More Than Chemistry

What makes relationships tick.

Love, Athletics, and the Case of Tiger Woods

How athletic performance is enhanced by love

Being in love is euphoric. It’s characterized by intense passion, increased energy, and obsessive thoughts. These characteristics parallel the qualities of high performance athletes. That is, both people in love and athletes have high passion, energy, and obsessive thoughts, whether toward their sport or partner. Given the overlap, do athletes perform better or worse when in love?

To answer this question, I interviewed athletes at the Olympic Games. Their sentiment was that being in love overwhelmingly helped their performance. But when I prompted them for further information, their reasoning surprised me. They indicated that romantic partners helped with mundane tasks such as housework, which freed up the athletes’ time and energy for training. The effects of love, therefore, were practical and not derived from the elation of a passionate relationship.

Based on this information, I shifted my focus to examine how distinct types of love impact performance. Researchers have differentiated between passionate and commitment-based love, for example. Passion refers to the intense sexual attraction that brings people together, whereas commitment involves a conscious decision to remain with a partner for the long-term. Using this model, I found that although both types of love are strongly associated with enhanced performance, the strongest predictor is commitment. That is, athletes who are in committed relationships experience the greatest positive impact on their sport.

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This finding explains why Tiger Woods experienced positive outcomes in his profession after recently announcing his relationship with Linsday Vonn. Recall that Tiger’s career was soaring high until his marriage took a plunge. His performance suffered for years until this new romance blossomed. Shortly after making a public declaration of his commitment to Vonn, Tiger secured first place in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which represented a third victory in 2013, and put him back on top of the golf rankings.

But love doesn’t always have positive effects on performance. If things aren’t going well in a relationship, the negative outcomes spill into other areas of life, including athletics. This was confirmed by the Olympic athletes in my study, who noted that the type of relationship largely determined the impact of love on their sport. In other words, partners who were jealous of the time athletes spent training, or insecure and questioning of the athletes’ whereabouts, tended to detract from their performance. This finding parallels other studies indicating that supportive relationships with family members, friends, teammates, and coaches all serve to enhance performance. The bottom line is, good relationships make us better in various facets of life, whereas bad ones sap our energy. It is important to choose partners wisely and work on existing relationships to make them happy and healthy. Evidence shows that you’ll reap the benefits in a variety of domains!                                    

Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

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