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The impact of music on performance in sport

The impact of music on performance in sport

3 min read
  • Sport psychology

Athletes are constantly searching for ways to improve their performance. The desire to run faster, jump higher or lift more has them searching for the next edge.

Many swear by listening to music whilst in the gym to help them achieve this. But does music actually help or hinder performance?

Music and sports: 4 benefits

Feel fitter

Research has shown that listening to music whilst exercising can reduce your rate of perceived effort by 12% and improve your endurance by 15%.

However, it is worth considering the tempo of the music, as recent research from Liverpool John Moores University gives more nuanced findings. Their study found that slowing the tempo of the music decreased participant’s heart rate and distance covered on a bike, whilst quickening the tempo increased heart rate and mileage as well as the enjoyment of both the music and exercise.

Stops negative thoughts

Listening to music improves an athlete’s performance by distracting them from the negative thoughts that can consume the mind and hinder performance. Recent research proved this, showing that basketball players who were prone to performing poorly under pressure converted more free-throw shots when they had listened to an upbeat piece of music beforehand, as this distracted them from the pressure of performing in front of a crowd.

Activates autopilot

Listening to music can encourage athletes to operate on autopilot, hence outside their conscious awareness. Having elite athletes operate on autopilot is beneficial, such that a recent study found that when elite golfers were asked to take a putt as quickly as possible (operating on autopilot) they had a higher success rate, in comparison to when they took their time.

High pressure situations often lead to overthinking, but when an athlete operates on autopilot this does not occur and movements are performed naturally.

Controls emotions

Research has shown that athletes can use music to manipulate their emotions before a competition. Athlete Dame Kelly Holmes said she listened to Alicia Keys ballads as part of her pre-event routine for the 2004 Olympic Games, which relaxed her and allowed her to peak her performance.

However, the great Michael Phelps took a different approach, and would listen to songs from Lil Wayne and Eminem to energise and motivate him.

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Music and sports: 3 disadvantages

Unnecessary distraction

Many elite runners choose not to listen to music whilst running as it can be distracting. Such athletes want to be able concentrate on what their bodies are telling them, so that they can regulate its functions and run at the appropriate pace. Similarly, they need to be alert and able to hear what is going on around them, so that they can respond and implement the necessary tactics to compete at their maximum.


It may be that the act of listening to music does not improve performance, and instead it is the belief that music enhances performance that causes the positive effects. In one particular study, the first group were told that listening to music would enhance their performance, whilst the second group were told it would hinder their performance. The researchers found that those who were told that the music would enhance their performance ran a higher number of laps in comparison to those who were told it would hinder their performance.

Other research has shown that music does not directly enhance performance, but instead encourages risk taking behaviour. Risk taking behaviour has the potential to improve an athlete’s performance by encouraging them to try new and potentially better strategies; however, these risks do need to be calculated and in line with the athlete’s skill level.

No impact on motivation

Contrary to popular beliefs, there is research which shows that, whilst listening to music during the warm up improved handball athletes’ mood, it did not have an impact on their motivation. Similarly, another study found that listening to motivational music had no effect on the performance of elite swimmers.

Final thoughts

Current research does not seem to provide a clear answer as to whether music has a positive impact on performance in sport. It may be that there is not actually a correct answer, and that whether or not music enhances performance is dependent on the abilities of the athletes, the type of music they listen to, and their pre-existing levels of motivation.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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