You’ll have seen race drivers, from Formula One right down to club motorsport, wearing headphones attempting to ‘zone-out’ during the crucial moments leading up to a competitive event. You may even already use music before a race, but what does research say around the usefulness of athletes listening to music as part of their pre-performance routines?
Firstly, it’s helpful to highlight the notion of pre-performance routines, which can be broadly defined as a planned, systematic sequence of thoughts and behaviours that an athlete engages in prior to performing a specific skill. The period of time immediately prior to competition is often where the negative effects of anxiety (and physical symptoms such as adrenaline) can manifest and become detrimental to performance. Therefore the main aim of having a pre-event routine is to utilise a set process of mental skills to manage and facilitate consistency of your own peak performance. Your routine can incorporate any variety of skills such as imagery, positive self-talk, relaxation strategies or dynamic goal setting, and will often also incorporate a physical warm-up procedure or specific drills that are part of your pre-race regime as well. Above all else: the key consideration is that the whole process is individualised, repeatedly practised, and devised around your own specific requirements as an athlete.
Research into the use of music as part of pre-competition processes has become a rapidly growing area in recent years, as researchers seek to understand if music has a direct and significant role in improving performance, or simply acts as a placebo in making athletes feel more comfortable when it is available. There’s a whole different area of research examining music use during competitive situations (e.g. for runners, weightlifters) but for obvious reasons that’s not applicable to race drivers... so we’ll just focus on the pre-event phase here!
Photo: Frederick Bonde Nielsen
Research has consistently shown that athletes’ self-reported music before competition to be useful in regulating mood, or aiding in the process of optimal arousal/relaxation. Matching the bpm or tempo of music to pre-race heart rate can also aid in movement patterns and facilitate the desire to move the body as part of physical warm up. It has also been suggested that pre-task music can engender a flow state or feeling of being ‘in the zone’ through standardising the pre-race environment and creating consistent conditions aiding an athlete feeling like they are on ‘autopilot’ once at a high skill level of performance. It’s not just the tempo of music which can influence readiness to perform either, with positive, motivational or specific meaningful lyrics being reported to aid athletes’ use of self-talk prior to competition.
From a neuropsychology perspective, Brunel University's Professor Costas Karageorghis (one of the key researchers in this area, with further reading included at the end of this article) highlights that listening to music positively activates several major brain areas at once that correspond directly to athletic performance. His research showed that pre-event music fires up the parietal lobe, which contains the motor cortex; the occipital, or visual processing lobe, the brain’s center for rhythm and coordination; the temporal lobe, which regulates pitch, tone and structure; and the frontal lobe and cerebellum, which regulate emotion. It seems clear then that listening to familiar music before performance can yield an observable positive physical effect in an athlete preparing for competition.
The situation when it comes to the positive relationship to motivation is somewhat more ambiguous though, with some researchers suggesting it may just be the preconceived notion that listening to music could improve performance that leads to it having a placebo effect for athletes (who are often open to trying anything new that may give them a slight advantage over their competition). Some lab-based studies found conflicting findings that music didn’t necessarily always improve feelings of motivation, with participants in blind-group comparison tests reporting no significant effect on their readiness to complete a grip-strength performance test. What this really highlights is that there is no one-size fits all approach here… while some athletes may really benefit from the effect of music in competitive or stressful situations; if you’ve tried using music before a race and found that it’s not for you then that’s also fine! Some athletes find that it takes them too far out of their surrounding environment and can be a distraction, rather than a focusing tool. In our experience (in a motorsport context) the key benefit that listening to an individually selected mix of music can yield is standardising one element of an athletes’ pre-race environment from one event to the next. This therefore begins to encourage consistency or routine in preparation, creating a sense of control over at least one element of the (sometimes distracting) pre-race build up.
So, how can music be incorporated into your pre-event routine? The key point is that it needs to be individualised to ensure that any benefits affect you in the correct way depending on your pre-competitive mental state. For example, while one driver may want to match their high heart rate and adrenaline level with fast bpm music and positive, inspiring lyrics before a race; this may be completely inappropriate for another driver. This hypothetical second driver may know from experience that they suffer from a sense of pre-event anxiety and therefore want something more low-energy to bring their heart rate down and induce more of a sense of relaxation before lights out to ensure they’re in an optimal state to get the best start. Much like preparing a car on the formation lap of a race by going through a set procedure to ensure brakes and tyres are in their optimal temperature range, your own pre-race requirements and state of arousal as an athlete are individual to you; and something that you will learn how to manage into their optimal range with every competitive situation you put yourself in.
Photo: Frederik Bonde Nielsen
We’ve prepared some example playlists on Spotify to get you started and provide ideas of how you can utilise the concepts from this article to introduce music in your own race day regime. Remember though… the key take-home message is that any content of your pre-performance routine should always be individualised and personal to you as an athlete. So consider them as a starting point to show how sample playlists may differ depending on the situation they're used for, and feel free to send us examples of your own!
Further reading: Costas Karageorghis (2016) Applying Music in Exercise and Sport, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.