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Music is a performance-enhancing substance - and its (mostly) legal...

Music has a wealth of benefits for athletes across the full spectrum of sports - as evidenced by the fact that the use of portable music players and headphones is banned by the US Track & Field Association for its official distance running events.

Given the prominence of music in cheer and other performance sports, you are perfectly placed to take full advantage.

So - are you a music power-user?


The body recognises the onset of fatigue and internalises our focus, as part of our body’s in-built ‘early warning system’ when physiological ‘distress’ starts to overwhelm our nervous system.

Listening to music when training has been shown to distract the athlete’s brain, and delay that inward shift of focus.

This distraction both reduces the athlete’s perceived rate of effort by over 10% (they think they are working less hard), and improves endurance by 15% (they’re actually doing more work!).

The body responds best to steady rhythms that match movements. Synchronising the tempo of the music to an athlete’s heart rate can have powerful outcomes, with the sweet spot of the effect being between 125 and 140 bpm.

Overall this has great benefits for stamina, explosive power, strength and athletic performance.

Preparation and Learning

MRI scans have shown that listening to music lights your brain up like a Christmas tree, with several brain areas that are critical to athletic performance activated at the same time:

Music makes us want to move - we all know that, although some of us are more coordinated than others..

And as we saw previously with respect to training, it also promotes what sports psychologists call ’flow states’ - more commonly known as being ‘in the zone’.

Being in the zone is the ‘holy grail’ for athletes who are about to execute complex patterns, both allowing them to more easily visualise successful outcomes pre-performance, and allowing them to be relaxed and block out external distractions during their performance.

Performing to music helps athletes learn routines faster too, as the brain forms the neural pathways, intrinsic to the learning process, more effectively when it has an external stimulus like a song to back up the physical goal.

The effect is even more pronounced when the song has lyrics that evoke the movements being performed - a simple example being the Salt-N-Pepa song “Push It” for those performing any exercise or routine that requires the athlete to perform a pushing motion.

This has obvious important implications for coaches, choreographers and music editors / producers working on the routine and mix.

Last but not least, music with specific moods and messages can be used to ‘stimulate’ and ‘sedate’ athletes moods as appropriate - calm music to reduce anxiety and stress in the days and hours before a performance and then high tempo, loud music to produce a short term motivation directly before the performance.

One note here is this can be overdone - there is a desensitising effect of repeated exposure to the same music.


Music can have a powerful effect on the moods and attitudes of groups of people, not just individuals.

Those choosing the music in this situation need to cater for different personalities and tastes, and even possibly nationalities and cultures, in the group.

Listening to a well chosen communal playlist, for example in the locker room before an event, enhances team spirit and promotes the team’s social togetherness.

Often in sport, certain songs can become associated with a particular team. These can be taken from an outside context and made meaningful by a shared experience. This can be significant when thinking about the team’s relationship with its fans.

Some sports teams can also have distinctive cheers (of course!) or crowd chants. This allows fans to express their support for the team, and act to affirm the shared pride in the team between team members and audience.

When you love the music

The benefits outlined above are optimised when there is a synergy between the basic properties of the music itself, such as its tempo, and the tastes and experiences of the listener, informing how they react to the mood and message of the music.

In other words: a Jess Glynne fan will ‘kill it’ when performing a routine to one of Jess’s tracks. And the judges and audience will respond more favourably if they are fans, too.

So there is no one-size-fits-all approach to music choice in sport - just like in music generally.

Athletes will train, learn and perform best, and routines will have the biggest impact on judges and audiences when the routine is set to the artists and music they love.

So the more popular the artist performing the song and the more popular the song, the better your odds of achieving optimum results throughout every aspect of your sport - from physical conditioning through ease of learning routines, athlete motivation, teamwork, preparation and the quality of the performance to the judges and audience reaction to it.


The benefits of music in sport:

  • Improves endurance and athletic performance by reducing perceived effort yet increasing output during training - steady rhythms of 125 - 140 bpm are optimum.

  • Helps athletes learn routines faster by promoting the formation of the required neural pathways.

  • Can calm an athlete, reducing pre-performance stress and anxiety.

  • Can motivate an athlete to produce a better performance.

  • Athletes can block distractions to pre-visualize more easily and get into ‘the zone’ during their performance.

  • Enhances team spirit, and the bond between team and audience.

  • The effects are magnified by music that the athlete, audience or judge love.


This article was prepared using an overview of extensive worldwide research created by Professor Costas Karageorghis and his team at Brunel University in London, UK.

See the papers below for more details:

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