Let me tell you a little story. I grew up in a small town, and the football team at my high school was bad. Like, went-whole-seasons-without-winning-a-game bad. Until my junior year, when suddenly, we had a dream team. They were undefeated, and went on to win the state championship game. I’ve never been a huge football person, but I have to say, it was so exciting. This was the stuff of cheesy teen dramas.
Everyone was constantly talking about what had made our team so successful that year. Most people agreed that it was a team full of the strongest players we’d had in a long time, but there was something else going on. No, we’re not talking steroids here. Mind. Gutter. Out. It was their amazing teamwork skills! They were really a team, and everyone could see it.
At the homecoming dance, after they had won the game, they asked the DJ to play “Stand By Me,” explaining that it was their team song. The DJ played the song, and all these big, tough, football playing boys (at least they seemed tough in high school) started swaying from side to side and singing along with the song. I kid you not. They were really into it. And it was a very tender moment. So much so that it was… awkward to watch. I really felt like I had walked in on a romantic moment.
According to a growing body of new research, the feelings I witnessed in those football players may have been pretty similar to romance after all. It turns out that oxytocin, known to most people as the “love hormone,” plays a bigger role in athletics and competition than previously thought. Oxytocin is the hormone that makes you feel all warm and cuddly when you’re around someone you’re in an intimate relationship with. New couples tend to show heightened levels of oxytocin in their bloodstreams, and its actions in the brain solidify their attraction to one another. New mothers are also practically swimming in oxytocin, and it’s thought that the hormone facilitates bonding between mom and baby.
Warm, fuzzy, cuddly… a bit out of place on the football field, no? In fact, it looks like oxytocin may actually play a big role in athletics. In one study, distance runners were shown to have higher bloodstream levels of oxytocin after completing an ultramarathon than they had at the start.
And oxytocin may be even more important in team sports. In another study, researchers analyzed footage from high-pressure soccer shootouts in World Cup and European Championship games. They observed that if one of the first shooters threw his arms up in the air to celebrate after making a goal, his other teammates were more likely to score as well. Why? The players underwent a “transference of emotion.” Emotions like happiness and confidence are contagious – when the players saw their teammate celebrate a shot, they felt a shared burst of oxytocin. That rush of positive feeling and confidence allowed them to perform better on their own shots.
Oxytocin also helps us read other people’s feelings, which means that high levels of oxytocin could help athletes read opposing players’ body language more effectively. It also makes them feel a sense of connection and trust with their own teammates.
And with victory… comes gloating. Oxytocin encourages gloating, which is no doubt annoying for the other team. But a little bit of gloating can help an athlete’s teammates to feel that rush of oxytocin-induced confidence and make then play better. So it might be a wise strategy for coaches to encourage their players to gloat, at least a little bit.
And guess what? Athletes aren’t the only ones who get an oxytocin boost. Sports spectators and fans also experience an oxytocin boost when their team is doing well. So enjoy all that gloating on your Facebook newsfeed – the Superbowl approaches!
Garnet is a student at Columbia University in New York City. She is “that person” who starts dancing at a party when everyone else is standing around, and if there were a Facebook stalking Olympics, she would be a gold medalist. She also loves cheesy 90s music, and almost died of happiness when Vanilla Ice retweeted her. Once. Follow her on Twitter @garnethenderson.