Posted in Coaching

Placebos in High Performance Sport

A Placebo is something of no intrinsic remedial value that is used to appease or reassure another. There is no completely agreed upon definition of what a placebo is, and the scope of therapy can extend from an ingested agent to a physically inert external treatment. The concept of the placebo effect can extend to include
every conceivable beneficial biological, social, or human interaction that doesn’t involve some drug well-known to the pharmacopoeia. Irving Kirsch hypothesised that the self-fulfilling effects of response expectancies, in which the belief that one will feel different, leads a person to actually feel different. This effect is the placebo effect.

Despite the vast amount of research in the area of placebos, the phenomenon has remained largely unchallenged in the area of sport and performance. In high performance it is likely that there are a great number of therapies and ergogenic aids that are used with no real effect of the athlete. Instead, there is the potential for a placebo effect to occur providing a false positive for improved performance. Expectation and conditioning are among the strongest areas for explaining the placebo effect and a large component of high performance sport involves mental training of an athlete by their coaches and support staff.

The placebo effect is a psychobiological reaction attributed to numerous mechanisms including expectation of improvement and Pavlovian conditioning. These psychological reactions can have performance benefits, and when you look at high performance sport the single highest priority is performance outcome. Numerous studies have been completed where athletes falsely believe they have been administered performance enhancing agents, and obtain performance improvements over baselines and controls. These improvements may only be an increase of 1% however at top levels that can be enough to mean the difference between winning and losing. With restrictions on what agents an athlete can use and what equipment and techniques are allowed win each sport it is necessary to look at every possible option for getting the winning edge on the opposition. Some aids that can be used may only provide a placebo effect on the athlete, but this can lead to real performance outcomes.

It is shown that false belief may enhance performance. This can be achieved through a conscious decision making process as opposed to any direct somatic or psychological mechanism. To be able to determine the real benefit of a placebo however, it would be necessary to look deeper into the actual reasoning for the performance enhancements that are achieved. At the moment the only true way of determining whether there is a placebo effect in place is through performance measures and recording athlete results. If there were some neurobiological mechanism that has a physiological effect on the individual causing these changes, it would be necessary to determine what it is and then measure the impact that it has.



This blog was started for a Uni subject, and has since evolved into a place where I can voice my thoughts, typically about coaching and sport. I grew up in Sydney, then moved to Canberra for some further study in 2011 and when I finished in 2014 I moved up to Brisbane. I have played, coached and generally been involved with volleyball since 2013. As of 2017 I am now the QAS Volleyball Assistant Coach.

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