How music benefits athletes

April, 2022
Jessica Chen

As athletes pack their bags for a big game, they have many indispensable items: a water bottle, a snack, a hoodie, but above all, headphones. A pregame ritual of listening to music is a part of most, if not all, athletes’ routines. Although many athletes listen to music as a habit instead of a crucial part of their routines, there is a strong correlation between music and improved athletic performance.

According to neuroscientist Kostas Karageorghis in 2016, listening to music activates multiple parts of the brain at once: the parietal, the occipital, temporal, and frontal lobes as well as the cerebellum. These brain areas regulate motor control, coordination, and emotion, which are critical to athletic performance.

At PHS, many sports teams listen to a team playlist on buses to away games as their pregame ritual. According to hearing specialist Corianne Rogalsky in 2019, having a set pregame playlist that is played before each game can signal the need for routine preparation.

“[The girls tennis team] will listen to something energetic. It gets our spirits up and allows us [to have] a more positive mindset. We [usually] have games after school, so listening to music wakes me up and gets my heart pumping. I feel more ready to play,” said varsity tennis player Ashley Chen ’23.

Moreover, studies have shown that listening to music with a positive mindset can trigger the release of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical that blocks out fatigue and enhances happiness. For varsity track runner Nicholas Niforatos ’24, a recent go-to song for his workouts is “Where Are Ü Now” by Justin Bieber, an EDM song with a strong rhythmic beat.

“Music definitely lowers my anxiety. I tend to feel really anxious and stressed out when I don’t have music because I’m so reliant on it to get me through the day. So I tend to lean towards music almost as a therapy of sorts,” Niforatos said.

However, PHS athletes typically are not allowed to listen to music while at sports practice or while warming up before a match. Although proven to help athletes sharpen their mindset before they walk onto the court, music could be a potential distractor when athletes need to hone in on their internal motivation.

“Much of the training we do requires athletes to push their boundaries, which requires significant internal focus and is a skill that has to be built over time. What I have found over 20 years of coaching is that the use of music shifts that internal focus to an external focus,” Head Track and Field Coach James Smirk said. “The end result is initial performance improvement because the music can be motivating, but long term the athlete is left with a significant deficit in the internal motivation required for upper level success. That being said, we do allow for music in certain components of training and during bus rides.”

For many PHS athletes, music is more than just part of a pregame ritual and is a core aspect of their lives outside of school. As a self-taught music producer, Niforatos spends at least one hour on music each week. But during breaks, that time increases to almost eight hours a week. For Chen, as a Studio band jazz vocalist and a cappella singer, she spends at least six hours every week just on music.

“It can be difficult at times to balance everything, especially when my school work load is really heavy. But it’s actually manageable and not too stressful and is definitely worth the time I spend,” Chen said.

Though music seems to be concerned with artistry and sports seems to be focused on physicality, sports like figure skating and dancing blurring the line between arts and sports. These activities require a good foundation in both artistic ability and athleticism.

“Understanding music benefits me as a ballerina because it makes sure all of my movements are on time and precise and also helps me let go while I’m dancing,” said ballerina Avery McDowell ’24. “It’s very easy to get caught up in making sure every step is correct, but music reminds me to use my emotion and artistry when dancing. You need the athleticism to be able to have the stamina and strength to do all the steps, but it’s the artistry that makes it worth watching.”

Apart from sports that are an art form, there are surprising similarities between all sports and music. For example, the ability to think strategically and being in good shape are crucial to both. Since both also require teamwork and events with large crowds, COVID-19 also affected both in similar ways. Most importantly, the mindset needed to be successful in both are nearly identical.

“For both [sports and music], you really need to have a passion for and enjoy doing both. But also, you really have to work hard and be persistent because that is the only way you are going to get better,” Chen said.

As music and sports have many similar aspects, despite the time-consuming efforts to keep up with both, the benefits to pursuing both the arts and athletics greatly exceed the drawbacks.

“Whether it’s to let go of fears or to pump myself up if I’m feeling stressed out, music has given me the ability to be confident. My confidence definitely translates onto the field and has helped me become a much better athlete,” Niforatos said.