Music - the drug of choice for Britain's Olympians

Psychologists believe they have discovered why Britain won so many medals at the Sydney Olympics: not drugs but music.

Psychologists believe they have discovered why Britain won so many medals at the Sydney Olympics: not drugs but music.

Dr Costas Karageorghis and his team of researchers at Brunel University in West London say that athletes can improve their performance by as much as 18 per cent by listening to the right sort of music.

Last night a host of medal winners - including rowing gold James Cracknell, sprinters Katharine Merry and Darren Campbell, and boxing gold Audley Harrison - confirmed that music had helped them to win. Dr Karageorghis has been researching the psychological effects of music in sport and exercise for over a decade, and has worked with some of the UK's top athletes. "Essentially, it comes down to brainwave activity," he said. "The human mind produces brainwave responses to music, increasing its alpha activity. This pushes athletes into what is commonly referred to as 'the zone' - almost a semi-hypnotic state where they perform on auto-pilot without any conscious effort. Being in 'the zone' is absolutely necessary for a peak performance, and music helps to induce it."

Dr Karageorghis says different athletes need different music. "Some need songs that will relax them; others need songs that will stimulate them. Either way, the music should leave them feeling inspired."

The key, he says, is the heart rate. Athletes who need to wind themselves up before an event will listen to a song which is the same speed, or faster, than their heart rate. Those who feel anxious before competing will choose music with a tempo below their heart rate, to calm them down and help them focus. Dr Karageorghis illustrated this by referring to two of his protégés: "Audley Harrison will listen to Japanese classical music before a fight, to avoid burning off nervous energy, but Iwan Thomas [relay] will psyche himself up to 'Firestarter' by The Prodigy before he races. It is a very individual process."

James Cracknell, who rowed to Olympic glory and into the record books last month with Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and Tim Foster, said yesterday that listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers' album Blood Sugar Sex Magik was a crucial part of the preparation for the race.

"I was listening to that CD on my Discman until about an hour before we competed," he said. "The music's vaguely aggressive and powerful, but it's also familiar, so it serves a joint purpose. It makes you relax a bit, but also winds you up at the same time. It keeps you going, which is very important."

Katharine Merry, the 400m runner who won bronze at the Olympics, also cited music as a powerful influence on the quality of her performance. "I listen to soft soul and R&B music like K-Ci and Jo Jo on the way to the track. It helps me to feel comfortable, relaxed and positive. In many ways, it is essential to a good performance. You have to lock off the rest of the world, and music helps you do that."

Olympic 200m silver medallist Darren Campbell agreed. "For an hour-and-a-half between the Olympic semi-final and the final I just lay on a couch and listened to the same Craig David song, 'Rendezvous', over and over again. It helped me to focus. I could get into my own little world so I couldn't hear or be distracted by other people on the track."

Campbell also revealed that his coach, Linford Christie, is a convert. "Linford always plays inspirational music to us," he said. "Last year at the world champs he sat us down, gave us a last little speech and told us to believe in ourselves, then played R Kelly's 'I Believe I Can Fly'."

Fellow international sprinter Dwain Chambers, the second fastest Briton ever, is a firm believer in gospel music, which he began listening to on the advice of Olympic hurdler Tony Jarrett. "I channel everything into the music, to avoid the nervous energy on the track," he said. "I listened to UK garage before races last year, but that psyched me up too much. Listening to gospel has really helped me to improve my performances this season. It's my legal drug."

Dr Karageorghis is now working with Nike to make his research available to everyone. The sportswear company has adopted his concept to create the PSA (Personal Sports Audio) player, a tiny ergonomically designed device which plays digital music files downloaded from the internet.Athletes can visit the web site www.nike.com/nikedigital and download a musical package that is relevant to their workout before playing it on their PSA while exercising.

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