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Stand up straight! Quit slouching. Pick up your feet and lift your head.
I sound like your mother, right? Well, if I do, then maybe she cared about your sports performance more than she knew.
You’ve no doubt heard commentators talk about a player or team’s “body language” and then used this as the basis to tell us who is going to win the game or score next. Other times they’ll talk about players “standing tall”, as if posture was something that was going to have as much influence on performance outcome of an individual or the synergy of a team as their actual training. Well, they might be right.
Research shows how ‘posture expansiveness’ plays an important role in determining whether people act as though they are in charge of a situation. That is, there may be no reason that they should be in control, but it makes them act like they are. This comes from a study at The Kellogg School at Northwestern University, where the research was applied to job interviews, however the research has also been examined for application to sports by organisations such as the American College of Sports Medicine.
To test this theory, various experiments, such as a verbal recall task, a word completion exercise and a blackjack game, were conducted with the study’s participants. Those with open body posture thought about more power-related words and generally took more action than those with closed body postures in each experiment. The upshot was that a strong, powerful posture had a strong effect in making a person think and act in a more powerful way.
This ‘posture expansiveness’ is a way of positioning yourself to open up the body and take up space, activate a sense of power that produces behavioural changes. An open body posture generally means having the shoulders back, standing tall, chest out and chin up. The research found that in a team situation, adopting this posture can have a positive effect on all those around you, no matter what your actual rank or hierarchical role in the team. The last point is important, because in a team situation, everyone may look to the captain or coach for confidence and encouragement, but this research suggests that any team member, no matter how junior, can have a great influence on the rest of the team.
This is an important development for athletes, who often use tools such as mantras, visualisation and cue words. That is, they use mental cues to help physical performance. Now we know that consciously altering our physical state can have an effect on our mental performance and confidence, which in turn influences those around us.
For all this positive influence on your teammates, this projection of confidence can also change your opponent’s perception of you – he or she may start worrying why you’re not crumbling and wonder exactly what it is you have up your sleeve that makes you look so poised and self-assured.
As a contrast, watch tennis players yelling and screaming gee-ups to themselves. They may believe it helps them and perhaps it does, but to an opponent the body language often reeks of desperation and just a little panic, not confidence.
Some good times to stop and check your posture are:
The manner you carry yourself after these challenges will have an effect on your reaction to them, which will in turn either hurt or help your subsequent performance.
You might find this habit easier to adapt if you also think of it in terms of the physical side. For example, open posture assists in reducing stress and strain on your spine and improving muscle tone, especially the core, back and neck. It also opens the diaphragm, allowing increased oxygen into the system and better breathing techniques which improve circulation. Importantly, it will also have a calming effect, so you don’t expend too much energy or have your judgement impaired by too much red mist. It’s good to rev yourself up and even get angry sometimes, but there’s an optimal level of excitement and then there’s a point you go over the edge – many games are lost due to stupid infringements, many races and games are lost due to irrational decisions or inability to control nerves.
So while good posture doesn’t guarantee success, it seems that it certainly helps you and your teammates be at your best – and it can put your opponents on the back foot, too