Why a Game Face Helps You Win the Race

Snarly looks can help focus your energy for top performance
Why a Game Face Helps You Win the Race

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete ever. But this week, people were chattering about more than his butterfly stroke. They were commenting on his game face.

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Waiting for the swimming semi-final race to begin, the U.S. swimmer sat in a corner, his face contorted into a harsh scowl, as his South African rival Chad le Clos stretched and loosened up directly in front of him.

It was apparent Phelps was psyching himself up into an intense state of focus in order to put in a good performance. And he did go on to win the 200-meter butterfly, garnering another gold medal.

But does putting on a game face help athletes do better?

Absolutely, says sports counselor Joseph Janesz, PhD, LICDC, a psychotherapist for professional athletes, executives and other professionals.

“Being in the zone is key for athletic and professional performance,” Dr. Janesz says. “Prior to competition, athletes ready themselves for the competition by ‘zoning in.’ ”

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Why a game face works

Some athletes require an increase of energy or adrenaline for a top performance, Dr. Janesz says.

When they make a facial expression or roar like a lion, it activates the limbic system in the brain and turns on the fight or flight instinct, he says.

“Staring down your opponents, snarly looks, yells, the beating of one’s chest— all are ways that champions activate the power, grit or juice to focus one’s energy and compete,” Dr. Janesz says.

Don’t try this at home

Putting on a game face may be great for Olympic competition, but it’s not an effective way to deal with stresses and challenges in everyday life, Dr. Janesz says.

“Activating the limbic system for a big presentation or to deal with a difficult person may create more arousal and anxiety that could impede performance or provoke more confrontation,” Dr. Janesz says. “Dealing with difficult people requires negotiation skills, assertiveness, clear boundaries and respect.”

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All of these abilities are found within the prefrontal cortex, he says.

“I would suggest activating the prefrontal cortex, which is our executive functioning that reduces anxiety and arousal and relaxes you,” Dr. Janesz says. “This way, you are using the most intelligent and creative parts of your brain.”

Some ways to activate your prefrontal cortex include:

  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Moving your body through regular physical activity
  • Offering and accepting physical contact
  • Finding time for play
  • Finding a worthy volunteer opportunity

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