Maudlin thoughts of death may be a symptom of depression, but according to a new study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, it can improve athletic performance. The research examined the effects of “terror management theory”, which is the belief that thinking about death increases human desire for success. As it proved, thoughts of death led to better performance for basketball players.
The study included 31 male basketball players. The plays engaged in 2 seven-minute one-on-one basketball games with one of the study’s co-leaders. Immediately following the first game, the players were given questionnaires to answer. One asked questions about the participants feelings regarding basketball, while the other asked questions about their feelings regarding death.
Once the questionnaires were filled out, the subjects were given a number of “delay tasks”. These tasks encouraged subconscious pondering of thoughts of death. After completion of these tasks, the second game commenced.
The study found that the subjects asked questions about death saw a 20% improvement in their overall performance from the first to the second game. Their personal performance improved by a staggering 40%.
The second half of the study involved a 60-second basket-shooting test for each player. While giving instructions to half of the participants, the study co-leader wore a t-shirt that depicted a white skull and representations of the word “death”. For the other half, a zipped-up jacket covered the t-shirt.
The performance of those who saw the t-shirt increased by 30%. Not only was their performance better, but they shot more times than those who didn’t see the t-shirt.
As this study proved, terror management theory can be a good way for coaches to encourage improved athletic performance in their athletes, as well as a way for athletes to improve their own performance. The thought of death causes us to regain the self-esteem that protects us. Winning is the ultimate self-esteem boost, which is why the thought of death subconsciously encourages athletes to perform better. Thoughts of death could be a new motivation to influence performance, even on complex tasks like sports and athletic competitions.