methods, as I think using placebos is not worth the hassle, except under dire circumstances.


  1. Ross R, Gray CM, Gill JM. The Effects of an Injected Placebo on Endurance Running Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Nov 19. [Epub ahead of print]

By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the owner of COR, Strength Coach Consultant, Creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

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