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Reminders of Mortality Can Motivate Athletes

Forget the Gipper — win one for your own legacy.

By Tom Jacobs


The Chicago Cubs’ Dexter Fowler steals second base in game five of the World Series. (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Here’s a tip for Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon as his team faces elimination in the World Series. If you want to boost the effectiveness of your players, slip into your pregame pep talk a subtle reminder of death.

Not metaphorical death, as in “They’re going to slaughter us.” Rather, mention the inevitability of our actual, physical demise.

It’s an unorthodox strategy, to be sure, but it could pay off. Newly published research provides evidence that reminders of our mortality can boost athletic performance.

“The need to manage death awareness can cause improvement in relatively complex athletic settings, such as an actual sport,” writes a research team led by University of Arizona psychologists Colin Zestcott and Uri Lifshin. “Performance in sport may serve the psychological purpose of maintaining a positive self-image to buffer against death-related thoughts.”

Their research, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, is grounded in Terror Management Theory, which is based on the seminal ideas of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker.

According to this school of thought, humans buffer their fear of mortality by attempting to transcend death, either literally (via belief in an afterlife) or symbolically (by devoting one’s life to a larger cause that will live on). Previous research has found death-related fears can inspire behavior ranging from increased patriotism to shopping sprees.

Being part of the team that broke the Cubs’ 100-plus-year curse would indeed be a wonderful way to live on in the minds of fans — including some who have not yet been born.

As the University of Arizona researchers note, many people react to reminders of their mortality by looking for ways to bolster their self-esteem. In that way, they enhance their sense that they “are valuable members of a meaningful and lasting universe.”

This led the scholars to surmise such reminders could improve the athletic performance of people “who derive a sense of self-worth from sports.” To test this notion, they conducted two studies featuring male university students, all of whom reported that their self-esteem was indeed tied up with their athletic ability.

The first featured 31 participants, each of whom competed in two games of one-on-one basketball. In between the two games, half of them were asked to “briefly describe the thoughts and emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “jot down specifically as you can what you think will happen to you as you physically die.”

Those who wrote about their own deaths increased their scores by an average of 40 percent in the second game over the first. In contrast, the scores of those in the control group (who briefly wrote about their relationship to basketball) were essentially the same for the before-and-after games.

The second study featured a more subtle reminder of death. The participants — 41 male undergraduates — were asked to shoot a basketball, the goal being to score as many points as possible in one minute. The rules were explained to them by an instructor who wore a T-shirt featuring a skull and the word “death.”

Half of the participants saw the shirt; the others did not, as the instructor kept his jacket zipped up. After the drill, all of them noted how good they felt about themselves and their performance.

The results: Those who were exposed to the skull T-shirt scored, on average, 30 percent higher than those who did not. Their subsequent responses indicated that their higher scores were linked with increased levels of self-esteem.

Now, these were college students, not professional athletes, so whether this strategy would work with the Cubs is unclear. “It is possible that more serious athletes … may be close to maximally motivated,” the researchers write.

On the other hand, “athletes with ambitious goals may be even more motivated by reminders of mortality, since at the professional level, sport can provide people with symbolic immortality through fame and history making,” they add.

Being part of the team that broke the Cubs’ 100-plus-year curse would indeed be a wonderful way to live on in the minds of fans — including some who have not yet been born. The prospect of immortality can be immensely motivating.