Power to the playlist: are you listening to music that can change your life?

by Benjamin Peim

Before heading to the starting line for the ten-kilometer race, Ethiopian long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie approached the DJ with a request. The DJ assented. The race began, Scatman John’s “Scatman” seeped out of the speakers and wafted over the track, and Gebrselassie set a new world record. He completed the race in under 26 minutes and 22 seconds.

Afterward, he revealed that without the song, the new world record wouldn’t be his. The song’s beat allowed him to run at a faster clip.

“I did many records with the Scatman song,” he later told The Guardian. “Fantastic.”

As a boy, I dreamed of being a professional soccer player. I spent countless hours jumping rope, working on my footwork, and kicking a ball against my parents’ garage door. But I had more passion than talent. I wasn’t tall enough, I wasn’t big enough, I wasn’t skilled enough. And, perhaps most of all, in a sport that prizes sprinting speed so highly, I was slow.

By the age of 15, I had reluctantly realized these realities. But learning of Haile’s feat with the Scatman song, my mind meandered back to my youthful dream. Maybe fusing music with training could have improved my odds of playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. Maybe I could be playing in front of adoring crowds instead of typing this sentence. Maybe. [Editor’s Note: a good time for the Motivation Pack … or the Acceptance pack.]

Former Italian professional basketball player Matteo Brunamonti, 33, who played for ­Virtus Pallacanestro Bologna, a top team in Italy, also experienced the impact of music.

“Right before the game, when the players are warming up, the music played in the arena isn’t just entertainment for the crowd,” Brunamonti explained. “Players would ask for certain songs before the game, one of the top players even created a list for the DJ to play during the warmup—it would pump you up and make you more confident.”

In fact, researchers have gathered a great deal of knowledge about how music impacts athletic performance. And it’s far from a placebo effect; athletes can run faster, lift heavier, and improve endurance levels all because of music.

Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist at London’s Brunel University and author of “Applying Music in Exercise and Sport”, has even compared music to a performance enhancing drug.

Karageorghis’s fascination with music began as a child in the 1970s in a poor neighborhood of South London. He lived with his extended family in an apartment above a second-hand record store. Early in the morning, the shop played music and a “thundering baseline” would jolt Karageorghis out of bed. He’d wipe the sleep from his eyes, look out the window, and watch as people’s facial expressions and walks would transform as they would come within earshot of the music.

“It would put a lilt in their stride,” Karageorghis said. He’s devoted his career to understand how and why.

According to Karageorghis, music can serve as a stimulant that helps athletes attain an optimal mindset before competition. Songs with strong emotional associations that conjure images of heroic feats or underdog victories—think Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire,” Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” or Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”—work best.