Sports stars harness the power of music – and you can too |

The power of music – Music has become a powerful motivating and emotional tool for athletes looking to take their performance to the next level. Known as “music therapy”, the practice of using music to boost athletic performance is becoming increasingly popular, with many professional and amateur athletes relying on specific songs or genres to get them pumped up before they hit the field or court. From pre-game rituals to in-the-moment power surges, music provides a powerful mental and physical advantage that can help athletes achieve peak performance.

athletes and the power of music

Athletes harnessing the power of music have been proven to exhibit greater levels of focus and motivation than those who don’t listen to music before competing.

Music stimulates endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that create feelings of pleasure and satisfaction; this is why so many people use music as a form of self-care.

Exercise scientists suggest that when paired with physical exertion – like performing strenuous sports drills – these endorphins can increase an athlete’s stamina and determination, resulting in improved performance overall.

Furthermore, music helps athletes transition from passive listening into active engagement; this process strengthens concentration and deepens mental focus, enabling athletes to stay present in every moment during their event or match – something which leads directly to optimized performance outcomes.

Chiefs star Naitoa Ah Kuoi sings a few bars of his favourite songs and discusses the role music plays in helping him prepare to perform at his best on the rugby field.

Fleetwood Mac and rugby might be an odd pairing, but Chiefs star Naitoa Ah Kuoi says their classic songs help him to play like a rockstar when he runs out to put on a show.

“I like to envision myself as a rockstar. I’ll listen to Stevie Nicks, or that sort of rock’n’roll,” Ah Kuoi told Stuff.

“My mindset when I’m on the field [is] I’m on stage and the crowd is here to listen to my music and my game is my music. That’s one of my secrets.”

Athletes have long embraced music to aid their preparation and boost their mindset and performance, but few rugby players would draw inspiration from such an eclectic range of artists as the extroverted Ah Kuoi.

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Described by his Chiefs coach, Clayton McMillan, as “a different cat”, the 22-year-old Wellington-born forward enjoys contemporary music but grew up worshipping his dad’s favourite singers, Tom Jones, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.

Many of his teammates and peers rely on mainstream pop, high-energy drum and bass, or hip-hop, to get psyched pre-game. But Ah Kuoi says any music that connects with his mood can help him achieve the right state of mind, whether he is steeling himself for a combative physical contest, or focusing on specific skills and accuracy with his open running and passing game.

Chiefs star Naitoa Ah Kuoi says a bit of Fleetwood Mac gets him straight into game mode.
MARK TAYLOR/Waikato Times


Chiefs star Naitoa Ah Kuoi says a bit of Fleetwood Mac gets him straight into game mode.

“It depends on how I feel in that moment,” he says.

“I envision myself before games. There’s two mindsets that I have. One is that I’m a warrior – I’m ready to get into it. And that’s when I’ll play some drum and bass or rock’n’roll to get myself up.

“But sometimes I’m cruising. That’s when I’ll listen to reggae – [when] I’m just feeling loose [and] thinking about being light on my feet.”

Music is now an accepted and established part of most Kiwi sports team environments, with boombox speakers, personal headphones, and acoustic guitars constant companions among players when they are travelling on buses, relaxing in their hotel team rooms, working out in the gym, and in the sheds pre- and post-match.

Blues wing Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens says the Auckland-based team enjoy belting out rugby club staples such as The Gambler, April Sun in Cuba, and Sweet Caroline, and listen to popular tunes that appeal to all tastes.

“We’re a bit of a diverse mix with the older boys and the Islander boys, and we cater to everyone,” he says.

“[Brothers] Akira and Reiko [Ioane] will be singing their songs in the changing room when it’s all quiet, and that’s just their way to get up for the match.

“So the boys all prepare differently, but I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t got music on.”

“There's two mindsets that I have: one is that I'm a warrior … but sometimes I’m cruising,” Ah Kuoi says.


“There’s two mindsets that I have: one is that I’m a warrior … but sometimes I’m cruising,” Ah Kuoi says.

Twenty-year-old Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens prefers “chill music” and “nothing too heavy” through his headphones when travelling to games, then changes to a different playlist when he warms up.

“Funnily enough, the song that I play when I first get into the changing room is Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson,” he says.

The Northern Mystics netball squad takes things even further by incorporating a singing session into the team’s pre-game rituals.

“In the sheds we have a tradition before every game where we sing a song,” says star goal shoot Grace Nweke.

“We’ve done Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls, Eye of the Tiger, and Don’t Stop Believing. We try to get some dance moves going and get everyone involved.

“It just helps everyone get in the right headspace. It’s a massive part of preparation and really locking into what you want to do. It’s massive for getting us in the zone. I love it.”

The Northern Mystics incorporate a singing session into the team’s pre-game routine.


The Northern Mystics incorporate a singing session into the team’s pre-game routine.

In decades past, such scenes would have been unthinkable in any tense professional sports match setting.

And while it might still be some time before we see All Blacks performing four-part harmonies during their warmups, Nweke says the Mystics’ song and dance routine relaxes the squad while also raising energy levels and bringing playing combinations together.

“When we do the pre-match song, everyone is in their mini groups and we’ll have a competition to see who can perform the best,” Nweke says.

“We’ll try to get some dance moves going or a little bit of a sequence of choreography.

“The NBA players can warm up with headphones on. I wish we could have music right up until the first centre pass.”

All Blacks manager and long-serving mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka says sing-alongs are vital to enhancing team culture and creating a positive environment.

“This is right up there with oxygen for sports teams I have been involved in,” Enoka says.

“There is no better feeling for an athlete post-game than sitting with their mates in the shed and engaging in a sing-along. Whether it’s a designated team song (normally written by members of the team) or just a general sing-along.

“The guitar, in particular, creates a magnetic aura. It’s powerful beyond measure.”

“When the amygdala is active, it increases our ability to consolidate memories,” Enoka says.
Peter Meecham/Stuff


“When the amygdala is active, it increases our ability to consolidate memories,” Enoka says.

Enoka, internationally renowned for his work with the All Blacks, Crusaders, Silver Ferns and Black Caps, confirms that listening to music can unlock an emotional side of the brain that creates a path for players to perform better.

Listening to your favourite artists or songs can help a player achieve a comfortable state – relaxed or fired-up and full of energy and emotion – to help them get in the right zone.

“Specifically it activates the amygdala, the section of the brain that processes emotions,” Enoka says.

“When the amygdala is active it increases our ability to consolidate memories. In plain language, certain music and songs unlock certain memories for players. And that is why the same songs are often listened to before games or training.”

However, Enoka says it is not a “one size fits all” scenario, and dismisses the idea that most players would rely on high-energy or aggressive music to achieve the right mental state.

In some instances, athletes want to bring their energy down – to calm them ahead of a big occasion.

“Both, however, contribute to blocking out noise – actual noise and thoughts inside your head – and this helps them manage their nerves ahead of the upcoming event.

“It’s generally a case of managing the lead-up to an event in a way that ensures the athlete arrives at a ‘big occasion’ or a ‘big moment’ in their best performance state, and [that] they are pressure ready.”

Enoka believes “all players will experiment over time” listening to different music as they continually search for songs that strike the right chord and allow them to feel at their best.

What worked one week might not have the same impact the next, so there is something of an intangible element to what music will have the desired impact.

“I’d hazard a guess that ‘superstition’ also plays a role as players often associate ‘great performances’ with specific rituals undertaken in the lead-up, and often this involves the music and songs they listened to.”

Your life, your soundtrack:

You don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy the benefits of music. It can help shift our moods and improve our wellbeing in everyday life.

“Say you’ve been on a really amazing holiday and listen to a particular soundtrack, then your brain will associate that soundtrack with a holiday feeling,” says clinical psychologist Gaynor Parkin.

“You might play it again when we’re having a difficult day at work, and that music helps to take you back to that positive experience, helps you feel better, and get perspective.”

Rather than the amygdala, those happy songs can activate our frontal lobe – the part of the brain that helps us think innovatively, creatively and do many of the clever things we need while working jobs that require our minds to be clear and calm.

“If I’ve got a tune that is linked to a good holiday, and it helps me stay relaxed, playing that tune so that I know my front brain is engaged and working is a good strategy,” Parkin says.

Happy songs can activate our frontal lobe – the part of the brain we use for creative thinking (file photo).
Bruce Mars/Unsplash


Happy songs can activate our frontal lobe – the part of the brain we use for creative thinking (file photo).

Music can also help us prolong positive feelings and enhance emotions such as excitement – like when you play party tunes while getting ready for a fun night out.

Songs with sad associations also have their place and can help us process feelings such as grief, or mend a broken heart, to achieve what experts call radical acceptance.

“[That’s] when you accept ‘I’m feeling really flat and sad’ and I’m going to just sit with that for a while and listen to this music,” Parkin says.

“That’s an OK strategy as long as you’re aware of it, and as long as you can dial yourself out of it again, and you don’t get stuck in the feeling.”

Just as our own music tastes are very individual, finding the right songs that resonate with you are key to achieving a positive lift in mood.

“Be your own scientist, and experiment. See how it is helpful, then keep doing it, and if it’s not, then don’t.

“Test whether listening to it by yourself has the best effect, or is it more powerful if you do it with your friend or your partner? Is there a difference?

“Of course, there’s no right or wrong about it. It’s just what works.”


Source: Sports stars harness the power of music – and you can too |

Source: Sports stars harness the power of music – and you can too |