Save the Nerves for the Night Before

Four days left, 4 more psychological science highlights: Counting down to the Olympic Opening Ceremony, with research insights on sports and performance.


In Olympic competition, the margin between winning the gold and sitting in the stands often comes down to fractions of a second. Olympic athletes will be doing everything they can to gain even the slightest competitive edge. Researchers have found that feeling tense the night before a game could actually be part of gaining that edge.

Recent research conducted at Northwestern University investigated whether feelings of tension play a part in swimming performance. Joshua Wilt, with co-authors William Revelle and Shelby Johnson (who was also a member of the Northwestern University Swim and Dive Team), examined how tension measured across different time frames is associated with swimming performance during a competitive athletic season.

Watch Josh Wilt, Northwestern University describe his study at the 24th APS Annual Convention:

Before the fall swim season, fourteen members of the women and men’s Northwestern University Swim and Dive Team completed online ratings of how tense they feel in general. Over the course of two months, the swimmers rated their feelings of tension each week. One day before competitions, participants also rated their tension. The researchers also noted the participants’ actual performance at their meets: four dual meets and one mid-season invitational.

The results of the study showed that feelings of tension in general and the week before meets were not associated with swimming performance. However, when swimmers felt higher levels of tension the night before a meet, they achieved faster times in their heats the following day.

As Olympic swimmers prepare for some of the most important moments in their careers, they are likely to feel tension the night before they compete. They might take some comfort in the finding that these feelings could shave those infinitesimal yet all-important fractions of a second off their times.

For more information visit the The Personality Project website or Facebook page.

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