Issue#7: Belief
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Issue #7: Harnessing the Power of Belief

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Welcome back to Peak Performance, our newsletter highlighting the latest science in performance and personal growth.
Before diving into this week’s edition, we wanted to take a moment to thank all of you, our subscribers, for your participation and support.  We’ve grown by over 50 percent in the last six weeks, and the engagement on social media and via email has been better than we ever could have expected.  So please continue to share with your family and friends, and keep the questions, comments, and suggestions coming – they go a long way to improve the quality of the newsletter. And with that, onto this week’s topic…
Belief Effects  
In the world of athletics, there’s been a flurry of recent studies, conducted under methodological rigor and by well-respected scientists, that demonstrate small but significant gains in performance due to various unrelated interventions.  For example, drinking beetroot juice, taking beta-alanine supplements, ingesting caffeine, sleeping in an altitude tent, wearing compression garments, and tweaking equipment have all been shown to independently enhance performance on the order of 1 to 3 percent.  But if an athlete goes from doing none of these things to doing all six of them, he or she rarely, if ever, experiences a 10 percent increase in performance. Far more likely is that he or she will experience a 1 to 3 percent increase, or the same magnitude that would be expected from any single intervention. In other words, something doesn’t add up – both figuratively and literally. It’s as if there is a ceiling to improvement from all these marginal gains, and the ceiling itself is quite marginal.  
While we don’t pretend to definitively know what’s going on here, we have a hunch. Perhaps a portion of the performance-enhancing benefit of each respective intervention comes from what David T. Martin, the director of performance research and development for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, calls “belief effects.”
A belief effect is simply a positive re-framing of the placebo effect.  When someone believes something is going to work, it works, even if that “something” in question is little more than a sugar pill.  Our good friend (and even better science writer) Alex Hutchinson has covered this topic extensively, writing about numerous cases in which a strong psychological belief in an intervention is enough for that intervention to trigger a physiological change.
When it comes to marginal gains not adding up, it could be that belief effects are driving a large portion of the performance enhancement, and that there is a ceiling for the power of belief effects. (If this topic is of particular interest to you, definitely check out Alex’s work in the “learn more” section below. His New Yorker piece on the Golden State Warriors and brain-zapping technology is dynamite.)
So what does all of this mean, and why should you care, especially if you’re not an athlete trying to maximize performance? For starters, the mind-body connection is strong.  If you believe deeply that some sort of aid is going to help you, or that you are going to nail a performance, odds are, your physiology and neurology will actually change to help you do just that.  In other words, confidence is a powerful tool, and this holds true far beyond the playing field. Studies have found that a woman’s performance on mathematical tests is strongly correlated with her beliefs about women and math.  When women are told that men are better at math (a common but false stereotype) they score much lower than when they are told that women are equally or more capable.  
Another profound example of belief effects comes from sports. While many runners came within mere seconds, no one could break the sub four-minute mile barrier for years.  Then, in 1954, Sir Roger Bannister ran 3:59.4.  Within a month, John Landy had lowered the world record to 3:57, and within 3 years, a barrier that had not been touched in the history of man had over a dozen individuals under it.  The only thing that changed was Bannister gave other runners a reason to believe humans could run so fast.
Another implication of belief effects is that it’s good to be skeptical of any performance-enhancing aid that promises a large benefit.  But the inverse of that statement is also true.  If you can afford a performance-enhancing aid (and if it’s a supplement, you are sure it doesn’t include any banned substances or ingredients that could cause you harm), then feel free to go for it.  And when you do, be anything but skeptical – go all in, like a true believer.
But before turning to the latest and greatest commercial performance-enhancing tool, be sure to keep in mind these words from Alex Hutchinson: “To boost your performance, and to boost your belief that you can outperform your competitors, there is yet no [tool] more powerful than the knowledge that you’ve outworked them in practice.”  Putting in the work, trusting your training, and believing in yourself is likely the best performance-enhancer there is.
Try This
  • When you commit to something with a purported benefit, commit to it fully – it’s more likely to work that way.
  • If you are a teacher/coach/manager, telling your student/athlete/employee he or she can do something makes it much more likely that he or she will do something.
  • Mind matters. A lot. As you know, we aren’t new-age gurus. We are a scientist and science writer. And on this topic, we find the science convincing. Belief is a powerful element of performance.
Learn More
If you believe you can, you probably can. If you believe you won’t, you most assuredly won’t. Belief is the ignition switch that gets you off the launching pad.” Dennis Waitley
That’s it for this edition of Peak Performance.  We hope you learned something new.  Don’t hesitate to send us your questions or comments or to reach out on Twitter @SteveMagness and @Bstulberg.
Finally, if you find this newsletter interesting and useful, please share with your friends and colleagues.
Brad and Steve

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